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Women and wine

7 Jul 2004 by JR

Other people tend to be more interested in wine and sex than
me. If I had a bottle for every time I have been asked what
it's like to be a woman in a man's world, I would have very
much larger cellar than I do.

The truth of course is that if you are a woman in wine, you
don't know what it's like to be a man in wine so you don't
have much basis for comparison.

I am also often asked the specific question of whether I have
ever felt any discrimination against me because of my sex and
have to report that, in my particular parasitical backwater of
the wine business, I have rarely felt at a disadvantage being
a woman. When I started out, I just put my head with its halo
of hippie frizz down and got on with learning about wine and
how to write about it. I seem to remember the odd snigger
behind my back at the beginning but it was probably more
because of my outlandish clothes than because of my sex.

I do remember one particularly stuffy wine tasting in London's
financial district at which I, by then wine correspondent of
the market-leading Sunday Times, was practically the only wine
professional present. All the others were well-heeled
customers in pinstriped suits chatting their way round the
tasting tables in groups. One young man peeled away from one
of these groups to come over and ask me, as though it were
rather a lark, "I say, do you come to these things to taste
for your boss?" For once in my life I had a bon mot, or rather
two, to hand. "Not unless you count Rupert Murdoch," I told
him sweetly. What cheek!

But by and large those producing and selling wine have been
courteous rather than condescending to me. In my early days on
a London wine trade magazine, Wine & Spirit, I felt at a
positive advantage being one of the few women present at the
table so that I was invariably seated next to the visiting
winemaker and much better placed to get the story than some of
my male counterparts at the bottom of the table.

And in Britain in the 1980s I sometimes felt that it was
indeed these young male wine writers who were being
discriminated against, so many articles were there about the
bevy of women wine writers then, and now, active in our media.
For many years The Financial Times has had me, The Times has
had Jane MacQuitty and The Sunday Times has had Joanna Simon
as their wine correspondents and we are far from exceptions. I
certainly could not argue that women wine writers have a bad
deal in the UK. About 40 per cent of wine commentators in
Britain are female.

I do wonder, however, why there are so relatively few female
wine commentators elsewhere in the world. Are American,
Australasian and continental European women less knowledgeable
or assertive than we are? I doubt it. Perhaps they just don't
get the breaks. And/or perhaps American, Australasian and
continental European men have erected various barriers to
their progress. I could hypothesise but that might be
insulting.

For many years in Britain however it seemed to me that women
were discriminated against in the wine trade itself. Women
were allowed to be secretaries, and occasionally allowed, if
easy on the eye, to sell wine to male customers. But until
relatively recently, extraordinarily few women had any real
power in the British wine trade. That has changed dramatically
however. The all-powerful supermarkets, who now sell almost
three in every four bottles of wine in Britain, are well aware
that the majority of their customers are female and the most
successful of them have put women in charge of their multi-
million pound wine budgets. There is no doubt whatsoever that
the most powerful individuals in the British wine trade today
are the young women who run leading supermarket Tesco's wine
department.

Does this happen in other countries? I think not.

Should it? I rather think so. Most of us have heard the pretty
conclusive evidence that women are innately more perceptive
and reliable tasters than men. (This is not a personal boast
here - I am all too aware of my failings - but a
generalisation backed up by solid scientific fact.)
Anecdotally, I have hundreds of instances of male winemakers
around thew world confessing to me that it is in fact their
wives or girlfriends who are the better tasters.

And it is notable that, for example, about 40 per cent of all
of those who pass the notoriously stiff Master of Wine exams,
half of whose papers are 'practical' (i.e. involve tasting the
stuff) are female nowadays, even though far more men take the
course than women.

I also think that because society expects less from women as
far as wine is concerned, women are free to have a more
relaxed relationship with wine. Men, to a certain extent and
in certain circles, are 'expected' to know a bit about wine.
There is an obligation on them to order the 'right' wine -
rather like driving the 'right' car. Competitive wine tasting,
wine ordering and wine tasting is very definitely a male
sport. Women on the other hand - and, yes, we are far from
perfect and can be manipulative minxes, moaning mumsies and
worse - are much more likely simply to choose not the wine
they feel they ought to choose but the wine they feel like
drinking. And who can argue with that admirable policy?

I certainly don't think there is such a thing as female taste
in wine. We don't go round insisting on that wine should be
sweet or pink and, apart from being most unfortunately rather
more vulnerable to the ravages of alcohol than men, I see no
evidence that we are uniformly different from men in our wine
preferences.

But how about making wine - an increasingly relevant question
now that more and more oenology graduates are female? Some
people claim that wines made by women have a perceptible
suppleness and subtleness about them. One can certainly think
of examples. Vanya Cullen's Margaret River Cabernet Merlot
from Western Australia and Veronique Drouhin's soft Pinots
from Oregon spring most readily to my mind. But hold on a
minute. How about Helen Turley's megawines or Delia Viader's
feisty reds?

Surely the answer is that women are far too big a group to
generalise about. Except of course that all female wine
writers are perceptive, talented, expressive, erudite....and
modest.

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