The Wine Hustle Series | Victoria James Award Winning Sommelier + Author
Welcome to this week's edition of The Wine Hustle. Our last feature was on the lovely Erin Vaughen of Vinley Wine Club. My next guest represents the true essence of a wine hustler. Victoria James, is a triple threat. With a number of Michelin-starred restaurants under her belt, she is currently the Beverage Director at the acclaimed COTE Korean Steakhouse (one block away from Madison Square Park, NYC), was recently named F&W's 2018 Somm of the Year, and is author of the super on trend Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé (released summer 2017) that everyone should have on their bar cart! The best part of all of this is... she's not even 30 yet!
So, go ahead and pour yourself a glass of your favorite rosé and get ready for an inspiring story on Victoria's rise to wine fame! You'd be surprised, you just might convince yourself to finally jumpstart that wine hustle of yours after being entranced by her journey.
How did you get your start in wine and what was your initial inspiration?
I started in restaurants when I was 13 and from there progressed to bartending around 18/19. I quickly realized I knew nothing about wine, and when I came across a dusty old copy of Wine for Dummies, became entranced. What first lured me in was the history, the beauty of the stories that surround beverage, and the tradition. This book led to another which led to another which led to a class. Soon this class became two and before I knew it I was a cellar rat, then harvest intern, and finally a sommelier. Curiosity is a dangerous and beautiful thing.
What do you feel differentiates you from other somms (aside from being a badass wine babe)?
My unique perspective on the beverage and restaurant industry. Although I am quite young, I started working in restaurants over fifteen years ago. I grew up in greasy-spoons and progressed from there to bars, steakhouses, and finally Michelin-starred restaurants. I had the opportunity to pay my dues as a busser, server, cellar rat, harvest intern, sommelier, and only later, as a beverage director. Many today don’t get this circular experience. Instead, they want to jump to running their own beverage program or becoming a sommelier. The best sommeliers are the ones that started as dishwashers. I believe what led to my success was a bit of brains and hard work but mostly, grit. In this business, you need grit to stand out from the crowd.
What is your strategy when developing your ideal wine list? Do you put a certain VJ twist on it?
At Cote, I focus on small producers who are honest. All of these vignerons (those who tends to their vines vs. the new world concept of ‘wine-making’) follow the process of lutte-raisonée (“the reasoned struggle”). This isn’t quite organic or biodynamic but essentially means that they stay out of Mother Nature’s way as much as possible and only intervene if need be. There are enough wine lists in the world that focus on the big corporations, I want what I do to instead celebrate the little guys and award their efforts.
Further, a variety of price-points is important. We have wines that start at $24/bottle and go up to $5,000/bottle! In New York City, every night the variation is incredible. I will sell a $500 bottle to one table and a $50 bottle to the table next to them. For both tables, I want them to have the same, rewarding experience. Everyone should be able to afford a good bottle of wine in their price-point, I never want to ostracize anyone based on this.
Lastly, I like to keep things fun! At Cote, we pour all of our wines by the glass out of magnums. The reason for this is that it looks cool but also keeps the wine fresher and younger, for longer. The wine actually tastes better than a normal bottling! This is such a simple yet fun way for people to enjoy better wine in an approachable manner. On our bottle list, I also like to scatter gems from unusual places such as Corsica, Switzerland or Hungary, while still focusing on the classics like Champagne and Burgundy. And of course… rosé! I always try to have a solid page of pink selections, year round.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The people!!! Sure, it can be fun to buy millions of dollars worth of beverage a year, curate a special wine list, travel to vineyards around the world, drink and eat well…. but none of it means a thing without my guests. My favorite part of the sommelier job is talking to people, every night, and using beverage as a tool in hospitality. When I succeed in making people happy through a bottle of wine or cocktail, that is simply the best.
What is the best advice anyone’s ever given you? Do you have a “mantra” you stick to?
I can tell you the worst advice I’ve ever been given, which was to “act like a man, if you want to succeed in this industry.” Instead, I decided to celebrate what made me unique–– the fact that I was a young woman. My advice to other young women would be just that, be yourself. Don’t try to conform to previous standards just to fit in, this will never lead to success.
At WINEFARER, we love hearing about the unexpected journeys that stem from wine. Can you share your favorite wine journey with us?
Too many to name a favorite!
I will tell you my most recent one, though, since I just got back from a few weeks of travelling. I was in Sicily visiting Vigneto Vecchio, a small producer on Mount Etna. Here, vines grow on the slopes of the still-active volcano and tending to the grapes is no easy feat. The Vecchio family has been growing grapes here for almost a century and old gnarled vines dig deep into the smokey, cooled-lava soils. For all of the backbreaking work that they must do, their bottles of wine command only a small bit of money. What was so touching about visiting these vigneron was to see their love for their land and tradition. What drives them is not money, nor fame nor wealth but instead the honor of tending to their vines. As I was leaving they left me with a quote I cannot shake–– “I hope you leave with the impression of simple people, in an extraordinary territory, who are looking to explain their land, through wine.”
It seems like you love wine as much as we do, in three words, describe your love affair with wine?
Continuing to grow
Finally, what advice would you give entrepreneurial spirits who want to start their “wine hustle” but are hesitant to take that leap?
Swallow your fear and take the leap. Wine might seem intimidating because just like art or music, there are centuries of information that correspond to the category. However, just like art and music, wine should be for everyone, it is not some exclusive highbrow beverage. Pay respects to the centuries of tradition by learning as much as you can, asking questions, and placing yourself in a position where you are constantly learning. Know that you will never know everything, and that is ok.