Features 12 June 2020

Victoria James: my worst day in wine

In her new book, Wine Girl, Victoria James tells of the misogyny and chauvinism she faced as a young, female sommelier in New York. In the episode below, a patron’s prejudices reach the very bottom of the barrel in a shocking denouement…

Words by Victoria James

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Twenty-one years old, the youngest sommelier in the country and the most foolish. Today my career will endI thought.

It was early 2012 during a Monday lunch, one of the shifts given to the newbie (in this case, me), as it’s the slowest service of the week and typically safe from any real challenges. Only occasionally would I sell a bottle and get to make the magnificent journey through Aureole’s extensive wine cellar. This collection climbed upward and ran the length of the restaurant, holding over 15,000 bottles.

Usually, the bottles I sold during this shift weren’t particularly fascinating, as it’s not a typical American custom – even in New York – to drink well during a Monday lunch. However, this Monday was different. A guest had ordered the 2009 Chevalier-Montrachet from Domaine Ramonet.

Some sommeliers might nitpick that Domaine Ramonet is not their favourite producer in Burgundy (a bit overrated, they’ll sneer). Or perhaps a wine collector will argue that this wine was too young to drink (infanticide! at only three years old). But snobbery aside, it was a $650 bottle of Chardonnay! Who does that . . . at a Monday lunch no less?

I thought of how proud my wine director would be when he saw the sales from lunch and imagined all the wonders the guests would experience when they drank the grand cru white Burgundy. I had never tasted the wine, only read about its notoriety and rarity.

The guest who ordered the Ramonet was at table 100 (in restaurants, tables are numbered for practical purposes). It was one of the best tables in our dining room, surrounded by a plush banquette and pillows. Sometimes, this comfort led to loose wallets. The captain scurried to find me after receiving the order. With the wine list still carefully propped open to the correct page, he pointed to “the six-hundred-fifty-dollar one!” His eyes screamed ka-ching!

I held my breath as his fingers scrolled from the price over to the left . . . 2009 Domaine Ramonet Chevalier-Montrachet. . . ! At first, I was sure this was a practical joke. As the new girl, I had grown accustomed to all sorts of ruses.

“Let me just double-check,” I added, hesitant. The captain’s face dropped as I took the wine list from his hands and walked over to the table, where four men lounged. They all had slicked-back grey hair and wore dark suits with thin stripes. I presented the list to the gentleman who had ordered. “Pardon me, sir, I wanted to confirm your order of 2009 Domaine Ramonet Chevalier-Montrachet . . .” My finger ran along the name and to the price. He just stared at me with his beady eyes.

Tiny droplets of sweat began to form under my cheap polyester suit. He closed the wine list abruptly with a clap. “Yes,” he said with an overt tinge of annoyance, “and hurry, we are thirsty.” I managed a nervous nod, rushing out of the dining room and upstairs.

In the wine cellar, there was a corner I had yet to explore. This nook was where all of the high-end wine was hidden, away from light and dangerous swings in temperature. After a few moments of scanning, I found the Ramonets and thumbed my way through until I landed upon the right vintage and vineyard. I gently picked up the bottle and noticed that there were, in total, only two of them. I cradled the wine in my arms as if it were a small child, terrified of what a single misstep might bring.

Back near the table of men in suits, their conversation quieted to whispers as I returned. “Sir, 2009.” I pointed to the vintage on the bottle. “Domaine Ramonet.” I pointed to the producer. “Chevalier-Montrachet.” I pointed to the vineyard. He gave a sharp nod. The eerie silence from the group crept onto my skin and sent a small shiver throughout my body.

Aureole restaurant in New York

Outside the dining room, I placed the bottle steadily down on the gueridon, the sommelier station where wine is opened, prepped, and tasted. To open the bottle, I whipped out my corkscrew and rendered two precise cuts to the foil capsule, removing the top portion that covered the cork. Just in case there was any unwanted residue, I wiped the top of the cork off with a serviette. Once it was cleaned, I dug the tip of my corkscrew in and, with a few twists plus one steady pull, extracted the cork quietly. To be sure, I followed the last step of the sommelier protocol here and wiped the lip again with a serviette. Then, the best part – I poured myself a one-ounce taste.

