We talked with entrepreneur and sommelier Victoria James to get insight into her passion for wine, some personal selections, and details on her newest project. She is launching a line of innovative new wine glasses, the Lenox Signature Series | Sommelier Victoria James, that will change the world of wine!
From America’s youngest sommelier to “wine wunderkind” Victoria’s expertise has propelled her through some of the most prestigious restaurants in New York City and up to partner at Michelin-starred restaurants. As a powerful woman in the wine world Victoria is constantly bringing us a breath of inspiration, plus she’s always ready to share sommelier secrets and insight on entertaining with wine.
Let’s escape into the experience with her.
Q: What inspired you to become a sommelier? Was this something you always wanted to do?
A: I love people! I grew up in restaurants, first working at a greasy-spoon diner when I was thirteen, to bartending in college, to becoming the youngest sommelier in the country ten years ago. Wine combined all my passions—hospitality, travel, history, reading, and taste. There really is nothing like it in the world, it’s a universal unifier.
Q: What motivated you to create the Signature Series with Lenox?
A: I realized there was something missing in the world of stemware. There’s a secret that sommeliers know but not most consumers—what defines a wine’s structure more than the grape variety is the 'terroir', this sense of place. Just like people, wine is shaped greatly by its surroundings. It’s like saying all women are the same (and trust me I got a lot of this kind of talk in the male dominated sommelier world!), whereas I probably have more in common with other New Yorkers, and likewise someone from Miami will have more in common with their neighbors. Lenox approached me to create a stemware line and I was incredibly honored. I mean, this is the company that makes china for Presidents and the Met Gala! We worked together for years with their team of designers, and I consulted scientists and fellow sommeliers, to come up with what I believe to be a revolutionary set of glasses.
Q: Tell us about the unique features of these glasses and how they help to enhance the flavors from each region.
A: Yes, we could have gotten super geeky and made a wine for every region in the world—but I am passionate about making wine approachable for the consumer. I categorized generally into two main climates—warm and cool. For cooler climates, where less sunshine hours and cooler temperatures can often mean more moderate richness and alcohol levels, alongside elevated acidity and more delicate aromatics, the narrower opening and smaller bowl allows the nuanced details of the wine to be captured and honed. For warmer climates, where elevated temperature and sunshine levels can lead to more ripeness, aromatics, alcohol and richness, the wider bowl allows the wine to expand and open. For both stems, the thin lip helps maximize the flow of wine, and the thin stem and base allows for ease of swirl and aeration.
Q: What do you most enjoy about working with wine?
A: Wine is this magical thing—it represents centuries of tradition, people, heritage, and a sense of place. There is this mystic notion sommeliers call “terroir', which wine carries. It means that a wine can taste like a place, not just the grape but also it represents the weather, the soil, the aspect of the slope, the sunshine hours, the pruning methods, the local traditions and people, and so on. Yes, it can be complicated but it can also be beautiful. Wine is like music and art, there is always more to discover, and that’s what makes it so exciting.
Q: Do you prefer warm region or cool region wines?
A: I love all my children! Really, the most important thing about wine is time and place. What are you eating with the wine? What’s the occasion? If I’m having a dry-aged ribeye, I’ll go for a more powerful wine from a warm region, if I’m having a mesclun salad I’ll go for a more delicate wine from a cool region. Also, because cool region wines are usually lighter in body, they’re great as an apéro by themselves, whereas warm region wines are great center stage with food due to their richness.
Q: What’s your go-to wine selection right now?
A: SO many! I always have something light and sessionable in the fridge (a.k.a. easy-drinking wines)—some favorites are Cru Beaujolais, Grower Champagne, Bandol Rosé, and Ligurian whites.
Q: What is one of your most memorable moments as a sommelier?
A: I remember when I became a sommelier at twenty-one, I was so thrilled and proud. But the problem was I had spent so much time—really every waking moment—studying flash cards and memorizing obscure wine information that I hadn’t left any room in my life for myself. I didn’t have many close friends or anyone to share this achievement with. I had spent so much time focusing on this one goal that I forgot what is most important about wine—that it brings people together. It was a real learning lesson, and since then I’ve made sure to always have a balance. After all, if drinking wine isn’t also fun, what’s the point!?
Q: Do you have any pearls of wisdom or advice you would give to people interested in learning more about the wine they’re enjoying?
A: Trying things side-by-side is a great way to learn. So, try a Chardonnay from Napa Valley in your warm region glass, next to a Chardonnay from Burgundy in your cool region glass. The differences of acid, alcohol, body, richness, and ripeness will really start to sink in. It’s a great way to start to understand this mystic notion of 'terroir'!