A Wine Prodigy’s Favorite Under-$15 Bottle & a Peek Into Her Light-Filled Home

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Welcome to My Life at Home, where we slow down for just a minute to share a glimpse into the lives of food lovers we’d love to get to know better. Kick off your shoes and get comfy!

These days, it’s hard to imagine a summer without free-flowing rosé at the ready; but this pink-hued wine didn’t always enjoy its current popularity. Sommelier Victoria James sought to explain the journey of one of the world’s most misunderstood wines in her debut book, Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé, coursing its history from ancient Greece to the mainstream #yeswayrosé perch it enjoys today.

“Rosé is not only for the summer months!” Victoria tells me. “Just like white and red, it is a wine that should be enjoyed year-round. It is incredibly versatile and goes with dishes from all four seasons.” Wine as just one part of the larger scene of living and eating joyfully is a tenet we can certainly get behind. In speaking to Victoria, who is the enthusiastic beverage director at New York’s popular Cote Korean steakhouse, I quickly learned that her appreciation for all things with a sense of place extends beyond her passion for wine.

The talented sommelier’s first love is restaurants, where she started working at the tender age of 13. At 21, she received her professional sommelier certification before launching her career at Charlie Palmer’s Michelin-starred Aureole, Morini, and Piora before landing at Cote, where she’s been racking up recognition at every turn (Food & Wine‘s 2018 Sommelier of the Year, among others) for her keen palate and deep sense of hospitality.

I had a chance to catch up with the 27-year-old wine prodigy who calls New York’s Gramercy area home, along with her fiancé Lyle Railsback (a fellow star in the wine world, as well as an artist—he illustrated Drink Pink), and their dog, Rocco.

HANA ASBRINK: How did you first get into wine? Describe the moment where you thought to yourself, “This is what I want to do with my life!”

VICTORIA JAMES: Well, it was more of a slippery slope. I have worked in restaurants since I was 13 and have always enjoyed making people happy through service. Through high school, I was a waitress at greasy spoon diners and then in college I started bartending. It was at that time I quickly realized, “I knew nothing about wine!” A dusty copy of Wine for Dummies underneath the bar cash register caught my attention. After a few chapters, I became enthralled.

After that, I went to the library and read a few more books on wine. Then, I was signing up for my first wine course. That turned into another course, and soon I found myself dropping out of college to pursue a career as a sommelier. When I was 21, I finally took the exam and passed. It was at the same time that I also got a job as a sommelier at Aureole on Bryant Park and worked my way up.

HA: Both you and your fiancé work in the food and beverage industry. What are your schedules like?

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VJ: Sheer insanity! Lyle travels half of the month (if not more) for his role in national sales at Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. When he is home, he is always running around the city and on email duty. I work long hours as well, and am at Cote for over 80 hours every week. Additionally, I also spend the early mornings writing and working on other projects for our restaurant management company, Gracious Hospitality.

To make our relationship and time work, we have to plan well in advance. Currently, we are planning the month of September. In order to spend time together, we have to schedule it carefully and honor these commitments to one another.

HA: Do you share “off” days and what do those look like?

VJ: Off days are sporadic but we always try to work in at least one a week together. Even on days where we know we will be apart for the majority of the time, we try to schedule at least breakfast or afternoon tea together. Lyle will wake up early and prepare a meal for us, or I will come home from Cote in the afternoon to walk our puppy Rocco for a half-hour and he will meet me for a stroll and tea.

On full days off together, our favorite thing to do is stay in and cook. We dig through old cookbooks and find dishes like Lulu Peyraud’s Artichokes Barigoule, and commit the day to making it.

HA: How often do you cook at home?

VJ: We try to cook seriously, I mean a whole meal from start to finish from fresh ingredients, at least once a week. Usually this is a big Saturday or Sunday affair. Outside of this, we do small things, like a traditional Japanese breakfast, or something like a late-night omelet.

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HA: Given your crazy work hours, are you an early bird or night owl?

VJ: To be productive in the restaurant industry, you have to be both. My dream is one day to go to bed at 10 p.m. and wake up at 5 a.m. Until then, I usually am at Cote until midnight and go to bed shortly after, then wake up around 7 a.m. I love the mornings and the sleepy moments before New York City wakes up fully. Still, working in restaurants, keeping the energy of the nightlife alive is so important—plus, it’s the best time to enjoy wine!

HA: Okay, we need to talk about the wine! Who’s choosing the wine for dinner: you or Lyle? Which one of you should I be hounding for wine suggestions?

VJ: I like to think of it as more of a collaborative effort. We usually always match the regional food to the local wine, instead of going for a super fancy bottle. For example, we had friends over for Easter, and Lyle cooked a Torta Pasquale from a recipe by Colman Andrews. We paired this Ligurian dish with corresponding wines—as in, lots of Rossese (a crunchy, light red from the Italian Riviera).

Among our friends, I feel as if we are both often tapped for suggestions! Since our book came out, people often ask us which rosé we recommend. This market is so dominated by bulk wines, which is why Lyle and I both champion for wines that speak of a sense of place and people.

