For several years in the 1980s, I was the wine buyer for a hip New York restaurant. Back then in the city, there weren’t many people who called themselves sommeliers. And most of those who did wore tuxedos and worked in one of the fancy French restaurants in midtown.
Although I knew next to nothing about wine, I loved how it tasted and how it made people happy. I figured I’d figure it out as I went. I met with distributors, bought and priced the wines, created the wine list, taught wine classes for the staff (and taught myself in the process), and worked the floor on busy nights when I knew the servers—one minute away from being in the weeds—needed me to stall tables.
But I never cleaned rancid food, cockroaches, and dead mice out of a kitchen trap; I never fainted from hunger while on a shift; and I was never raped in the wine cellar.
These did happen to Victoria James, and her absorbing new book Wine Girl (Ecco/Harper Collins 2020; $33.50) is a page turner and a captivating read for anyone who loves wine or restaurants.
Her story, told as a simple narrative, reveals the “under belly” of the sommelier world, a world full of desperation, competition, meanness, and sometimes, such love, generosity, and passion for wine and hospitality that it’s heartbreaking. Even though I don’t know James, I found myself wishing I could have protected her from the dark times; wishing that there was no ugly side to the wine industry.
Still, James survives, and even triumphs. And while the book’s ending struck me as a bit too Pollyanna-ish, I couldn’t help but cheer for her. The wine and restaurant industries are better for women like her. Brava, Victoria.
*Congratulations to James, who just won the Louis Roederer Chairman’s Award for Wine Girl.