In 'Wine Girl,' Taking On The Old Boys Of The Wine World

Mar 24, 2020
Originally published on March 24, 2020 2:31 pm
I just constantly felt as if there was nothing I could do to get ahead, or to have anyone take me seriously. - Victoria James

Victoria James discovered the book Wine for Dummies during her bartending days in New York, and she was hooked.

"I found myself purchasing another wine book, and another wine book — and I eventually came across this word 'sommelier,' and I Googled it, and I realized this could be a profession. You could drink wine for a living"

So she all the money she made from working in high-end restaurants to pay for wine classes, and at 21 — the legal drinking age — she became America's youngest sommelier.

James writes about all the challenges she faced in her new memoir, Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America's Youngest Sommelier. She faced all kinds of challenges — outright discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault. But through it all, she was determined to find her own way. "The wine world is still is an old boys club," James says. "A lot of guests would say, 'Oh, the wine girl. I guess they only send over the real sommelier when you buy big bottles." Or worse, they would sexualize me. You know, they would invite me over to their house for a private wine tasting. They would ask for the bottle of wine to be opened if I sat on their lap."


Interview Highlights

On having the perfect comeback to sexist customers

That's, you know, what you always hope to do in your own head. But at the time — you have to understand, I was so isolated and I didn't really have anyone. And the fact that I was young and a woman made it even worse. A lot of people didn't want to have anything to do with me in the sommelier community, and the restaurant world as well. And I thought that if I kept working in better restaurants, if I progressed from diners to these fancy fine-dining places, that the culture would become better and better. In fact, it seemed the opposite. It seemed worse. There was more humanity and warmth in the diners of my childhood than ... a lot of these fine dining restaurants, they put women in these places as bartenders or hosts, or in my case, I was lucky to be a sommelier, but they don't do anything to protect their women. And I was so vulnerable and I had no one to go to because management always said that the customer is always right. And if I complained and I said something, you know — they would call me the same thing, they'd say, "Uck, wine girl is being such a bother."

On being sexually abused by a boss

I had one boss in particular who, you know, he not only targeted me and forced me to have sexual relations with him, but at the same time, also blackmailed me and took these naked photos of me and said that, "if you tell anyone, I'll show everyone in the sommelier world how much of a slut you really are." And so I just constantly felt as if there was nothing I could do to get ahead, or to have anyone take me seriously.

On the effect of #MeToo on the restaurant industry

I think these conversations are so important, and I'm so glad that we're starting to have them. But I do think this is just the beginning. You hear of persons like Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, and those are big figures with a lot of power and influence who have done bad things to a lot of people. But unfortunately, I think that what's less talked about are the people that do this everyday, that aren't famous names. And I know in my situation a lot of these persons that, you know, belittled or sexualized me or sexually assaulted me were not famous people. And you'll never see their name in newspapers. I think that the #MeToo movement has not gone far enough in the restaurant world. And there are so many persons still suffering.

On sticking with it

When things get, you know, that difficult, you often think about just escaping and getting away. But I really had nowhere else to go. I had no financial means. I had no support system. And in addition to that, I loved restaurants. Although it was difficult, I loved serving people and using wine as a tool in hospitality. And that's why I was so passionate about it.

On how she learned to love inexpensive wine

So my now-husband, Lyle Railsback, is fantastic because when I first met him — he works for an importer of wine called Kermit Lynch, and they have some of the most amazing wines in their portfolio, and quite expensive ones as well. And so on our first day, I thought for sure this guy is going to try to impress me with these big bottles, with huge price tags. But instead, he pulled out a bottle of Domaine La Tour Vieille, from Collioure in the south of France, right where the Pyrenees Mountains fall into the Mediterranean Sea. And the bottle of wine was around $20. And what was so impressive about it was that I realized there could be just as much joy in a $20 bottle as there can be in a $2000 bottle.

And I think that's one of the biggest mistakes a lot of sommeliers make is that they acquire all of this knowledge, and they further isolate themselves with snobbery. And all I wanted was to be included, and to be a part of a community. And wine, like food, brings people together. And it doesn't have to be expensive. It shouldn't be maybe $2, because that means there's some funny additives in the wine. You can get a really amazing bottle for $20. And the beauty is that you can share it with others.

This story was edited for radio by Victoria Whitley-Berry and Reena Advani, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Victoria James discovered the book "Wine For Dummies" when she was working as a bartender in New York. From that point on, she was hooked.

VICTORIA JAMES: I found myself purchasing another wine book, another wine book. And I eventually came across this word, sommelier. And I Googled it. And I realized that this could be a profession. You could drink wine for a living.

KING: She used the money she made working in high-end restaurants to pay for wine classes. And when she was 21, the legal drinking age, she became America's youngest sommelier. She writes about the challenges she faced in a new memoir called "Wine Girl." James experienced all kinds of discrimination on the job. She was sexually harassed and sexually assaulted.

In a candid conversation, James told Rachel about those experiences, and about how she was determined to find her own way. And I should note, this conversation includes some graphic details and language.

