WATCH: Victoria James on How to Make the Wine Industry a Better Place
Presented by Wine Access
This summer, Lit Hub and Wine Access will present a new series of live virtual events with authors discussing their books and the perfect wines to pair with them.
To kick off the series, we hosted a discussion between Wine Access’s Head of Wine, Vanessa Conlin MW, with Victoria James, sommelier and author of the memoir Wine Girl, a love letter to the restorative and life-changing effects of good wine and good hospitality.
From the conversation:
Vanessa Conlin: Victoria, first of all, thank you for being here with me today. It’s really an honor. But I think the first thing to ask, perhaps since I’m holding the book, is when did when did you start writing this and what inspired you to tell this story?
Victoria James: Yeah. Such a pleasure to be here with you tonight, Vanessa. you’re such a force in the industry, so it’s really quite an honor. And thank you, everyone, for tuning in on your Friday night. So to answer your question, I started writing this book around six years ago, and when I first started writing it, I had the idea just to have a journal or a diary of sorts, but it morphed into something more. And I approached my literary agent to ask, do you think this could be a book?
And this was pre-#MeToo, pre these discussions of sexism and misogyny in the wine world and the world at large. So she actually was like, I don’t know, let’s try maybe a book on rosé, and so I wrote a book on rosé first and got my feet wet in the publishing industry. And then around the time of the Batali-Bastianich scandals came out, my agent give me a call and said, hey, you still working on your book? So it came to fruition and I sold it two years later when the manuscript was done.
Vanessa Conlin: And had you still been working on it in the interim, or did you put it away when it didn’t get picked up the first time?
Victoria James: Yeah, I kept working on it for me. I didn’t really care if we published. It was more of a sort of therapy in a way. For those who read the book, it’s pretty personal. I sometimes forget exactly how personal it was. Sometimes I say, I can’t believe I said that. So, for me, it was it was important that I saw it through, regardless of whether or not I would see the world.
Vanessa Conlin: That’s actually a question I had for you, which we are getting right into it. But there are some very personal things about about your life, about things that happened, and I applaud you. It’s extremely brave and very important to tell those stories and bring them to light so more people feel like they can discuss. But did you ever have second thoughts? Did you write it and then delete it or question that decision?
Victoria James: Yeah, I think that I was so focused on finishing it and getting this all out into the world. It wasn’t until it actually sold with a publisher that I was like, oh, my gosh, this is real. I can’t believe I wrote all these things and I was certainly quite nervous, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my support network. I have an amazing husband and sister and and colleagues at work as well and all of the other partners. So with their unanimous support, I think that’s what gave me strength.
Vanessa Conlin: How did you find the time? Because I know you’re very busy with Cote in New York City and in Miami. We were discussing before you actually love service and love working the floor. So I know you weren’t just holed up in your office during dinner hours. So when did you find the time to write this?
Victoria James: If something’s important to you, I guess you make time for it. Someone who’s seven months pregnant now, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do quite the intense writing and working schedule I was doing prior, but if it’s important to you you find time. I would do early mornings. I would wake up at six a.m. and just have a calendar and write two hours a day for a few years.
Vanessa Conlin: I agree. If it’s important, you find the space for it right in your life. I used to do the same thing with studying. I’d wake up at four or five in the morning to because you make the time.
Speaking of study, I would love to step back for a minute and discuss how you became interested in wine. There were parts of your book that I related to very much because you went to classes. For me personally, I didn’t grow up in a wine family. I didn’t know there were career options in wine until I was pretty much in my twenties and studying something else in college. For me, I didn’t have an epiphany bottle. I went to a class and my mind was blown with that. So I’d love to hear your experience in studying and maybe some advice for those who who haven’t started it but would like to.
Victoria James: Yeah, that’s such a great point, Vanessa, because oftentimes I’ll get asked the question, what was your epiphany bottle? What was the wine where you are like, this is it. This is what I’m doing with my life. Just like you, I don’t have that moment for me. I love learning and I love studying. So the classroom is kind of what triggered it, just like you. We could probably offer some fair advice to our audience on how to study as well. Just always be reading something, always constantly trying to stay relevant. The world of wine is changing. So reading at least two or three books at a time. Tasting groups. Study groups. Just always learn.
Vanessa Conlin: Let’s say for someone who the classroom is not somewhere they enjoy, what are some other ways that someone could start to learn?
Victoria James: When I was first getting into wine, I didn’t really know who the main players were, who the important producers, sommeliers, and distributors. There’s a lot you can learn online and start following prominent distributors and winemakers on social media. See what they’re talking about, and you can research this further and kind of create your own study plan as well. And, of course, there’s drinking. When you drink a bottle of wine, research the hell out of it and learn as much as you can from every single bottle. That’s a great way to collect information and it’s fun too.
Vanessa Conlin: And I think reach for bottles, whether that’s ordering a glass at a restaurant or in a retail store where you’re not familiar with it. Force yourself out of your your comfort zone.
So, to go back to your book, as I mentioned, there’s a lot of topics in here, some of which we have touched on, and are very important to be discussing in terms of inclusion, diversity, and certainly sexism. What was the reaction when this was published and people started reading your story?
Victoria James: When it first came out, I actually was slightly relieved because I had a huge book tour planned around the globe and it was canceled, of course, because of the pandemic. So it was a slight relief because I didn’t have to get up in front of a roomful of people and talk about these things. But then I was also worried with whether the message would get out there when people read it and would they care. And a really incredible thing happened over the course of a few months, women from all over the world started to reach out to me via email, social media, text, and calls, and I realized that so many of these people saw themselves in my story. We realized there were a lot of common themes within the industry that were really, really problematic, and we banded together and we did a ton of research and handed it over to the Times to do a really important piece that came out last year. So I think it’s had a lot of change, and it’s started these conversations, which is all I really wanted.
