Victoria James came of age in restaurants—she got her first job at age 13—and, miraculously, her passion for hospitality remains as strong as ever.
Certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers at age 21, making her the youngest sommelier in the United States at the time, James went on to work at some of the top restaurants in New York City. In 2017, she partnered with restaurateur Simon Kim to open Cote, a Korean steakhouse with a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence wine list, in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood. A second location opened in Miami’s Design District in 2020.
James is also a best-selling author with her memoir, Wine Girl, which exposed the dark underbelly of toxic restaurant culture, rife with abusive managers, sexual harassment and discrimination. Her personal journey and struggles have led her to become an outspoken voice for change in the wine and hospitality industries. In 2019, she was a founder of Wine Empowered, a nonprofit organization that provides free wine education to women and people of color with the goal of making wine a more inclusive industry.
Last year, James was especially busy: She launched a new stemware line and became a mother. Wine Spectator senior editor Kristen Bieler caught up with the sommelier and entrepreneur to hear how her businesses are faring—and how she juggles it all.
Wine Spectator: How did Cote persevere through the last year, and how has business rebounded?
Victoria James: During the pandemic, we got scrappy and sold through our large wine cellar to make ends meet. When we got [Paycheck Protection Program] money from the government, we were able to pay our staff, bring in new revenue and invest back into the cellar, and when we reopened our doors, people came running. Staffing has been hard, and December was rough. It’s the month when you make your money for the rest of the year, and there were so many party cancellations because of the virus variant. But we kept reinvesting in staff and looking to the future.
Now, so many European travelers are back, and we are lucky because those clients don’t want to eat French and Italian food when they are in New York; they are excited to try new cuisines and we benefit from that curiosity. We are now booked out a month in advance.
WS: For so many women, becoming a parent means leaving the restaurant floor, but you’ve stayed. What does a typical day look like for you?
VJ: It’s hard, but I love service—I’ve always wanted to work the floor. But I also want to spend as much time with my daughter as I can. It’s difficult to say when the day begins or ends. I work the floor three days a week, and I usually get home at midnight and then wake up to feed my daughter at 3 a.m. If my husband is home, he wakes up with our daughter at 6 a.m., but he’s often traveling for business. During her morning nap, I get some work done and take a shower. Then at 2 p.m. the babysitter arrives and I head to the restaurant where I’m in service again until midnight. Luckily I have terrific beverage directors and operations teams at both the New York and Miami restaurants. Having a supportive husband and a network of terrific babysitters helps, too.
WS: When it comes to supporting parents working in restaurants, you have both perspectives, as a mother working in hospitality and as a business owner. How do you balance the needs of both?
VJ: I do see the challenges on both sides: It’s really difficult to run a small business and be able to offer all the health-care incentives and benefits that we’d like to. This is difficult work with challenging hours; there is no way around that.
We are constantly trying to do what’s best for our moms and dads and take advantage of programs that are out there. When we first opened, I hired Cynthia Cheng as a sommelier. A few months later, she became pregnant, and it was so important to me to be a company that allowed women to have a career and a family. We did our best to support her and to cover her shifts when she needed help. She is now the HR director for our entire company and has been instrumental in making positive changes for women and men who work here, especially parents.
WS: Cote Miami opened in fall 2020, just before Miami saw a population boom from pandemic relocations. What’s the energy like there right now?
VJ: Miami is so wild. It’s such a fun and vibrant city. Our founder Simon Kim had planned to open a restaurant there well before the pandemic hit, and it’s been such a delight to watch that business thrive. There is a ton of creative talent there in art and music; I see Miami as a hub that will be on the rise for a long time, especially as more New Yorkers and people from other cities continue to move there. When people in Miami go to a restaurant, they are in it. They want to experience everything—eat all of the things, drink all the things.
WS: So who drinks more wine: New York or Miami diners?
VJ: Post-pandemic in New York City has been a challenge, and we are seeing more sober-curious and moderate drinking—and spending—behavior from our guests. In Miami, every single table drinks—no exceptions. Many people might assume Miami would be more about cocktails, but it’s actually more about wine. There is a huge European and South American clientele in Miami, and they come from very wine-savvy cultures; they grew up with wine and are very adventurous.
We have another Cote outpost to be announced soon—in another exciting location! We only open restaurants in places where we personally want to spend time.
WS: What was your most creative pandemic pivot that you will continue?
VJ: We started Cote Wine Club in partnership with Convive Wine and Spirits so we could ship wine nationwide and build our brand more widely. Wines arrive with recipes from winemakers and Cote head of beverage operations Mia Van de Water and I host a remote happy hour once a month with subscribers. It’s been really successful.
WS: In partnership with Lenox, you have just launched a new stemware line. The wine glass market is so crowded, what did you think was missing?
VJ: I had been approached by glass companies in the past, but it never made sense to me to create dozens of glass shapes for every grape variety. Who has room for that in their apartment? We are taught that Pinot Noir must be poured in those large Burgundy bowls and that Cabernet must go in the tall Bordeaux glasses, but when you travel to Europe you see no one is drinking from all those different glasses.
After years of learning about the science behind making glassware, lots of trial and error, we found that developing two glasses—one for wines from warm-climate regions and one for cold-climate regions—is all that’s necessary to elevate the wine-drinking experience. They are lighter and more durable than Zalto glasses, yet cost a quarter of the price wholesale; as someone who runs restaurants, affordability was important to me. I learned that just one-hundredth millimeter of additional thickness in the glass can add a lot of durability.
WS: A few years ago you co-founded Wine Empowered to bring free wine education to groups underrepresented in the wine industry. How has that grown?
VJ: When we launched, we were the only group trying to do something like this, and fortunately today there are many more nonprofits with this same goal. Today, there are many long overdue conversations being had. But we went into this very naive, so the pandemic was a good opportunity for us to pause and reflect. We spent a lot of time researching companies and giving money back to organizations who just wanted their logo on our site. It’s so important who we are associated with. We are relaunching this year and keeping it small so we can really have relationships with students. We have seen a number of our former students advance in their careers and gain a lot of confidence.
WS: What wine region are you most excited about right now?
VJ: After not drinking for nine months while I was pregnant, everything is exciting to me! I actually think it made me a better sommelier because it renewed my enthusiasm for wine and now everything is a discovery. My husband, daughter and I recently spent a week in France, and there are so many wines in the south of France that are incredible and so affordable. It’s a region with so many wine treasures.