on March 24, 2020
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
An affecting memoir from the country’s youngest sommelier, tracing her path through the glamorous but famously toxic restaurant world
At just twenty-one, the age when most people are starting to drink (well, legally at least), 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 “wine girl” 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.
I’ve always wanted to learn about wine. I think the history of different vineyards and wines is fascinating. That’s why I was interested in listening to Wine Girl. What does it take to be an expert on wine, especially at a young age?
However, this book is more of a look at the sexism inherent in the restaurant and wine business than a primer on wines. There is a lot of trauma discussed here. There are descriptions of sexual harassment by patrons, forced sexual relationships by bosses and coworkers, and rapes by patrons. She accepted these things as the price you need to pay to work in the industry. By the end of the book, it was nice to see that she was using her new power as a restaurant owner to teach others that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Even the nonviolent events show severe sexism in the world of high end fine dining. There were restaurants where she was never allowed to set foot in the kitchen because the cooks were all male and didn’t want women in there. (Yet these same people would probably consider cooking at home to be women’s work.) There were restaurants where only men were hired as servers. She was dismissed at sommelier competitions because women don’t compete. They certainly don’t win.
There is a lot of information about her childhood here too. I hate the inclusion of childhood details in memoirs. I think authors tend to dwell too much on their formative years and it gets boring. This story has echoes of Educated in the presentation of a dysfunctional childhood. It should be noted that the author’s older sister, who doesn’t feature much in the book, has come out strongly against the book saying that her description of her childhood is not factual.