Vanessa Conlin: I think you you raise a very important point in the book, too, about sort of the way that things have been handled in many cases where rather than addressing what the problem is, the person who reports the problem becomes the problem. So how would you encourage someone who maybe is trying to find the courage to speak up about something that’s happening that isn’t right?
Victoria James: Well, I think that we have strength in numbers, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to get a group of 30 sommeliers together and come forward in The New York Times. It could just be as simple as you don’t feel safe or comfortable at work to find another female colleague to go with you to report it, or a female friend or family member or even an ally that’s a gentleman. So, I mean, it’s just strength in numbers and really being there for someone during those times is also really quite important.
Vanessa Conlin: There’s actually a question in the chat that’s along this topic. So if that’s okay if I can pose it to you. “Victoria, I loved reading your very well-written book. You beautifully and truthfully captured the challenges of gender and age in our industry. Can you please speak to what you think, see, or feel about the real barriers that race, tradition and ignorance plays?”
Victoria James: Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s a few questions. I think that it’s certainly getting better in the industry the more we have these conversations. However, there are still those real barriers and the wine world is still controlled by this old boys club. So we really need to start by banding together and including more people from all different backgrounds, women and people of color into the industry and supporting them. Vanessa, I know you’ve done a lot of work with scholarships. I think education is the biggest key. That’s the biggest barrier, and by providing that free-of-cost or finding a way to just mentor someone, those are ways to impact change.
Vanessa Conlin: Yeah, absolutely. I love that you talked about mentorship. I think that’s something that’s so important. And in some ways, I feel some people are afraid to ask for help or ask for advice. Personally, I feel honored if someone trusted me with that. I imagine other people feel the same where I think you don’t always want to impose advice on someone but if they ask, I’m always more than happy to to do that.
So speaking of mentorship, what do you do now or what plans do you have for sort of mentoring young people and up-and-comers in the wine industry?
Victoria James: So there’s two things that are my main focus right now. The first, of course, is our restaurant group. It’s really important that we’re constantly promoting from within and offering this free wine education to all of our employees, from dishwashers to bussers to servers to managers. Then from that stemmed actually the idea to start a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Wine Empowered. … This is a great resource for those in the hospitality industry. We offer tuition-free education to women and people of color. To me, again, education is the biggest barrier, so if we can jump over that hurdle I think the industry will be a much better place.
Vanessa Conlin: Yeah, absolutely. I was so inspired to see that you had started the nonprofit. That’s truly outstanding and also time-consuming. So add that to your busy plate.
I wanted to ask you about service. I think it’s really great that you still love it, that you like to be on the floor. So what about it that you still enjoy? How do you still find inspiration there?
Victoria James: Yeah, there’s something I talk about in the book called “The Love Cycle,” and for me, there’s almost nothing more rewarding than bringing people this restorative happiness and energy through service and hospitality. So, for me, I find that when you give a little bit of yourself to someone, they give back a little as well, and it’s just this beautiful cycle. And people, I think, learned over this last year with the pandemic that we don’t go to restaurants just for food and wine. That’s a part of it. But we could get that delivered to our door. We go to restaurants for so much more. That human connection, the hospitality, that restorative quality. And for me, that’s what gets me out of bed every morning. I love serving others.
Vanessa Conlin: Let’s put yourself in the consumer shoe now. What do you wish that people would feel comfortable asking you?
Victoria James: What do I think they would feel uncomfortable asking me?
Vanessa Conlin: I’ll give you an example. I’m not a sommelier or working on the restaurant floor, but I get this question, too. Should I ask about price? Like, is that tacky? How can we empower people to be able to order what they really want I guess is the question.
Victoria James: It starts with getting the sommeliers to be very approachable, which is starting to happen. One of the negatives of having this old boys club in the wine world and this very elitist society is that it did scare a lot of people off from ordering wine at restaurants. There’s genuine conversations where they learn. Even working the floor when I’m pregnant and a lot of people have asked, is it difficult for you to work the floor when you’re getting this big belly? When I was first starting to show, I was so self-conscious about what people would think. Is it weird for a pregnant lady to start selling wine? But I think I was so wrapped up in what men would think, I didn’t stop to think what the women to think. And it really has allowed me to connect with a lot of mothers and women that are happy to see themselves represented in this position. It’s helped me to sell a lot of great wine and connections to people. So I think that you should have a conversation with your sommelier. That’s the best way to learn and the best way to see what pairs best with the cuisine and to learn a few fun facts through dinner.
Vanessa Conlin: Are there certain words that help you narrow down the world of wine if someone is describing what they like? Are there certain key words that connects you to that place in the world or to the style of wine?
Victoria James: Definitely, Vanessa, for sure, but it’s also different for every person. That’s what I also find so interesting. It’s this psychology. So from the moment you walk in the restaurant, I think a good sommelier, their job is to figure out what you might order. Your cocktail order. They’ll look to see if you’re drinking sparkling or still water. They’ll look at your food order. So there’s lots of context clues you can pick up. And I think that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s a little game, you know. Curating that experience to each person, I think, is what makes a good sommelier stand out from just an average one.
Inspired by Wine Girl, below are a few recommendations of bottles to buy that’ll pair nicely with your reading experience:
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