Wine Girl, by Victoria James

Don’t let the Mona Lisa cover fool you; her life is far from slow and serene.

When a girl becomes the country’s youngest sommelier, one would expect that she grew up in a vineyard, working with grape crops and vintages throughout her childhood. Not so Victoria James. She and her three little siblings were virtually abandoned while their alcoholic father stayed on long business trips and their princess (no, seriously) mother suffered from such severe mental illness that she never left her bedroom for weeks on end. One time, when Victoria was eight years old, her slightly older brother divided up one sleeve of saltines to last the four children for a week.

Such a childhood breeds toughness, and Victoria would need it to succeed. She started her restaurant career at the local diner when she was thirteen years old, soaking up all the life lessons her boss could impart. “Find something that you can love about every customer.” She remembered that one as she moved on to the next restaurant and the next, studying every free moment. She learned to be a bartender and to hustle, to work harder and faster in each place. Once she was introduced to wine, she studied nonstop and worked to earn money for classes and certification exams.

Although James exulted in her progress as a sommelier, this is not a breezy rags-to-riches story. She suffered abuse and disrespect almost universally for years. Yes, the reader gets to hear about trips to those magical tucked-away restaurants and vineyards in rural parts of idyllic wine countries, but also some brutal episodes that reveal the dark side of the service industry. Once she arrived at the top of her field, James established Wine Empowered, a nonprofit organization to promote women and minorities in service careers, so that those who are usually stuck at the bottom of the ladder will have the skills and support to move up in the ranks.

This memoir is a natural for foodies and oenophiles, but it is also a surprising fit for the legions of readers who devoured Educated, by Tara Westover, and for all those who love a story of dreams fulfilled through hard work and persistence.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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