Talking Wine with...

Talking Wine with...

Victoria James, one of America’s best sommeliers and author of Wine Girl

In our interview series Talking Wine with..., we are talking with interesting people from the international world of wine about their love of wine.

How did they become wine lovers? What are their favorite wines? And which producers and appellations should we keep an eye on?

This time we have the honor to talk wine with one of America’s top sommeliers: Victoria James. At the age of 21, Victoria became America’s youngest certified sommelier. She worked in New York Michelin-starred restaurants such as Marea, Aureole and Piora, is the author of the books Drink Pink and Wine Girl and is currently partner and beverage director at Cote* New York and Cote Miami.

To say that her road to success hasn’t been an easy one, would be an understatement. In her latest book Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America's Youngest Sommelier (2020), she describes the challenges she had to face as a young woman in the wine industry: discrimination, sexual harassment and even sexual assault. She was also one of the somms who was interviewed in The New York Times about her negative experiences as candidate at the Court of Master Sommeliers; an article that created quite a stir in the American wine community last year.

We spoke with Victoria about her wine journey, good hospitality and making people happy through great wine.


FAVORITE PRODUCER: Impossible to choose just one! But I will never tire of the wines from Domaine Tempier 

Favorite wine region: more of a circle on a map; eastern and Southern France, Switzerland, Northwest Italy

Best music to drink wine to: anything on LP records

 Domaine Jamet Côte Rôtie 1998
Domaine Coche-Dury Puligny Montrachet les Enseigneres 2017 
Domaine Raveneau CHABLIS Montée de Tonnerre 2016

In your latest book ‘Wine Girl’ (2020) we can read about your impressive wine journey; how you started working in the industry at the age of 13, became the country’s youngest sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant and later beverage director and partner at Cote. Nowadays, you are a leader and an important voice in the industry. To read your whole story, we recommend our readers to read Wine Girl, but could you tell us how you fell in love with wine?

Wine for me was this magical thing, it sort of combined all of my passions of reading, writing, traveling, serving in restaurants, food, history and so on. The centuries of tradition, complexities of the terroir, nuances of producers, everything seemed so fascinating to me—wine wasn’t something I was around growing up so the whole world seemed almost in this other world. And naturally, I wanted in.

Last month, you have opened a new restaurant: Cote Miami. It must be an incredibly weird thing to open a restaurant during a pandemic. How are you coping?

Yes. Quite weird. But also refreshing, in a way. Our NYC location is still open for take-out, delivery, and outdoor dining (yes, in below freezing temperatures on the streets!) – we are very fortunate that we have been able to survive but 2020 was the most challenging year, by far, in my entire restaurant career. It almost broke me, and I know that many of my restaurant friends had to close their doors permanently. Maybe this is why the thought of a birth, new life, is so exciting. It hasn’t been easy, COVID has made so much of the process more arduous but we are committed to opening in a safe manner for the Miami community. I know many have said we are crazy to open right now, and maybe we are crazy, but going against the grain is sort of what makes Cote unique, and has, ultimately, led to our success.

What are your future plans? Will you leave New York or divide your time between the two cities?

Right now, I’m going down to Miami for a month for the opening, I’ve been there a bit in the past to organize some details—but it’s hard traveling back and forth during a pandemic. So, moving forward I’ll have to be there for larger chunks of time, vs. in normal times much of this would have been shorter trips for check-ins. I’m a New Yorker, and our flagship is always our priority, so my roots will always be here.

New York’s wine market is a competitive one. I assume many wine directors and sommeliers are after the same bottles for their wine lists, of which there only are so many (for example some very popular Burgundian producers like Dujac, Roulot or Coche-Dury). Are there any references on Cote’s wine list that you wanted so badly that you had to ‘fight’ for them? 

Certainly, everyone always wants the blue chip bottles. For me though, it’s not about the fight. I’ve learned to work closely with importers and distributors as a steady and consistent buyer so that when allocation time does come around, I’m top on their list. I make sure to concentrate my purchasing in a few key books that have the allocations I want. Also, the beauty of wine is that there is so many new and older gems out there, my job as a sommelier or for any of the sommeliers who work with us is to help guide guests. If someone comes in looking for a bottle and we don’t have it, a good sommelier will be able to lead them to a similar producer they might not have heard of. If I was running an auction market that might be one thing, but for us we are a restaurant, and I find fighting over allocations just isn’t the point of hospitality. Also, I’m married to a wine salesman so I hear his side of the business, all of the crazy things buyers will try to do for allocations and their lack of understanding on the way the market works, it’s certainly illuminating, and deters me from falling in that camp.

Your wine list at Cote will make any wine lover’s mouth water. According to you, what is the key to a great wine list? And what are some of your latest wine discoveries? 

A good wine list should be approachable in a variety of price points. Of course, it should also have its unique stamp on it—what makes your list different from your neighbors? For us, it’s that all of our wines are bottled just for us in magnums for by the glass, since the wine tastes better (passing on quality to our guests!) and it looks, of course, super cool. Also supporting marginalized producers like women and BIPOC, and farming and winemaking practices that are sustainable, organic, biodynamic, and la lutte raisonée. Most importantly, the wine should be delicious! It should speak to a sense of place and carry a purpose. For Miami, I’ve been exploring much more southern hemisphere, something we don’t have on our NYC wine list. Such great things happening in the new wave of winemakers from Chile and Argentina. Some of the South American producers I’m loving right now are Clos de Fous, Zorzal, Bodega Chacra, Louis-Antoine Luyt, Gonzalez Bastias— to name a few!

