Book review: 'Wine Girl', by Victoria James

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

09 March 2020

‘Who did you sleep with to get on this trip?’ Victoria James has had her (un)fair share of sexist comments spanning the many wine trips she's been on from winning competitions. There are plenty more jibes akin to this one – and far more graphic ones – that run throughout America’s youngest sommelier’s new book, Wine Girl.

Victoria James, now corporate beverage director at New York City’s Piora and Cote restaurants, has had a more tumultuous journey into the wine world than most. The 300-odd pages that make up her memoir Wine Girl take us from her traumatic childhood in Virginia, to her rape, to drug and alcohol abuse and subsequent rehab stint in California, all the way to the Michelin-starred restaurant scene of NYC.

For those unfamiliar with James’ illustrious career, she became America’s youngest sommelier in 2013 at the age of 21, and has since gone on to appear in both Forbes’ and Zagat’s ‘30 under 30’ lists. Her CV spans diners and casinos to Harry’s in Hanover Square. To this day, she is the only female American somm to win the inaugural and prestigious Sud de France Sommelier competition.

Hospitality is about love, not logic

Victoria James

James sets the tone of the book quickly with a story of prejudice from her early days of working in fine dining – a tale that we're sure most female sommeliers will be familiar with – and the rest of the book is peppered with stories that reveal the darker side of being a woman in her industry. From guests (‘Shake your t***ies for us again, wine girl’) to managers (men don’t want to be outsmarted by women, so it’s ‘best not to know… for a girl, anyway’) and fellow sommeliers (‘Who invited Barbie?’) there is no doubt that James has had to grow a thick skin in order to excel.

But this book isn’t only a rallying cry for female sommeliers (and arguably women in general). It’s also a love letter to wine and hospitality, and how both worlds have changed James’ life.

She speaks of her love for the stories behind drinks (‘monks who survived on beer for nutrition, the medicinal recipes that led to many digestifs… red beetles were used to dye bitter drinks’); explains her first experience of food and wine pairing (‘the exploration became addictive, and I began to try different sips of wine and think, “What do I want to eat with this?”’); and indulges the reader with insider tales of reservationists Googling guests and stalking them on Facebook, all in pursuit of the perfect service. When describing how she feels about hospitality, James sees it as being 'about love, not logic.'

I can’t imagine any sommelier reading this without feeling a sense of comradery or appreciating her blazing honesty when it comes to this honourable profession

It’s a refreshing and down-to-earth exposé into the world of being a female sommelier. The fact that James didn’t even know how to pronounce the word when she first saw it, let alone imagine becoming one, is refreshing in itself. I can’t imagine any sommelier reading this without feeling a sense of comradery or appreciating her blazing honesty when it comes to this honourable profession.

Wine Girl is a book for two types of reader: one who works in hospitality and revels in the tales of how others honed their craft; and one who wants a glimpse into the unknown, often underappreciated and sometimes murky world of working in restaurants and bars.

Both types of reader, however, will undoubtedly finish this book with a searingly newfound respect for the women who serve us our wine. For James it is a chance to 'give women all over the world courage to share their stories, take charge of their lives, and empower others. Let's stand together for social justice and create positive change.' If James' past achievements are anything to go by, Wine Girl will do just that.

£16.99, Little Brown (16 April 2020)

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