This article and the Making of a Legend series is brought to you by Légende, the taste of elegance.
The word “wunderkind” gets thrown around a lot, but it actually applies in the case of sommelier Victoria James. Already well-versed in wine know-how by her late teens, James dropped out of college in favor of pursuing the noble grape. The risky move paid off: By the time she was 21, James had not only secured a sommelier certification but also a high-profile job pouring pricey wines at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole.
James’s rapid rise later led her to the lauded wine programs of Ristorante Morini, Marea, Piora, and now, Piora’s parent company, Gracious Hospitality, where she oversees all things liquid at sister restaurant Cote. It’s an impressive resume, all the more improbable considering she’s just 27.
So how’d James get to where she is today? VinePair tracked her down to find out.
So, how exactly does an underage kid amass so much wine knowledge? Did you come from a wine family?
Not exactly… My stepmother drinks Franzia from the box and my dad drinks vodka with the suggestion of orange juice. I got into wine through restaurants—restaurants are really my first love. I started working at a greasy spoon diner when I was 13 and progressed to become a bartender when I was 18. In New York State, you can legally be a bartender at 18, but you can’t legally drink. It’s really weird! I quickly realized that I knew nothing about beverages, so I read a lot of books. I went down the rabbit hole from there.
What was the book that first stoked your wine obsession?
I uncovered this dusty edition of “Wine for Dummies!” For me, it was the thing that showed me there was this world that was so, so complicated with all these stories. It was that exposure to that drove my education and fury.
What’d you find so enticing about wine back then, even though you couldn’t legally drink it?
I think that the most interesting thing for me was learning that this beverage was so much more than just liquid, that it actually had centuries of tradition behind it—so many families and stories. It was this world that combined so many of the things that I love: travel, people, reading, and writing.
Yes! You write as well as pour. Usually, it’s one or the other with wine professionals.
Most people are not stupid like me—they like their free time! But being a sommelier and a writer gives you a perspective that not a lot of other people may have, which I think is nice. I have a book on rosé called “Drink Pink” that just came out and I’m working on book number two.
What was the first wine gig that truly inspired you?
In the winter of 2010 to 2011, I worked at Harry’s Café and Steak in Hanover Square, which is an old-school classic steakhouse. Harry Poulakakos has been buying wine since the 1960s for Harry’s, and he has accrued now about $8 million-worth of wine spread over four floors. I was a “cellar rat,” so my job was to organize the whole thing. It was pretty crazy to be able to see that and touch those bottles, things that might no longer exist anywhere else.
Do you have any favorite moments from that time?
Oh, there are so many stories. Harry would say things like, “I bought this bottle in 1972 for $4!” And it would be a bottle that was pretty insane. I got to taste benchmark vintages of Bordeaux and California Burgundy, which I’ve found invaluable throughout my career. I think that I’m so fortunate—a lot of sommeliers start out in the industry in places that are cool or trendy, but they miss out on all of that history and the classics. Harry’s is paying homage to that. I was surrounded by a lot of old-timers in the industry who could tell me about history.
What were those old-timers like?
Harry’s is such an old-school institution. You can say its model predates or never had sommeliers. The captain dominates the floor and does service from A to Z, including wine recommendations. They pass on their wisdom to you and share the mistakes they’ve made. The captains were so good at selling wine and making people feel good about the wine they purchased. And a lot of them maybe didn’t know much about wine! Some of it was bullshit—and that you don’t want to continue with—but a lot of it was about making the guest feel good about themselves and using wine a tool of hospitality.
Do you think today’s sommeliers are too intimidating?
The New York dining scene has changed a bit—there’s an attention to quality of the food and where it comes from, and that’s great. But wine culture has become rigid and too knowledge-based. The old school captains, they had the ability to have a conversation with anyone about anything. I think that’s something that’s been lost a bit. We’ve all become a bit obsessed with chasing knowledge without paying attention to that warmth. I think that is something that I like to bring into all aspects of my work.
After Harry’s, you got your sommelier certification and worked at Aureole, Ristorante Morini, and Marea. Why’d you leave?
You can be a sommelier your whole life if you want to, but I wanted to make something that was my own. I really wanted to run my own program. At Piora, the program already existed and had a focus on Champagne and small producers, but I took that over and made it my own. I wanted to bring in wine I was passionate about. I felt that I could create a unique wine list that was approachable.
What makes for a good wine list, in your opinion?
The program is only as good as the person who runs it! It has to be profitable, meaning it has to make the restaurant money. But it’s also supposed to bring people joy and happiness. It’s not supposed to be snobby. It’s supposed to be fun, because wine is fun.
How do you design a wine program for maximum fun?
The first thing is having a variety of price points. Also, we do a lot of fun stuff, like large format and magnums—there’s something inherently impressive and fun about bringing a huge bottle of wine over to the table, plus the wine actually tastes better. That’s a great conversation starter. I try to stick to regions and styles that I like, and I like wines that are clean. I don’t like funky natural things, but I also like to support small growers instead of big corporations.
What wines have graced your menu in recent memory?
We have a great rosé collection and an awesome Champagne list, but they’re not marked up much, so you can actually drink them for a steal. There are a lot of small producers and Cru Beaujolais and island wines and wines from Switzerland. It’s always a hodgepodge of things I’m into at the moment.
How often do you switch up your selection?
We change the menu every day. This week we added on 80 selections and 30 or 40 came off. At this very moment, we have about 1,000 selections of wine available.
Wow! That’s a lot of wine.
It keeps you on your toes and lets people taste different things! But even though we have 1,000 selections, some bottles we may only have one of. A lot of stuff we have is rare and quite hard to get so we don’t have a ton of it.
If there’s one piece of wine knowledge you could impart to guests, what would it be?
Drink wine that’s delicious that you want to drink.