In Bianca Bosker’s book Cork Dork, I read that you intuitively knew that a woman who asked for something fresh with good acidity ‘like a Chablis or Sancerre’ actually wanted something else. You poured her a glass of ‘the Italian equivalent of a buttery Californian chardonnay’ and that seemed to be exactly what she wanted. Could you explain how that wine intuition of yours works?

A good sommelier doesn’t listen just to what a guest is saying, it’s a part of the puzzle but it isn’t the whole picture. We are trained to start studying a guest from the moment they walk in. What type of water are they drinking? Cocktails? What is their comfort level with the menu? Is this there first time here or are they professional diners? All of these clues help us determine what their palate is actually looking for. Unfortunately, we just aren’t brought up to learn wine terminology so when guests say they want a “dry red” they might actually mean a Napa Cabernet with a fair bit of residual sugar but some drying tannins. Learning how to read people just takes time, lots of mistakes, and practice.

What is the best wine-food pairing you ever made?

This is always changing and evolving— but I will say that one of my favorite pairings is a structured rosé like Pradeaux’s Bandol or Trinquevedel’s Tavel with our Cote (chuck flap) steak. The bright acidity of the wine cuts through the richness of the meat and livens the palate. Red wine and red meat is great, but honestly some of the best pairings are just a bit outside the box.

Which colleagues in the wine industry do you admire?

Too many to list here, so I will just name a few people that really impressed me in 2020. All of these persons I admire because they have strong visions for what type of place they want the wine world to be and they do the work to make sure this comes to fruition. Julia Coney, Amy Zhou, Cynthia Cheng, Jane Lopes, Shakera Jones, Tahiirah Habibi, Rita Jammet and all of the survivors that came forward with us for the NYT article, Cathy Corison, Tara Gomez, Mia Van de Water, Tonya Pitts, Belinda Chang, Alpana Singh, Gabriela Davogustto, Sarah Fernandez, Lee Campbell, Laura Fiorvanti, and Cha McCoy.

We often ask about the biggest wine faux-pas someone has experienced in a restaurant. In your memoirs Wine Girl, you describe more than we could mention here. To name a few examples from your book: the Michelin-starred restaurant guest that stole áll the wine glasses from the table, another lady who ordered a glass of rosé but was upset to see that there weren’t any expensive rosés on the by the glass list, so she instructed to mix some (white) DRC Montrachet with a splash of Lafite Rothschild… And - and this is where the title from your book comes from - guests who didn’t take you seriously (or worse) as a young, female sommelier: ’Oh, the wine girl. I guess they only send over the real sommelier when you buy big bottles.’ What would you say is the biggest faux-pas of all?

I think the biggest faux-pas a guest can make is forgetting that the people that serve them are people. Recognizing someone’s humanity and a bit of kindness goes a long way.

Could you tell us about your most memorable wine moment of all time?

There isn’t just one, but I can say my most memorable wine moment of this year so far was pouring Champagne for a room of (socially distant and COVID-tested!) guests just after midnight in Miami, Nas was performing, and everyone was just so taken away by the music and the drink that for a moment it almost felt like we weren’t in a pandemic. Wine like music and art can do that, it unburdens our consciousness and let us live in the moment, it’s a beautiful thing.

Except for Cote of course, what are your favorite places in New York City to wine and dine? Where would you take us - let’s imagine that all of this is over - on a food and wine tour through the city?

There are so many great places, that I really hope make it through this pandemic (ahem, government assistance please!!)—some of my favorites are King, Special Club, Crown Shy, Vini e Fritti, Sorbillo, Bemelman’s Bar, La Grenouille, Rezdora, Atomix, Thai Diner, The Odeon, Wu’s Wonton King, Peking Duck House, Barney Greengrass, Casa Mono, Nom Wah, Sushi Noz, Café Sabarsky, Lexington Candy Shop, Clay, Roman’s, and Lucali’s.

You have travelled a lot and have seen much of the wine world. Which wine region has made the biggest impression on you and why?

All of the places I’ve been have a bit of my heart, but what consistently makes an impression on me are the people behind the wines, the vignerons that tend to their land. This seems to happen with every producer I visit that makes wine with that sense of purpose. It can probably be best summed up by when I was on Mount Etna, in Sicily, I met with the winemaker at the tiny Vigneto Vecchio who put it quite simply, “I hope you leave with the impression of simple people, in an extraordinary territory, who are looking to explain their land, through wine.”

Is it true you are growing Pinot Noir on your New York apartment fire escape? When can we taste your wine?

Ha! Oh, my goodness, that Pinot Noir plant only lasted two vintages and then unfortunately it met an untimely end when my uptown NYC apartment was broken into. In the robbers haste to climb in through the fire escape and steal my belongings they knocked the vine down five flights and into the dumpster below. I was away at a food and wine festival in California so when I came back I think I was most upset not about my jewelry or computer but that the vine had already been taken out with the trash! I suppose we will never know if the Manhattan terroir would have yielded decent wine.

Wine Girl ‘The Trials and Triumphs of America's Youngest Sommelier’ is published by Harper Collins.

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