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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
7 Jul 2004

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.