EMPOWERED MADAMES: VICTORIA JAMES, ON HOW SHE WORKED HER WAY UP THE AMERICAN SOMMELIER WORLD
Updated: Sep 5
Through my work as a portrait photographer between Paris and New York,
I get to meet amazing personalities, women, and men.
Through the recent challenging times (covid19 NYC lockdown) it struck me that what I MISS the most, and so what drives me to wake up in the morning, is to meet the people I photograph, get to know their stories to create those soulful portraits of them.
After a photoshoot, I am always literally 'high' from all the exchange of energy
and SUPER inspiring discussions that just happened in the studio.
So I decided to share all that stimulation with you
through the blog series "Empowered Madames" as... the saying goes:
"Empowered women empower women"
WHO IS VICTORIA JAMES?
When I welcomed Victoria at my portrait studio in New York, I quickly felt a woman full of vitality, ambition, and vision. In short: A woman on a mission. She has a natural beauty and grace while being warm and interested by the people she met at the studio that morning.
Victoria has quite of a story that she recently got published by Harper Collins in the book Wine Girl (See my review at the end of the article)
She has worked in restaurants since she was 13! She then worked her way up, with quite a drive, to get certified as a sommelier when she was twenty-one, making her the youngest sommelier in the US.
She was Food & Wine’s Sommelier of the Year in 2018, and has appeared on both Forbes and Zagat’s “30 Under 30” lists. She has worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in New York City. She 2 books published: « Drink Pink, a Celebration of Rosé » (a fact I love about the book is that her husband illustrated it in a wonderful way) and Wine Girl.
She is now the Beverage Director and partner at Cote, a Michelin-starred hot spot in the Flatiron district in New York.
HOW VICTORIA NOW EMPOWERS OTHER WOMEN
Because SO often "Empowered women empower women", it is with no surprise that Victoria has started an amazing initiative by founding, with 2 other female sommeliers Cynthia Cheng and Amy Zhou, an amazing project offering tuition-free wine education to women and minorities: Wine Empowered.
Victoria shares here more personal details on what it takes on an everyday basis and also what are her tricks to cheer up when some days feel harder than others!
THROUGHOUT YOUR LIFE & CAREER, HOW DID YOU PUSH PAST FEAR?
WHAT WAS THAT FEAR?
"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 a 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."
WHAT WAS SOMETHING THAT YOU NEVER THOUGHT YOURSELF ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH AND THAT YOU DID ANYWAY?
"Becoming a partner in a restaurant!
I grew up without a lot of money, often surviving for weeks on a roll of crackers.
Then when I was thirteen I started working in greasy-spoon diners (I suppose the equivalent in France is like an inexpensive all/day bistro?). The glamorous world of fine dining seemed so far away, and yet still I worked my way up from a server and busser to bartender, sommelier, wine director, beverage director, and now partner! "
FOR SOMEONE FEELING LOST IN THEIR CAREER/LIFE CHOICES AND WHO DO NOT REALLY KNOW WHAT’S THEIR NEXT STEP IS, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE?
"When I was first entering the sommelier world, I was told to ‘act like a man’ if I wanted to succeed, 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."
DO YOU HAVE MORNINGS WHEN YOU FEEL UNINSPIRED AND TIRED?
WHAT DO YOU DO TO GET BACK YOUR ENERGY & DRIVE?
"Yes, it does happen. Often.
Life can really grind you down, especially in the fast-paced world of New York City. I used to be so mad at myself for feeling this 'weakness' and push myself to work harder.
Now I know that isn't sustainable.
Instead, I take a step back and breathe.
This can mean staying in one night and just reading a book, or going for a jog. I've gotten much better at not saying 'yes' to every opportunity and instead of scheduling time for myself."
DO YOU REGRET ANY DECISIONS YOU HAVE MADE SO FAR?
WHAT WERE THEY?
WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY?
"I wish I would have spoken up more.
For so long I felt silenced and isolated in the 'old boys club' of the wine world.
If I would have fought back against the sexism and abuse I wonder where I would be today.
Now I encourage the women who work for me to use their voice and to feel empowered to stand up for themselves."
WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION IN GENERAL?
During quarantine, (Victoria shared her story with me during the NYC Covid19 lockdown) it is difficult to feel inspired since there is so little interaction with the outside world. So I try to read books, watch movies, talk with people on the phone. One's own head is so insular and for me, I need to hear other's stories and be in a place of service to feel purpose-driven."
IT IS SAID THAT THERE IS OFTEN A POINT IN LIFE WHERE YOU KNOW THAT WHAT YOU ARE DOING IS WHAT WAS MEANT FOR YOU.
HAVE YOU HAD THAT MOMENT YET AND WHEN WAS IT?
"Yes, I remember when I was bartending and started studying wine. I came across the word "sommelier," and had to look it up on google.
When I learned that this was a job - to drink wine for a living, work in restaurants, travel the world, read lots of books, etc.- it all clicked. It seemed like this perfect thing that combined all of my interests and skillsets.
Now becoming one was much trickier but I am glad I had this moment of recognition that led me down this path."
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SELF CARE ACTIVITY?
No one loves sleep more than me.
My husband always jokes on vacations that I am the only one who wants to spend half of the day in bed. Its nature's way of restoring your body.
Also reading, writing, and going for a run."
WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST CAREER / LIFE HIGHLIGHT / ACCOMPLISHMENT SO FAR
Opening Cote Korean Steakhouse with proprietor Simon Kim and the whole team & Receiving a Michelin Star just months after opening, and being fortunate to still serve guests there daily!
Launching Wine Empowered with Amy Zhou and Cynthia Cheng, we are three female sommeliers that banded together to form this 501c3 non-profit that offers tuition-free wine classes to women and minorities in the hospitality industry."
📚 THE MOST INSPIRING BOOK ?
When I read it was at a time in my life when I felt so trapped - but it gave me the push to find my own independence. It's a lovely little story about a boy in Liguria who climbs up a tree and spends the rest of his life there.
💃🏻 FAVORITE MUSIC, SONG TO CHEER YOU UP
Always yé-yé music, French pop from the 60s by Francis Gall, Brigitte Bardot, Zouzou, or Françoise Hardy.
Maybe a bit cliché but it is impossible to feel down when listening to this!
🍿 FAVORITE MOVIE TO TRIGGER SOME GRIT IN YOU
King of Hearts/Le Roi de Coeur, also from the 60s.
It is technically a quirky, silly comedy but there is also a beauty to it and truth that really strikes a chord. After watching this I always feel inspired to go do something beautiful.
✨ YOUR FAVORITE QUOTE
"One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, and compassion." Simone de Beauvoir
WHERE CAN YOU CONNECT WITH VICTORIA
WINE GIRL, my book review :
A bit of background info: I started to read Wine Girl at the start of the lockdown here in New York due to Covid 2019. As the news was bad, the future of my own business very scary, I needed something to REALLY switch off and get inspired from.
Wine Girl did that wonderfully: it is written in a way that doesn't make you want to put it down. And following Victoria's, sometimes terrible, sometimes funny, and overall very inspiring adventures in the world of wine leaves you ready to tackle your own mission!
I particularly LOVED the concept of "love cycle' and being in charge of it: Something any 'service' oriented professional should read about.