JAMES: The wine world is - still is - an old boys club. A lot of guests would say, oh, the wine girl. I guess they only send over the real sommelier when you buy big bottles. Or worse, they would sexualize me. You know, they would invite me over to their house for a private wine tasting. They would ask for the bottle of wine to be opened if I sat on their lap. Being belittled...

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: What do you say to that...

JAMES: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...I mean, in the moment? Is it one of those things where you walk away with the perfect comeback that you didn't say in the moment?

JAMES: (Laughter) That's, you know, what you always hope to do in your own head. But you know, at the time, you have to understand, I was so isolated. I didn't really have anyone. And the fact that I was young and a woman made it even worse. A lot of people didn't want to have anything to do with me in the sommelier community - and the restaurant world, as well. And I thought that if I kept working in better restaurants, if I progressed from diners to these fancy fine dining places, that the culture would become better and better. In fact, it seemed the opposite. It seemed worse.

There was more humanity and warmth in the diners of my childhood than a lot of these places. A lot of these fine dining restaurants, they put women in these places as bartenders or hosts. Or in my case, I was lucky to be a sommelier. But they don't do anything to protect their women. And I was so vulnerable. And I had no one to go to because management always said that the customer is always right. And if I complained and I said something, you know - and they would call me the same thing. They would say, oh, Wine Girl is being such a bother.

MARTIN: So it was your - it wasn't just the patrons, the customers. You were being marginalized and discriminated against by your own peers.

JAMES: Peers and bosses.

MARTIN: And bosses.

JAMES: And discrimination is one thing. But also, you know, having bosses that took advantage of my youth and naivete was, I think, the hardest pill to swallow. I had one boss in particular who, you know, not only targeted me and, you know, forced me to have sexual relations with him but, at the same time, also blackmailed me and took these naked photos of me and said that, you know, if you tell anyone, I'll show everyone in the sommelier world how much of a slut you really are.

MARTIN: Wow.

JAMES: And so I just constantly felt as if there was nothing I could do to get ahead or to have anyone take me seriously.

MARTIN: What have you made of the reckoning that has been #MeToo and its effect on the restaurant industry? Has it been sufficient?

JAMES: I think these conversations are so important, and I'm so glad that we're starting to have them. But I do think this is just the beginning. You hear of persons like Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, and those are big figures with a lot of power and influence who have done bad things to a lot of people.

But unfortunately, I think that what's less talked about are the people that do this every day that aren't famous names. And I know in my situation, a lot of these persons that, you know, belittled or sexualized me or sexually assaulted me were not famous people, and you'll never see their name in newspapers. I think that the #MeToo movement has not gone far enough in the restaurant world and there are so many persons still suffering.

MARTIN: Did you ever think about just walking away, just doing something else? I mean, you - the abuse just kept coming for you, either physically but also emotionally. Did you think about just giving it up?

JAMES: Yeah. When things get, you know, that difficult, you often think about just escaping and getting away. But I really had nowhere else to go. I had no financial means. I had no support system. And in addition to that, I loved restaurants. Although it was difficult, I loved serving people and using wine as a tool in hospitality. And that's why I was so passionate about it.

MARTIN: You weave wine through the memoir, right? There are different chapters of your life, different moments where a particular wine will play a role or evoke a memory. And I love the story in the book about when you met your now-husband, Lyle, because you write that it taught you to love inexpensive wine.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Yeah.

MARTIN: Tell me the story. And what did he serve you?

JAMES: So my now-husband, Lyle Railsback, is fantastic because when I first met him - he works for an importer of wine called Kermit Lynch. And they have some of the most amazing wines in their portfolio and quite expensive ones as well. And so on our first date, I thought for sure this guy is going to try and impress me with these big bottles with huge price tags.

But instead, he pulled out a bottle of Domaine La Tour Vieille from Collioure in the south of France, right where the Pyrenees Mountains fall into the Mediterranean Sea. And the bottle of wine was around $20. And what was so impressive about it was that I realized there could be just as much joy in a $20 bottle as there can be in a $2,000 bottle. And that...

MARTIN: You sure that's not just...

JAMES: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...How you were feeling about him? (Laughter) Like...

JAMES: I mean, he's - you know, he also is amazing.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

JAMES: But you know, that's the whole thing about wine. And I think that's one of the biggest mistakes a lot of sommeliers make is that they acquire all of this knowledge and they further isolate themselves with snobbery. And all I wanted was to be included and to be a part of a community. And wine, like food, brings people together. And it doesn't have to be expensive. It shouldn't be, maybe, $2 because that means there's some funny additives in the wine.

MARTIN: Right.

JAMES: But you can get a really amazing bottle for $20. And the beauty is that you can share it with others.

MARTIN: I love it.

Victoria James - her new book is called "Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, And Triumphs Of America's Youngest Sommelier." Thank you so much for talking with us.

JAMES: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK ROSENBAUM'S "SCHNITZ N' SCHNIGGLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.