Book Review: Wine Girl by Victoria James

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 03-18-2020

With Wine Girl, Victoria James has taken a blacklight to the bedsheet of somm life. A gritty, gripping autobiography of an incredibly resilient and gifted woman forging her own path very much despite circumstance, it’s arrived at exactly the right cultural moment. James pulls no punches, laying bare the traumas of her life, including episodes of sexual assault, and succeeds in delivering a book terrifying (in its truth) and inspiring all at once.

James, whose claim to fame is being America’s youngest sommelier, takes us through her story from childhood to her late twenties (she’s 29 now, if my math is correct). Her home life was turbulent: her father manipulating and controlling everyone and her mother too depressed to be a mother. At a point, James was forced to step up and play parent to her two siblings, whom it’s evident she treasures. But eventually, she needed an escape and, at 13, she took a job as a waiter.

The most chilling, hard-to-read moment comes when James shares how she was raped, at 15, by a customer who frequented the diner where she worked. There’s no shying away from anything in Wine Girl

While she didn’t find a safe haven in the restaurant industry, James did find purpose, a sense of belonging, and some coworker-mentors to learn from along the way.

She eventually developed an interest in wine, particularly its ability to carry a sense of place, and began taking Wine School classes. Ironically, the skills she developed during the traumas of her childhood turned out to be the exact skills she needed to become an excellent sommelier: a strong work ethic, a preternatural capacity for retaining information, a desire to make people happy, and an ability to thrive and self-motivate with little encouragement from others. At 21, James earned her Certified Sommelier pin from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Just like so many books that deglamorize the winemaker’s life, Wine Girl exposes the realities of being a sommelier. What I didn’t expect, and what will take most readers aback, is the level of abuse James has endured in her young career. And she talks about it so nonchalantly, as if numb after years of just gutting things out. Some of the stories struck me as particularly egregious, even criminal. Like the time she was tricked into drinking roofied wine by a table of rowdy cowboys, or when a notable master somm (she doesn’t say who) slaps her backside at an event. Wine Girl sometimes feels like an endless sequence of men acting like children and abusing their positions of power. The lion’s share of the blame, in my view, falls on the managers and coworkers who turned a blind eye to James’s plight.

Wine Girl is a reminder that there’s brokenness everywhere—making James’s perseverance stand out as that much more incredible. She never let bitterness consume her. She was cracked by the cruelty and selfishness of so many, but never shattered. And in the end, she finds forgiveness and hope for redemption.

My recommendation
I doubt many men would make a book called Wine Girl their first choice. That’s a shame, because men, especially men in the food and wine industries, need to hear James’s story. On top of the eye-opening, “wow, I never knew” aspect, it’s just a good, attention-keeping read—for women too, of course.

Post a comment


You can add images to your comment by clicking here.