Victoria James became a sommelier at the tender age of 21, but if you ask her, that wasn’t young enough. James—the beverage director of the acclaimed Korean steakhouse Cote and author of rosé tome Drink Pink—worked in restaurants from the time she was 13, so by 21, she was champing at the bit to become a sommelier. She launched her career at the acclaimed Aureole before moving to Ristorante Morini, Piora, and now Cote. And her book published in 2017 to rave reviews.
“My first sip of wine was actually a rosé of sorts—white Zinfandel,” James says. “I used to sneak sips of this from my Grandma Willie's cup when I was just a kid. She used to sip it while reading romance novels on our porch. And to me, it seemed like the most delightful beverage.” And yet years later, as a trained sommelier, James says she quickly wised up. “I swore off my days of white Zinfandel and instead became captivated with other rosés.”
Her captivation paid off. Here’s how she got where she is today.
What she does
As the beverage director of Cote, which opened its doors last June, James is responsible for “putting together everything liquid,” as she puts it. That means overseeing everything “from water, spirits, soju, beer, and wine to a kickass team of bartenders and sommeliers.” But her book, Drink Pink, is all about rosé. “Intriguing historical styles such as Schilcher from Austria, skin contact Pinot Gris from Reuilly, and of course, Tempier Bandol from the 100-year-old Lulu Peyraud drew me in,” James says.
When it came to writing a book about rosé, she was hesitant, at first. “My worry was that if I wrote this book, I would be pegged as the ‘rosé girl.’ But my fiancé—and illustrator of the book—Lyle Railsback luckily talked me into it. He knew I had always wanted to write a book, and said something along the lines of, ‘yes, you are a woman and yes you like rosé—so own it! Write a book that celebrates rosés of high quality, not just the swill that is peddled.’ What resounded with me was the fact that my voice could actually be unique—that this book would actually show people a different perspective on rosé.”
How she got there
James dropped out of college to pursue her sommelier certification. “I became a cellar rat at Harry's [in New York City] and surrounded myself with his legendary wine collection,” James says. She also worked in the grape fields in Sonoma, all while studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers. “More than anything else, [the certification program] was incredibly time-consuming,” James says. “Every waking moment I dedicated to studying. I used to make myself sick because I wouldn't eat or sleep—I just gorged myself on wine knowledge.” Once James passed the sommelier exam, she went to work at Aureole, then Ristorante Morini, then Piora, and finally, Cote.
So, when it came time to write her book, you could say James had a few connections. “As a sommelier, I taste up to 100 wines a day and have traveled to every wine region,” she says. “As a result, I didn't need to request samples from distributors of their different rosés—and I was able to sneak under the radar with the book. It wasn't until I was almost done with the writing that word got out I was writing a book on rosé.” Beyond writing from her own wine knowledge, James also interviewed sommeliers, chefs, wine importers, and producers. “I tried to not only captivate the spirit of rosé but also bring up points that aren't often discussed, such as mass-marketed laboratory products, rushing rosé to market too soon, the misconceptions that surround the beverage and most importantly, what to pair with it,” James says.
Her best advice
“When I was first entering the sommelier world, I was told to ‘act like a man’ if I wanted to succeed,” James says. “I think this was some of the worst advice I was ever given. What makes me unique is my identity as a young woman. If I had acted like something I was not I would have never risen to the top. People can tell if your approach is disingenuous and if so, they don't want to buy what you are selling. So be yourself—your best self. For me, that meant acting like a girl because that's what I was. And it worked.”
What’s more, James encourages others to “feel the fear and do it anyway. The world is a scary place and the climb to the top will be filled with obstacles. If you are not feeling the fear, you are not growing. I remember when I first entered a Michelin-starred dining room as a young sommelier with no previous fine dining experience—I was wearing a cheap polyester suit I had gone into debt for and knew that every guest I would recommend wine to was at least twice my age. The whole experience was terrifying. I thought I would be laughed out of the restaurant and out of New York City. I let myself feel the fear, register it, and then go through with it anyway. Even today, I constantly put myself in situations that I am not comfortable with and make me vulnerable, but they also make me a better person.”