Sommelier, Beverage Director and Partner, Cote
“Growing up in restaurants, I often felt like a lamb being thrown into a den of wolves,” says Victoria James. “It wasn’t always an easy place for a young woman.”
That formative impression has not only motivated James in her own career, but has also inspired her to make the wine world more welcoming overall. She’s worked in restaurants since she was 13 years old and became a certified sommelier at age 21. After working in some of New York City’s most exalted restaurants, she helped open Cote, a wine-driven Korean steakhouse, where she’s a partner, in 2017. A new location in Miami’s Design District is slated to open in December 2020.
“Victoria is one of the most passionate and motivated young sommeliers I have ever seen,” says Rajat Parr, the accomplished sommelier and winemaker. “She is insightful and thoughtful and gives back an extraordinary amount of her time and energy to build community.”
James recognizes that being a sommelier doesn’t exclusively mean selling wine to restaurant patrons.
“We all have to constantly be evolving in order to stay relevant and better serve our community,” she says. “I just feel that if I focus solely on selling wine in a restaurant, I’m limiting myself and the potential to bring joy to a much wider audience.”
Her two books have helped reach that wider audience. Drink Pink expanded the market for and improved public perception of rosé on its release in 2017. In March 2020, she published a memoir, Wine Girl, which was a bestseller in the U.S., UK and Canada. It’s also nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award, and there are talks underway to turn it into a TV series.
She’s been a strong advocate against mistreatment and abuse in the wine world, recently speaking out against the Court of Master Sommeliers. In 2019, she cofounded Wine Empowered, an organization that seeks to diversify the hospitality industry by giving tuition-free education to BIPOC and white women.
“Victoria has been a tireless champion for women, and through Wine Empowered has opened the door for women and minorities to get the education and access essential to building a career in wine,” says sommelier and blogger Shakera Jones. “In addition to that, she’s on the floor, every day, with her team, showcasing the true meaning and spirit of hospitality. Her knowledge and approachable way of explaining wines and regions to guests makes novices and experienced enthusiasts alike eager to explore more.”
Acknowledging the influence of mentors like Rita Jammet, Aileen Robbins and Laura Maniec-Fiorvanti, James looks to pay it forward.
“Wherever you are in your career path, you can always find someone else to lift up,” she says. “There is always someone who needs help, someone who has had it worse than you, and if we aren’t always looking around at who needs us, we will all become lost leaders.”
For being not only an influential restaurant wine director, but an author, entrepreneur, ambassador, mentor and advocate for equitable opportunities within the wine world, Wine Enthusiast recognizes Victoria James as its Sommelier/Beverage Director of the Year. —Nils Bernstein