10 Mar 2012

Women in Wine

I guess it is appropriate to slot this one in here soon after (March 8th) what is known as International Women's day took place.

In a western world that tends get a little over-obsessed with equality (can everybody really be "equal"?), but coming from a much longer period during which men seem to have dominated almost all professions to a totally absurd extent, the slow acceptance of women as being men’s equals in many fields is clearly on the way. The world of wine is no exception to this tendency, even if we are yet some way off achieving full equality here!

look closely...yes, Schwarzy is holding a glass of wine!

A statistic caught my eye the other day. It would appear that 27% of wine estates in France are now managed by women. This figure may seem quite low to some, but one has to remember where we are coming from. About 20 years ago, the figure was half of that. If the trends continues, another 20 years will see equality and more!

If one goes back another generation or two, in many wine-growing areas of France it was considered to be dangerous for the wine to allow a woman into the cellar during her menstrual period, as the wine might “turn”! Such stupid superstitions are thankfully disappearing fast. They did not obtain in every traditional region however. For example, I can remember Claude Papin, of Château Pierre Bise (who makes superb wines from the Anjou, Savennières and Layon appellations) telling me that it was his grandmother who used to carry out many of the key wine-making activities back in his grandparents time, simply because his father, who was a part-time boatman ferrying goods on the river Loire, was not at home for long periods and so there was no other solution: when the wine needed to be de-vatted, his grandmother handled the process. The first world war also boosted the arrival of women in various aspects of wine production, in France for example, simply because the majority of able-bodied men had been killed in the trenches.

And women certainly found their way into cellars as well

But what has placed women firmly into the management and scientific echelons of wine production and selling has been higher education. An increasing proportion of graduates from agricultural and oenological university programmes are now women, and quite often they are majors in their particular graduate years. I was speaking to a student at the Faculty of Oenology in Bordeaux this week and he told me that there were currently more female than male students in the current promotion.

Whilst the profession of sommelier remains very much male dominated, probably on account of its working hours that make things very difficult for married women, that of journalism, for example, welcomes more and more women.  Based in Great Britain, but applicable anywhere in the world, the very arduous Masters of Wine examination, which includes a written thesis as well as examinations and tasting tests, has a rising proportion of women amongst its elite members: they are currently 87 out of a total to date of 299.

Jayne Boyce MW

In order to boost the proportion of women holding jobs and credibility in the world of wine, various “positive action” initiatives have been created in recent years. Amongst these, the international Wine Women Awards, held every two years in France, or a couple of wine competitions for which all the tasters must be women are examples. In as far as this encourages more women to come to the fore and acquire self-confidence in tasting, talking and writing about wine these are good things.

On the other hand, those worn-out theories that are regularly bandied about in various magazines about “feminine” wines or “ a woman’s taste in wine” are of no help whatsoever in improving women’s’ place in the world of wine! In fact just the opposite, since they apparently consider taste to be sexually determined in some way, which it is not. For a specialist wine magazine for which I write regularly, we recently tried an experiment, giving identical sets of wines to male and female juries who were isolated from each other. There was no specifically “male” or “female” style of wine that emerged from this. Tannic wines are usually considered to be "masculine", yet the most tannic wine in one of the series was the one preferred by the female group, whilst the male group did not rate it highly!

So we can cut the crap about "feminine " wines, or "feminine" taste, and just let the ladies who want to get into all aspects of wine on their own merits.