HA: We’re finally entering rosé season. Why do you love it so?

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VJ: It’s true that rosé is often associated with the summer, and I honestly drink more of it when the weather is warm, when the foods are correspondingly lighter. However, rosé is just like red and white wines, and I enjoy it year-round. There is something wonderful, though, about the warm weather and celebrating it with a glass of chilled rosé—I totally get it. It’s the same sort of excitement one feels when ramps are in season for a few short weeks in the spring. The good news is that the excitement for rosé doesn’t have to be limited to a few weeks a year.

HA: Please tell me what your favorite under-$15ish bottle is at the moment.

VJ: Domaine de Fontsainte rosé. We also sell this by the glass at Cote (from Magnums), and it is a dream! The perfect easy-drinking, yet complex, wine. So refreshing, mineral-driven, and versatile. It goes with everything, and is made from a small grower in the South of France.

HA: How much wine do you keep at home?

VJ: We store about 500 bottles in our mini-cellar at home. This fluctuates a bit, but we try to always separate our wine into two sections: to age and to drink. The youthful, highly crushable wines we tend to speed through.

HA: What kind of wines should everyone keep on hand?

VJ: Always buy wine by the case. I don’t care if you are storing wine under your bed, in your closet, or in your normal fridge alongside leftovers. Buying wine by the case offers much more value as shops will give a 15% (or sometimes 20%) discount, and getting a mixed case to explore allows you to educate yourself on wine as a whole. Befriend a local wine shop that cares about your taste and building up your knowledge.

At home, you should always have Champagne, Bandol rosé, Cru Beaujolais, and some country Italian reds. Easy-drinking wines under $30 a bottle (save maybe for Champagne) should always be on hand. (Editor’s note: Copious bottles immediately purchased upon interview’s end.)

HA: Favorite feature of your home?

VJ: Our windows! We were so fortunate to find a space with beautiful natural light on Park Avenue. Since Lyle is an artist and illustrator, northern light was important to him. We found this perfect little apartment that has eight large windows that face north and east, and it’s been such a joy. We can watch the sunrise over coffee, and Lyle can paint in his ideal northern light.

HA: If your walls could talk, what would they say?

VJ: Please come home more! It is such a joy to be home, with Lyle and Rocco, but sadly we are not there much. We chose to move downtown for convenience, the restaurant is only two blocks away, so I am now here a little more often. Still though, it feels that after a long week, we only are here to sleep. This is why our days “off” together are so important; we love spending them recharging in our space together.

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HA: How would you describe your decorating style?

VJ: I think Lyle and I secretly wish we lived in a Provençal farmhouse, in the middle of an olive grove or lavender fields. However, we very much live in the middle of New York City, with a view of the Chrysler Building instead of olive trees. Therefore, we try to sneak in touches of France when possible: Colliore linens, mortar and pestles from the Parisian flea market, Astier de Villatte plates, plant pressings of garrigue from the Rhône departement, and of course, we dress all of our food with Sel de Camarague for some of that French flavor.

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HA: Tell us about your nifty tea service.

VJ: Lyle and I fell in love with teatime on our trips to England, and love that it is a brief respite from the day in all of its chaos. To properly honor this break, Lyle found this great silver tea set for me last Christmas from an auction house. We also picked up little pieces like the strainer from Fortnum & Mason in London. Even on the most drab days, it is sure to pick us up.

HA: What’s on your walls?

VJ: Lots of art! Lyle studied art in college and has been an avid collector since then. Some of the pieces are photographs, others are maps and paintings. I also brought in a good bit of art which has been in my family for generations. There are pieces from Piemonte, Italy (where my family is from) and also from Tanzania (where my grandmother and mother spent a lot of their childhood). The eclectic combination of African, European, and new American art makes for a great gallery. I am also a forager and Lyle has created little plant pressings that we hang up on our walls.

HA: How often do you guys entertain?

VJ: We try to entertain at least two to three times a month. Sometimes our schedule won’t allow for this, but we love having people over for long dinners or lunches. There are even times when I will come home from Cote and find that Lyle has just thrown an impromptu dinner party! It might have started with one person and grown into three or six, and all of a sudden he has made Risotto al Radicchio with black Venere rice, and there are four bottles of wine open. Little surprises like this are such a warm welcome, and I actually get to slip in as the last-minute guest.

HA: Favorite Food52 recipe?

VJ: Since we are on the subject, we love the Risotto al Radicchio!

HA: Favorite meal to entertain with?

VJ: Pissaladière is our go-to for entertaining, since it can be made the day before and is so perfect with Provençal wines (white, red, AND rosé).

HA: What are you listening to?

VJ: We love spinning vinyl records all day, alone or with guests. Everything from Yé-yé French pop to Motown and hip-hop, and a lot of The Beatles and Stones.

HA: How does your doggie make himself at home?

VJ: Rocco helps himself to any and all parts of the home! At first, we didn’t want him near the couch but now he has commandeered it. Perhaps it isn’t the best in terms of discipline, but we really treat him more like a child than a pet.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Are you a wine fan? Let us know what bottles you’re enjoying these days!

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