Believe it or not, a sommelier must taste every single bottle before serving. One bottle in every two or three cases of wine is corked, and even more can be affected by a variety of other flaws. Just as a chef would never send out a rotten piece of fish, a sommelier should never serve a lousy bottle of wine. The chemical compound known as TCA (trichloroanisole) is what is responsible for this “cork taint.” It won’t harm you, unlike a piece of rotten fish, but it’s a horrible taste.

The tradition remains that even after the sommelier – arguably the expert in this scenario – approves the wine, she allows the guest to taste it as well. Here, the guest is merely re-checking to see if it is flawed; it is not a tasting to see if they “like it”. Preferences should be established with the sommelier well before the selection. So why even go through this re-checking process? I like to do it because I believe hospitality is about love, not logic. Of course, it would make more sense to skip this step. However, at this moment, the sommelier puts expertise on the back burner and humbly gives the guest the power. The sommelier respectfully bows down first, followed by the guest’s reciprocating in appreciation (ideally).

Despite my lack of experience in the industry, I had already tasted thousands of wines and trained myself to commit all “flawed” flavours to memory. Still, I especially honoured the tradition of letting the guest approve the wine. Many of my guests were two to three times my age; it would have been disrespectful for me not to bow to them first.

When I tasted the Ramonet Chevalier-Montrachet, there was nothing off about it. The wine was like slipping into a bed made up with silk sheets. In the glass, aromas and memories kept popping out: sour cream spread on toast with honey, butterscotch candies, clotted cream, movie-theatre popcorn, sour frozen yogurt, a zing of lemon zest, freshly cracked crème brûlée, warm butter with salt, and mouth-puckering acidity. I could see why people would spend so much money on this wine.

“The glasses are down,” the captain remarked, pulling me out of my amorous reverie and back to Monday lunch service. He had placed white Burgundy glasses, specifically made for this type of wine, on the table.

The uneasiness I had felt before crept back. Although my restaurant training had taught me how to suppress nervousness, sometimes my body had a hard time listening. I approached the leader from the right again, pouring a taste quickly but with a calculated precision – label facing him, two ounces, a quick dip of the neck, twist, wipe with a serviette, cradle in both hands within view. He brought his lips to the glass, stuck out his tongue a tiny bit, letting the Burgundy inch in. Moments passed; he looked up at me, scoffed, and turned back to his guests. “I think she has too much perfume in her nose, this girl . . .” His glare turned upward and at me. “The bottle is corked, take it back. Bring us another.”

With this swift blow, the colour drained from my face. Corked? It couldn’t be! The wine was delicious, perfect. Corked? Is he testing me? What kind of sommelier would be caught dead wearing perfume? Corked!?

I managed to stutter, “Sir, respectfully, the wine has been tested, and it is sound. Perhaps you’d like to try it again?” His face turned the dark red colour of Bordeaux. “Listen, wine girl, I have bottles in my cellar older than you. I know when a wine is corked.” Flecks of spit sprinkled from his lips. “Our food is about to arrive, and we still have nothing to drink. GET. US. ANOTHER. BOTTLE!”

My torso began to shake, and my knees weakened. I hurried out of the dining room with the bottle. What just happened? I kept replaying the series of events in my head. The captain who took the order was standing at the gueridon with our general manager. He dipped his nose into my tasting glass. I knew the two of them were absolute white Burgundy junkies, and the GM held a particular fondness for Ramonet.

“Oof.” The GM puckered his lips and then began to smile. “It smells great,” he sang in his soft French accent, adding, “Which table ordered this?” I told them that table 100 had ordered the bottle, but they’d sent it back. We all looked down at the dejected bottle. “Did you taste it?” The GM jetted his head forward and furrowed his brow. “Of course!” I began. “I think it’s spectacular, but they don’t seem to agree. So . . .”

