At just twenty-one, Victoria James became the country’s youngest sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Even as Victoria was selling bottles worth hundreds and thousands of dollars during the day, passing sommelier certification exams with flying colors, and receiving distinction from all kinds of press, there were still groping patrons, bosses who abused their role and status, and a trip to the hospital emergency room.
It would take hitting bottom at a new restaurant and restorative trips to the vineyards where she could feel closest to the wine she loved for Victoria to re-emerge, clear-eyed and passionate, and a proud leader of her own Michelin-starred restaurant.
Exhilarating and inspiring, Wine Girl is the memoir of a young woman breaking free from an abusive and traumatic childhood on her own terms; an ethnography of the glittering, high-octane, but notoriously corrosive restaurant industry; and above all, a love letter to the restorative and life-changing effects of good wine and good hospitality.
During some services at Marea, I was a complete fangirl. One night Wes Anderson, who adores obscure Italian whites made from grapes like pigato, called me over to his table. I assumed he wanted more wine; instead, he and Frances McDormand held up an oyster shell where, crawling inside, there was a tiny crab. “Look,” he said, holding it up to my eyes as the little critter wriggled around. I profusely apologised and offered another platter of fresh oysters. “No,” they said. They wanted a plastic bag with water so they could take the crab home.
A massive thank you to the lovely folks at Little, Brown UK/Fleet for sending me a copy of Wine Girl.
While I will confess to downing copious amounts of red wine on the regular, I am certainly no expert and I initially didn’t know what to expect from Victoria James’ memoir. To say it took me by surprise would be an understatement.
It’s an oddly tough book to review because while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was a very heavy and emotionally challenging read. James leaves no stone of her incredibly tough journey to becoming a sommelier unturned and Wine Girl undoubtedly proves that title was well and truly earned.
We are instantly thrown into James’ tumultuous upbringing which touches upon her mother’s postnatal depression and her strict, religious father before spiraling into wild parties, drugs and gambling. What James endures in order to pursue her dream to share her love of wine is immensely heartbreaking. Wine Girl is very much James’ survivor story. In it, she details multiple instances of casual sexism and even sexual assault from men within the industry and those she served. It’s enough to make your skin crawl! As someone who has survived sexual assault myself – albeit, thankfully, not quite to the horrendous severity of the stories James shares – I admired her staunch resilience as well as her bravery in speaking out against her attackers and those who turned a blind eye to these incidents.
James’ infectious honesty and passion for what she does is evident on every page. The fact that she persevered despite all these trials and tribulations will leave you feeling incredibly empowered. She writes bluntly about feeling unwanted and like a fish out of water at workplaces and the inequality in her industry that leads women to jump through multiple hoops to succeed. Wine Girl is an inspiring memoir that shows just what one person can achieve through hard work and sheer determination.
Reading about James’ education is educating in itself. She writes about attending tastings and the different types of wines along with the knowledge she gained in such fascinating detail. You’ll leave Wine Girl eager to learn more about wine, visit vineyards and go tasting – sadly, we’ll have to wait until lockdown to realise those dreams!
Wine Girl is a rare gem of a memoir. It’s deeply personal and there’s no doubt what an incredibly strong woman Victoria James is. Like a nice bottle of Merlot, you’ll want to completely devour this book in one sitting.