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.


  1. Quite so David. Château Margaux is often cited as the paradigm of “feminine” wine.
    What does that mean?
    On the other hand, sales figures in supermarkets tend to indicate it is more and more frequently a woman who buys the wine for the family, at least in that type of outlet.
    Not very encouraging, if you ask me.

  2. Meant to drop you a line previous to now mate. Cool post re the Girl Power debate, I side with you on all bar one point. I'm guilty of describing more elegant, structured wines, especially reds, as having a 'feminine' nature as opposed to wines that are often brutal in tannin, oak and alcohol, and thereby, of a more 'masculine' style. Often when comparing cooler climate wines to those from the Barossa, Clare, McLaren Vale, Napa, Sonoma, Southern Rhone, Sicily and the like.

    I think Mr Charlier hit a valid point with the reference to Margaux, relative to the other 'Big Four' it has in more recent times displayed a prettiness, a brightness of fruit that in some vintages, to my moderately familiar palate, imbues it with an almost [I say this with the best possible inference] feminine 'New World' quality. I would also generally describe Ruinart as being a more feminine House relative to perhaps Bollinger . . . . if you dig my drift, man. Te he he.

    As for the 'more chicks in wine' caper . . . without appearing in any way sexist, everyone on their own merits, not just for the sake of balancing up the numbers. I don't believe for one moment that the 'feminine palate' is capable of discerning any element of a wine above and beyond that of a bloke. This bullshit argument presents itself in all manner of professional pursuits these days and I, not unlike yourself, believe it's a feminist furphy put about by bitter and twisted old school diehards who still consider burning bras a worthwhile pursuit.

    A quicky on the Ra Ra mate, my beloved Reds are still playing some pretty dismal footy, as witnessed against the Rebels on the weekend. They had us at sixes and sevens until the final fifteen minutes and actually played some seriously decent rugby given their position on the table. Disappointing really.

    Finally, I suspect your pick of the Leek Eaters as potential champions is bang on the money, however, as you so clearly pointed out, the French have proven time and time again that to rule them out is to be undertaken with extreme risk of being force fed copious amounts of garlic infused humble pie. Either way, I'll be watching the game on cable from go to whoa.

    Enjoy your week David, dig your stuff as always, best wishes,