In the SevenFifty Daily Supertasters video series, we choose the wines, then challenge some of the industry’s best palates to blind tastings in an effort to glean their extraordinary techniques.
Victoria James is an award-winning sommelier and a partner at Gracious Hospitality Management, which includes in its portfolio the Michelin-starred Cote Korean Steakhouse—where James serves as the beverage director and oversees more than 1,500 labels. She is also the author of Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé, which was published in 2017 by HarperCollins, as well as a contributing writer to SevenFifty Daily and a wine columnist for Forbes magazine.
James landed her first job in the restaurant industry as a young teen—waiting tables at a greasy-spoon diner. A prodigy in her appreciation of wine, she became a somm at just 21 years old and went on to work at some of New York City’s most renowned restaurants, including Aureole, Marea, and Piora.
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Despite her very demanding work schedule, James somehow found time in the past year to plan a wedding and get married in Italy, chip away at her second book, and become the cofounder and president of a soon-to-launch educational nonprofit for women and minorities in the hospitality industry.
After shooting our Supertasters video with James, SevenFifty Daily spoke with the champion of rosé about how she got into wine, what she loves most about being a somm, and her new projects.
1. What was the epiphany that got you interested in wine—or made you want to become a sommelier?
I started working in restaurants when I was 13 and quickly fell in love with hospitality. From there I progressed to bartending in college and finally became a sommelier when I was 21. There was something about wine that tied together so many of my interests—bringing joy to others, history, geography, writing, travel, culture, et cetera. Being a sommelier to me means using beverage as a tool in hospitality.
2. What do you love most about your job?
Making others happy! This is the most rewarding part of my job. Dining should be a restorative and joyous experience—being able to provide this for others is such an honor.
3. What go-to bottle of wine—or other drink—are you most likely to open on a night off?
Cru Beaujolais or a Negroni. With so much fuss surrounding beverage at my work, I like to keep it simple at home.
4. If you had to guess, about how many wines would you say you’ve blind-tasted and formally evaluated for professional purposes?
Legally? I’m 28 now, so for the last seven years I have probably blind-tasted around 30 wines a month, so 2,500 plus? Of course, many, many more not blind!
5. What was your most memorable blind tasting—good or bad?
I remember the first blind tasting I had to do in front of a whole group; it was for the Sud de France wine competition when I was 22. By far, I was the youngest in the room and one of the only women. I was beyond petrified! Everyone was dead silent while I called out all the characteristics I was perceiving. I just remember feeling like jelly—my legs were so wobbly, and my hands shook I was so nervous. Then something almost magical seemed to happen. I nailed the wines and won the competition! This taught me to trust my palate and not let nerves take over.
6. How do you think blind tasting helps wine professionals better understand wine?
Blind tasting allows professionals to fine-tune their tasting skills by taking away any preconceived notions about a wine. It strips one completely of ego and is humbling. You can’t fake your way through a blind tasting!
7. Do you apply any of the skills you’ve learned from blind tasting in your day-to-day work as a wine professional?
As a buyer for a multimillion-dollar company, it’s crucial that I keep my skills fine-tuned. I constantly make sure I’m tasting samples blind to assess them for quality. I receive hundreds of wines to taste, and I try not to let myself become biased by details like the producer, importer, or distributor—or by the vintage. But this can sometimes be impossible. Blind tasting allows me to be a nonbiased buyer.
8. What’s your number one piece of advice for people who want to improve their blind-tasting skills?
Taste, taste, and taste! They say it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become an expert in any field. Becoming a good taster takes time and training. No one can do this for you. Get out there and train your palate!
9. What’s been your most memorable wine experience of all?
I am so fortunate to have had many truly memorable and magical wine experiences. And hopefully this will continue!
One specific wine moment that comes to mind was my first date with my husband. He works for an importer that brings into the U.S. a lot of fancy wine, and as a young sommelier and buyer, I was sure that he would bring out the most impressive bottle in his collection. Instead, what actually impressed me was the simplicity of his choice. “Do you want to have one of my favorite wines to drink?” I remember him asking. Then we were popping open a magnum of Domaine la Tour Vieille from Collioure, a small Mediterranean fishing village where the Pyrenees Mountains fall into the sea. With a simple rendition of the Zuni Café’s roast chicken salad, the wine was perfect. Anything else would have seemed too fussy, too much. I knew at that moment I loved him, because he shared the same notion I always had—that there can be just as much pleasure in a good $20 bottle as there can be in one that’s $2,000.
10. What do you like about being both a somm and a writer? What was the inspiration for Drink Pink? And what’s your next book about?
The benefit of being a sommelier and a writer is that I’m able to report from a unique viewpoint. The wines I write about or the stories I tell are ones that I have pushed myself to experience. As a sommelier, I taste hundreds of wines a week. As a buyer, I’m able to get a behind-the-scenes look at the market that many writers could never dream of. I have my hands in the commerce side of the business as well as in the marketing and reporting fields. I believe that I’m able to give my readers a journey into a world not often seen. My reports are fueled by my own curiosity and funded by my own pockets. As a result, my opinions (although some might not agree with them) are certainly all my own.
Drink Pink was meant to inspire a new generation of wine drinkers. I wanted to give substance to the often abused category of rosé. This pink wine doesn’t have to be swill pushed at beach clubs—it can hold a sense of place and purpose. The book shines a light on why I love rosé, and it includes recipes by Alice Waters, Jacques Pépin, and my favorite vignerons that were designed to pair with rosé. My hope was that at the very least, the book would make the category just a bit more serious. Most importantly, the big brands that many typically associate with rosé are noticeably absent from the text. Well, there is a reason for this. Such brands are of low quality and often they’re just relying on big marketing dollars to push their products. They don’t need my help nor would a reputable sommelier be caught dead recommending these products!
The next book is actually one that I started before Drink Pink—it has taken me years to write it. It’s narrative nonfiction, a result of decades of journals, messages, and correspondence. It’s controversial, emotional, and uplifting. This next book will certainly shake up the industry (for the better).
11. Do you have any other projects coming up?
I feel as if my plate is always full with projects! My biggest focus at the moment is expanding the Cote brand to different cities. Sommeliers, bartenders, and service professionals … send me your résumés!
Also, I’m launching a nonprofit next year with two other women sommeliers. The concept is revolutionary: Free education in wine for women and minorities. As a young woman growing up in the industry I often found myself being sexualized, belittled, and scammed on wine courses. The lack of free education in the industry and lack of diversification overall is what inspired me to participate in the project. Our goal is to change this for the next generation. Stay tuned!