Tale of Two “Girls”

New memoirs offer contrasting views of a challenging industry

LEFT: “Pinot Girl: A Family, a Region, an Industry” by Anna Maria Ponzi. RIGHT:  “Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier” by Victoria James.

By Neal D. Hulkower

One discovered wine as a career, while the other was born into it. Both have new memoirs exploring their destined but wholly different paths. 

“Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier” tells the story of Victoria James, who escaped her troubled childhood and rose to acclaim as a sommelier and part-owner/beverage director of Michelin-starred Korean steakhouse Cote in New York City, all before the age of 30. 

In “Pinot Girl: A Family, a Region, an Industry,” Anna Maria Ponzi documents the challenges overcome by her pioneering family in creating a brand and helping establish the Oregon wine industry in the Willamette Valley, and her eventual acceptance of her role in the enterprise. Currently, she is president and director of sales and marketing of Ponzi Vineyards.

Victoria’s story describes her childhood to late 20s. As the second-oldest child, she assumed at an early age an inordinate amount of responsibility for her three siblings neglected by their parents. Her mother failed utterly to care for her family; her father, who never seemed to have enough money, was usually absent while pursuing work. Eventually, he moved the children to homes of relatives and divorced their mother. Victoria credits running a lemonade stand for teaching her to address customer preferences and manage cost, a necessity since her father charged her for supplies and table rental.

She and her siblings were initially homeschooled by their father but eventually attended public school. To help make ends meet, Victoria waited tables at a diner in New Jersey, beginning her hospitality career at age 13. While accompanying her father on gambling trips to Atlantic City, she learned about cocktails and earned tips bringing drinks to tables. At 15, she was working at another diner at night and was raped by a regular after she had accepted a ride home. She told no one but had nightmares and began to experiment with drugs and drink excessively.

Despite earning a college scholarship, her substance abuse resulted in her leaving school during her first year. After therapy helped her address the trauma, she settled in New York, where her infatuation with for wine began and matured. Victoria worked on the beverage side in several upscale restaurants, including a couple with Michelin stars. She also attended a wine school and became a certified sommelier at age 21 in the Court of Master Sommeliers. She endured verbal abuse from customers and coworkers and sexual exploitation by a supervisor. Her life finally turned around when she worked for Simon Kim in his first restaurant, following him to Cote after it closed.

In comparison to Victoria’s, Anna Maria’s life was idyllic. Her story spans her entire life from her birth in California to the present. Dick Ponzi, her father, caught the wine bug while visiting a relative in Iceland who was making wine from fruits and vegetables. This led to the decision to switch careers from engineering to winemaking and to move to Oregon in 1968.

From the beginning and despite their young ages, the three Ponzi siblings were expected to work alongside their parents. Two-year-old Luisa, now the winemaker, helped older sister Anna Maria in preparing vine cuttings for planting. Their big brother, Michel, assisted with the more physically demanding tasks. There was also a small farm with animals and crops to attend to. Though life was hard and money was short. Their parents, Dick and Nancy, created a loving environment in which their children thrived. Anna Maria warmly recalls her father’s patience and understanding as well as her parents’ boundless enthusiasm and creativity as they forged ahead despite endless setbacks and lack of money.

Not surprisingly though, when Anna Maria started school and got involved in activities, she began to resent being expected to help on the farm and in the vineyard. Because the neighboring farmers regarded the transplanted winegrowers as hippies on a fool’s mission, she was bullied in school, which didn’t help her attitude. She even took a job at a Baskin-Robbins as soon as she got her license to avoid working at home.

Anna Maria graduated from the University of Oregon and took a job in Boston in advertising sales. Tiring of the weather and the demeanor of the Bostonians, and missing the action at home, she returned to Oregon for good in 1991 and immersed herself in the now-thriving family business.

The differences between the two lives are clear. The authors are a full generation apart. One lives on the East Coast; the other, the West. Victoria’s career represents the on-premise side of the business, while Anna Maria works on the winery side. Of course, their childhoods appear in stark contrast, too.

Despite obvious differences, important similarities can be found. Both have overcome gender bias and suffered bullying — although, in Victoria’s case, much worse — and each are active in easing the way for others, especially women and minorities. Victoria is the co-founder of the nonprofit Wine Empowered; its mission “is to inspire professional growth and empower women and minorities in the hospitality industry in an aim to diversify leadership roles in the industry.” Anna Maria has been a key part of many philanthropic and industry associations, including ¡Salud!, an organization her mother helped found, providing vineyard workers access to healthcare; and Project Lemonade, a group inspiring self-esteem in foster youth.

Taken together, these two memoirs provide a wider perspective on the treatment of women in the wine industry over the past 50 years. It is encouraging how Anna Maria earned her place as an equal to the men in Oregon — something her mother, Nancy, had initially been denied. On the other hand, it is troubling that within the past few years, Victoria faced the worst possible treatment, even as she attained the recognition of her talent. Despite the progress these two women have made and continue to make, there is still much more to do. Perhaps these books can help raise awareness while also giving hope.

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