Like many other fields of interest, the world of wine has, for centuries, been dominated by men. How did this connection between men and wine come to fruition, consequently segregating women from the irresistible grape? It stems back to that age old story of woman as the homemaker, as the domestic being. Men were the creatures dominating pubs, embracing drunkenness, crushing pints and, subsequently, tainting their palates with an insatiable thirst for wine. Somehow, maleness and wine became intertwined. Men have since been the front runners in wine tastings, in wine writing and even, as wine makers. Not until the last 10 years have women truly started to stand up and speak out for a beverage that speaks equally loud to our female palates. So what is all the fuss about then? Well, as a woman of wine and recently certified sommelier, I have noticed one more thing that, perhaps, sets women apart from men in the world of wine: the gift of the gab. It is men who hold this gift when it comes to wine. Men want to talk, passionately, about wine. They seem to find indiscernible pleasure in talking about something concrete and decoding it’s abstract components. There are women who can hold their own and talk wine up, down and sideways among themselves and with men alike, but the prominence of men’s passion to discuss wine is truly remarkable. Wine writer, Matt Kramer, describes this phenomenom with lucidity,
“Rarely have I seen a woman swoon over wine. I have seen them enjoy wine immensely. Taste wine acutely. Talk wine articulately. But when it comes to the wine passion, women are no match for men.”
As a woman who truly appreciates wine, I would like to be the one to smack down that sort of nonsense and proclaim my love, my undying passion for wine. But I’ve heard men talk about it, and it’s true. Or maybe I have yet to find multitudes of women who can talk the talk with me. Who’s to say. Does this necessarily mean that wine is masculine? Not at all. As women are becoming more dominant figures in the world of wine, despite lacking this “male passion”, it continues to perplex me that the gender of wine has not yet had a sex change. After all, it has been scientifically proven and discussed at length, that women are better at wine than men. I mean that women are prolifically better, more acute, astute tasters than men. So one would imagine that this upper hand would automatically render the gender of wine female; however, that simply isn’t the case. We have had to pry our way in to the world of wine, through the barricade of (yes, I’ll admit, talented) men. It hasn’t been easy and I take my hat off to those women who have made their mark in the world of wine (and to those who succeeded in doing so many years ago). Although there are too many to name, these five women are role models for a budding, female wine enthusiast like myself. Among these women, there are wine writers, wine academics and enologists, all of whom have played a role in shaping wine with the embrace of a woman’s touch:
1. Jancis Robinson: A self-admitted work-a-holic, Robinson has written multitudes of wine books and has been an active wine columnist in what is considered to be the summit of wine journalism. She is reasonable, respected and she is a Master of Wine. In the world there are only 297 Masters of Wine. Of those 297, only 87 are females and Jancis Robinson is one of them.
2. Natalie MacLean: Rendering 2nd most influential on my list of women involved with wine may come as a surprise to some readers. MacLean’s wine writing is fluffy, light and approachable. She has written two books and has, on numerous occasions, been nominated or voted as the world’s best wine writer. Although impressive, in my opinion, MacLean’s true merit is her devotion to social media. She has a brand, a goal and she has stretched that across a variety of online platforms, thus projecting a comprehensive online voice for her product (herself). She is a woman who loves wine, knows wine and also knows how to work the digital age to her advantage.
3. Heidi Peterson Barrett: Another surprise as she comes in 3rd on my list, Barrett’s claim to fame is her undeniable knack for creating some of California’s greatest cult wines. Cult wines, such as Screaming Eagle, garner dedicated groups of wine enthusiasts who will pay premium prices to get their hands on a bottle of “cult wine”. Whether I’m a cult wine enthusiast or I just appreciate her influence in wine marketing, Barrett is a woman who has her entire hand on the pulse of wine making.
4. Zelma Long: Long has worked for years as a winemaker’s consultant. Throughout the 70’s Long was Robert Mondavi’s head enologist and then re-branded Simi winery, later becoming its CEO. She’s consulted for wineries in Washington, Oregon, Israel, France, Argentina and Italy. Aside from consulting for multiple wineries, she’s also the winemaking partner of Vilafonte in South Africa and owner/winemaker of her own company, Long Vineyards, in Napa, California.
5. Karen MacNeil: In fifth place is another female wine writer, and someone who took the bull by the horns in a time that female + wine writer = confusion. MacNeil is the author of The Wine Bible, Emmy winning host of PBS series Food, Wine and Friends and founder of Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America. When asked about her begginings as a wine writer, MacNeil replied,
“This is an exciting time for wine. When I started writing about wine, I was the only woman doing it. Every tasting was for the 10 men in America who controlled wine writing… The landscape has changed tremendously in the last thirty-five years. In 1972, I was assigned by a magazine to write a story on Cava. I flew to Barcelona after being in touch by mail with the winery I was to visit. When I arrived at the airport, it seemed that no one was there to pick me up. I spoke no Spanish at the time. I waited for four hours. Eventually, I went up to two men and asked something about getting to the winery. With a look of shock they hollered, “You’re the wine writer from America!” It was inconceivable to them that the wine writer from America would be a woman.”
It’s 35 years later, and as a woman I still grapple with the gender of wine. With such amazing women making their mark in the world of wine, it is hard to ignore the rise of female wine enthusiasts. On the other hand, the male passion may be something slightly more difficult to harness. Or could it just be that wine, in its many forms, has been and will always be gender neutral?