All I could think of was my poor wine director and the pressure the restaurant bosses put on him to meet horrifyingly low costs, already unachievable unless every martini was vigorously shaken until wholly watered down. This would certainly not help. The bottle was unreturnable, as the vendor wouldn’t detect any TCA responsible for cork taint. We couldn’t salvage the cost and sell it off by the glass – who would splurge $130 for a glass on a Monday? Instead, it would surely go to waste.

Half of me was heartbroken, and the other half was afraid for my job. Would they have returned the bottle if the older male captain had presented it? Or were they testing a kid they thought didn’t belong? Maybe I didn’t belong there.

“Let me taste it,” the GM insisted. He poured himself a drop. “Pfft . . . This is delicious! Serve it to him.” No one at Aureole would ever argue with the GM. Before I could ask for help, he walked away with my wine glass. The captain trailed behind him, hoping for maybe just a whiff.

Now abandoned, I racked my brain for a solution . . . how could I make everyone happy? I couldn’t just go back to the table and insist that the guest had to drink the bottle. But I also couldn’t open another Ramonet, as it would taste the same.

The right and the wrong here seemed to be all muddled. Just before table 100’s first course was about to land, I came up with a plan. I bolted upstairs and grabbed the last bottle of the 2009 Ramonet Chevalier-Montrachet from the cellar. I presented it, only to be brushed off with a “Yes, yes.” At that moment, the servers placed the first course of food on the table in one synchronized swoop. The leader looked up at me in a fury – I was far behind schedule.

In a silent panic, I tried to brush off fearful thoughts. Was what I was about to do ethical? Would this be the end of my just-begun career as a sommelier? I knew that if this didn’t work it was my head alone on the chopping block.

The routine of wine service helped calm my nerves for a few moments – label facing the guest, two ounces, quick dip of the neck, twist, wipe with a serviette, cradle in both hands within view. The leader brought the glass to his nose and swirled slowly, around and around and around. I felt like a duck swimming on water, calm and collected above while pedaling furiously underneath.

He swished around the wine loudly in his mouth, sucking in air and making a loud whooooo noise. With a quick swallow, he burst into laughter and clasped his hands. “Ha! Yes, much better. Finally! Gentlemen, wait until you taste this wine, it is magnificent!”

I breathed a visible sigh of relief. Now much lighter, I floated around the table and filled everyone’s glass with the wine. “A woman, a young woman . . . probably too much perfume in her nose . . . could there be anything worse in a sommelier?” With the leader’s words, my body tightened again, this time in shock and anger. The whole table laughed as the leader went on about how lovely the wine was and how inexperienced I seemed to be. My jaws clenched together to keep my angry words inside. While I was filling the fourth and final glass with wine, the leader added one last comment. “I guess it could be worse, actually.” He leaned in and dropped his voice to a loud whisper. “At least she isn’t a n*****.”

My hand jolted, almost spilling the wine outside of the glass. The whole table erupted in guffaws, grabbing their glasses and bringing them together for a cheers. I recoiled in disgust. Before I could escape, the leader narrowed his eyes and said, “Thank you, wine girl.”

I ran out of the dining room and back to the gueridon. My head lowered as I took deep breaths in an attempt to collect myself. I often faced men who didn’t like a girl telling them what wine they should buy. Or worse, their wandering hands. Speaking out against this behaviour wasn’t an option. The customer is always right, the restaurant would remind us, and the word no should never be spoken. I didn’t want people to see me as a problem. Being a sommelier was everything to me – I had dropped out of college to pursue wine and I had no family or safety net to support me. Despite the challenges I faced, I loved what I did.

My breathing eventually began to slow. The captain stopped by my side and tried to comfort me. “Well, at least you didn’t have to open that other bottle,” he said with a wink, pointing at an unopened 2009 Domaine Ramonet Chevalier-Montrachet sitting upright in front of me. It was the first and last time I ever did a bottle bait-and-switch. I nodded and let out a small smile before quickly returning it to the dark and quiet corner of the cellar.

Wine Girl by Victoria James is out now (Fleet, Hardback, £16.99).

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