Is there a gender gap in the wine world? Evidently so, judging from the sudden boom in wines—and wine accoutrements—targeted at women. In May, Beringer Blass Wine Estates introduced White Lie, a low-alcohol, reduced-calorie Chardonnay that’s being marketed to women. July saw the debut of Wine Adventure, a magazine hoping to attract women wine buffs supposedly alienated by the testosterone-driven coverage in other wine journals. Leslie Sbrocco recently published Wine for Women, a guidebook for distaff drinkers, and another book, 100 Women in Wine: Journeys and Inspiration in Wine and Life, is due to be released next year.
I don’t recall this being declared the Decade of Women in Wine, and I will admit to being a little surprised by this sudden outpouring of sisterhood. Here I, and probably every other male oenophile, thought we were having a terrific coed party, only to now be told that the women weren’t having much fun at all. But before the ladies pack up their Riedel glasses and head off to drink by themselves, a question: Is the wine world really so inhospitable to women that voluntary separation is necessary? Or is this just an example of niche marketing run amok?
On the face of it, the notion that women are somehow discriminated against in matters of wine is absurd. For one thing, wine has always been portrayed, in the popular culture anyway, as a woman’s drink. The boys pound shots and beers; the girls demurely sip chardonnays and merlots. And crude caricatures aside, there is some evidence that wine is a woman’s drink. According to the Adams Wine Handbook, which studies consumption patterns in the United States, women purchase 55 percent of the wine sold in this country.
Nor is there any shortage of women wine professionals. Thirty or 40 years ago, the cellar was not considered a woman’s place, but since then women have made huge strides in the industry. If the wine business is a fraternal order, someone clearly forgot to tell Britain’s Jancis Robinson, arguably the world’s most popular wine writer. Ditto four of our most popular wine popularizers: Lettie Teague (of Food & Wine), Karen MacNeil, Andrea Immer, and Elin McCoy (author of the Robert Parker bio The Emperor of Wine). The folks at Sotheby’s are apparently in the dark, too, because they have a woman, Serena Sutcliffe, running their global wine auction business. Two of this country’s top importers of French wines—Becky Wasserman-Hone and Martine Saunier—are also women. Mary Ewing-Mulligan, who holds the extremely rare master of wine degree, runs what is generally acknowledged to be the country’s top wine school, International Wine Center in Manhattan. In addition, some of the most prestigious wineries on both sides of the Atlantic—Château Margaux in Bordeaux, Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, Screaming Eagle, Colgin Cellars, and Dalla Valle in Napa—are owned by women. Plenty of women also handle cellar duties. In fact, a trio of them—Helen Turley, Heidi Barrett, and Mia Klein—are California’s most sought-after consulting winemakers. Gina Gallo does the winemaking for her storied family winery. The list goes on.
It is true that the predominant style of wine criticism in the United States—rating Cabernets and Chardonnays on a 100-point scale—has fostered a certain machismo among some wine drinkers. You can see it on display at the Manhattan restaurants where groups of Wall Street types gather, like boys in a sandbox, for lavish dinners built around wines that have received high scores from Robert Parker, the progenitor of the 100-point rating system. In this crowd, wine is not an alcoholic beverage, but a trophy—something to acquire and show off. Of course, some women take part in these drink-by-the-numbers bacchanals. But it is probably fair to say that more men than women have come to treat wine this way.
Still, is this distinction enough to hang a magazine on? Wine Adventure’s editor-in-chief, Michele Ostrove, claims that many women are left cold both by wine ratings and by the tasting notes that accompany the scores. Although studies show that women have a more acute sense of smell than men, Ostrove says that in her experience, women are less inclined to stick their noses in a glass of wine and report every aroma they think they detect, à la Parker and other critics. (“Mission figs dipped in caramel, with hints of vanilla, talc, balsam wood, and Indian spices, rolled in sweet Cuban tobacco leaves, framed by fine-grained tannins and bright acidity. Classy juice.”) The fact that Parker and his ilk offer no food-pairing advice, says Ostrove, only deepens the sense of frustration.
In what could be seen as another indication that women are particularly frustrated with Parker-style pointillism and cherry-and-berry tasting notes, a group called the Women’s Wine Critics Board—composed of women wine professionals—is working on an alternative form of wine assessment, one more attuned to issues like cost and versatility. Mary Baker, one of the group’s founders and a partner at Dover Canyon Winery in Paso Robles (she is also the excellent host of the wine discussion forum on egullet.com), says she and her colleagues feel that the 100-point system, and the Parker/Spectator approach in general, is more useful to collectors than ordinary consumers and tends to shortchange the kind of food-friendly, fairly priced wines that are of interest to most drinkers. The WWCB will meet monthly to taste wines and will issue recommendations on its Web site, which is now being designed.
But are the concerns being expressed by Baker and Ostrove really that gender-specific? Wine Adventure is a smart-looking lifestyle magazine, but there is little about the content that seems overtly girly. Compared with Wine Spectator, it does speak in a different voice, but it’s not at all obvious that that voice is a feminine one. (And thankfully so: Many wine professionals were nauseated by Sbrocco’s attempt, in Wine for Women, to “feminize” her tasting notes by comparing wines to items of clothing. Among other things, she likened sauvignon blanc to a “freshly laundered cotton shirt,” and zinfandel to “black leather pants.”)
In fact, both Baker and Ostrove readily acknowledge that the desire to find inexpensive wines suitable for the dinner table is hardly limited to women; there are plenty of men who share these buying criteria and who are presumably just as turned off when they walk into wine shops and are assaulted with “shelf-talkers”—those little slips of paper touting the latest Parker and Spectator scores. Interestingly, Ostrove told me that Wine Adventure was not originally conceived as a women’s magazine. The first tag line was “The wine magazine for the rest of us.” That was changed, late in the production cycle, to “The first wine magazine for women” at the suggestion of a PR consultant who thought catering explicitly to women would be a shrewd tactic.
Maybe so. Sbrocco’s book has evidently done quite well. But it seems odd that the woman wine-drinker has somehow become a proxy for ordinary wine consumers of both genders. To suggest that women have a distinct set of grievances about how wine is critiqued ignores the fact that quite a few men are equally disaffected and often leads to the kind of patronizing, saccharine wine journalism that most women, and men, rightly abhor. The wine market appears to have a consumer gap; a gender gap is harder to find.