Friday, December 23, 2016

Screw the Gendered Wine Binary

A few years ago, I was tasting through a bunch of Chardonnays with a winemaker in Sonoma. As is unfortunately the case all too often at trade tastings like this one, no women were present. While tasting through a particularly oaky and creamy Chardonnay, the winemaker admitted he didn’t expect us to like it. He quipped, “I call this my cougar juice.” We all laughed, myself included.

I think about writing a lot. I think about wine a lot. So, I think a lot about how we talk about wine. And, lately, I find myself wondering why people still insert lame, outdated gender roles into the discussion.

For years I’ve heard men refer to wines with higher alcohol and riper fruit as being “slutty.” This comment is almost always made by a man (frequently dripping with disdain) who fancies his palate too refined for floozy juice. A search through a popular internet database of wine tasting notes reveals hundreds of references to a wine being “slutty,” and I’ve heard it used more times than I can remember.

I’ve heard a common refrain from some people in the wine trade that Cabernet (usually a more structured and tannic wine) is the woman you marry, while Pinot Noir (usually a more exotic but temperamental wine) is the woman you take to bed. This kind of talk strikes me as, well, pathetic. It speaks to a sense of male possessiveness and assumed superiority over women. From the nerdy/hot redhead girl next door to Marilyn Monroe, comparing a wine to women is so common in male-dominated wine circles that it’s not only gendered bullshit, it’s a boring cliché. It’s not clever. So why is it still a thing?

I like to think that some (or even most) gendered comments about wine are not made with the conscious decision to offend or denigrate women. Well-aged Barolo or Burgundy from great vintages is frequently described as elegant and feminine, and this is meant as a great compliment. In some sense, I understand how those words may make sense in describing fine wine, something so profoundly difficult to describe. I frequently refer to young Cabernet as being muscular or strong, and aged wines as being restrained, smooth and elegant. By attaching traditional gender stereotypes to wine, we’re perpetuating an outdated dichotomy. And we’re further complicating and sexualizing something that is already unnecessarily complicated and sexualized. 

Traditional gendered discussion of who drinks what has been changing, and there is certainly progress being made in breaking down some of these odd barriers. Last year, for example, the term “brosé” made the rounds in some popular publications. This term was used to refer to millennial men (bros) who drink rosé, a pink wine. This lighter, fresher, and sometimes sweeter wine is made from red grapes, but it is shades of pink in the glass. For decades (think white Zinfandel), rosé was stereotyped as a girly drink. The tired trope that pink wine is for the girls has always been bullshit, and I penned a piece last year encouraging men skeptical of rosé to “drink the pink.” Good news, dudes: there is no scientific study linking the consumption of pink, bubbly or sweet wine and smaller penis size. 

“Brosé,” like all gendered wine trend terms, has become a tired trope. But as it was catching on, Chloe Wyma discussed the trend in a well-written and insightful piece for GQ: “the rosé bro is inaugurating a freer, more egalitarian world of gender-fluid beverage consumption.” And that’s a good thing. If there’s a gender stereotype out there somewhere, I want to smash it, so I fully support this trend.

However, while I have been a huge supporter of the dry rosé movement for many years, I don’t see the need to pop my collar, gather around with a bunch of dudes and toast to open-minded, gender-nonconforming consumption habits. Dry rosé wine is fucking amazing. It is no revolutionary act for a man to drink pink wine in celebratory fashion. I’ve never felt self-conscious about drinking rosé and I don’t think anyone else should either.

Drink our canned wine, ladies! (Yoga pants/toned butts not included.)
Credit: Lila Wines PR image
Let me take a moment to address any men reading this who may be thinking, “Great, another person is telling me I have to be politically correct about shit. Now I have to be sensitive to chicks when I talk about booze? So lame, bro.” To be clear: you can talk about booze in any way you damn well please. Wine marketers and beverage PR folks are constantly re-mastering the gendered beverage binary, and I don’t think they’re letting up any time soon. (See: pink-labeled “Bitch” wines; the successful “Skinny Girl” brand; marketing gimmicks from “Little Black Dress”, Lila Wines, etc., etc.,)

On some level, I understand the approach wine marketers take when they try to target specific consumers with gender-based marketing. They’re trying to make a buck off a bottle (or box, or can) of wine, an object that has been gendered and sexualized for hundreds of years. I get it. But it’s tired. Very, very tired.

In an excellent piece for Punch Drink, Zachary Sussman laments that gender-based wine marketing is still so commonplace. “I just can’t figure out why this kind of type-casting is still happening in 2016.” And considering that all of the most face-palm-inducing marketing gimmicks are aimed at women, Sussman asks: “How is it advantageous to reduce the female drinkers they’re courting to the most generic lifestyle magazine stereotypes?” I don’t know, man. I don’t know.

To ferment my argument: Gendering and sexualizing our conversation about wine and alcoholic beverages is a) lazy; b) frequently dismissive of women; and 3) it’s an increasingly inaccurate way of discussing the subject.

When you actually dig into a typically gendered notion of wine consumption, you find it is likely outdated and frequently inaccurate. (Hell, I sip more California Chardonnay “cougar juice” than almost any woman I’ve ever met.) A 2012 study from Taylor & Francis Research group looked at wine consumption between 155 men and 150 women, focusing on how men and women consumed wine during various types of occasions. The results? Men and women consumed wine similarly in 16 out of the 22.

Bros, canned wine is for chicks. Solo cups for you.
Credit: Lila Wines PR image
Another aspect of the gendered/sexualized conversation about wine: it is frequently a one-way street. This dynamic is sometimes perpetuated by women, but, in my experience, not as frequently. When the woman I’m with orders a burly Cabernet, I’ve never heard her discuss her choice in “masculine” terms. And when a woman uncorks a young Bandol, do her girlfriends joke about her drink being butch or manly? 

I asked my friend Alison Marriott (who runs the wine consulting firm Bon Vivant) what she thought about this. “In all aspects of life I don’t find many women discussing or objectifying men in the same way that women are objectified by men,” she said. “I think that language is often a natural extension of one’s temperament, paradigms and belief system regarding gender and sex. This isn’t restricted to describing wines.”

Of course this phenomenon isn’t unique to wine. But when we talk about wine, we should remember what wine is. Wine is an historic agricultural product that contains alcohol, is delicious, and is intended to provide pleasure.

Why load that down with the weight of gender stereotypes?

I spent about six months batting this post around, and, in the meantime, several other voices have chimed in on the broad topic of wine and gender. For further reading check out "On Wine and Gender: Chambolle = Feminine. But Why?" by Jonathan Lipsmeyer, and "She Said, He Said" by Andrea Frost.


  1. Hear, hear!

    I myself find the gendered descriptors pretty silly and sexist as well, and way too often just a lazy writer's shortcut not to come up with actual descriptors, but letting the reader's imagination do the work.

    Especially weird I find using these gendered descriptors in describing two completely unrelated varieties (eg. Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Pinot Noir) or styles (eg. modern/"new world" vs. old-school/"old world"), because of course they should be inherently different. The only time I think it might be useful to describe in this way is when comparing two different wines from the same grape / style, eg. two stylistically somewhat different Barolo or Burgundy wines from one producer - but even then I'd try to put those differences into more precise words than just vaguely conceptualize into this sexist dichotomy.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Otto. I'm in agreement w/ ya.

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