I've long been perturbed by the use of gender-focused adjectives to describe wines. It's 2020, people. Seriously?
As wine professionals, I understand that it is our job to convey what we are tasting to the consumer, whether in an on-premise or off-premise environment. However, I continually find myself stunned when I hear the words "masculine" and "feminine" used. Are we really that incapable of finding any other adjectives to describe what we’re tasting on our palates? What does that say about us as professionals? And don't even get me started on what that has to say about our vocabularies.
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Moreover, what do gender-specific adjectives even mean? Assuming we're going by societal context, we're basically implying that "feminine" wines are soft, elegant, and delicate, and that "maculine" wines are powerful, muscular, and robust. If this is indeed the case (and, again, I'm not supportive of societally-created gender norms), then why not just use the other adjectives I just used instead? I've easily listed six without any hesitation – and there are certainly so many more that can apply.
As someone who is based between the States (New York) and Europe (Paris), I’ve found that these descriptors are much more prevalent in the Old World, particularly in France. (Perhaps it is contrary to make such an overarching statement, but whatever, it's my personal experience.) However, I'm still constantly floored at how often these words are thrown around at trade tastings, wine dinners, and even in published media – yes, people are still willing to write tasting notes using these ridiculous descriptors and attach their byline to it. Again, it's 2020, people.
I recently began wondering if my inner curmudgeon was getting the best of me, so I asked six of my colleagues/friends to elaborate their feelings on the descriptors. I interviewed three men and three women, based across two countries and four different US states. Here’s what I got.
"I think that the masculine and feminine terms are a bit archaic and our industry should evolve past this," says Victoria James, beverage director and partner at Michelin-starred Cote. "It limits innovation and imagination, and many use it as a crutch when there are better descriptors out there." Again, I came up with six in a matter of less than 10 seconds. Perhaps we can collectively compile a list for our less-imaginative colleagues to choose from?
My LA-based friend Matt Kaner of Bar Covell, AM/FM Wines, Solovin Wine Club, and Will Travel For Wine Consulting admits to having used the terms in the past, though has since reformed his language (bravo, sir).
"Years back, I wouldn't hesitate to use the terms masculine and feminine because I found that regardless of the person I was speaking to, they had some sort of understanding of what those terms meant to them," he says. However, times have (thankfully) changed. "In recent years, I've reflected on how my language is perceived, but also where it comes from – who I learn from, what values and ideals am I portraying in the words I'm using, etc. So when we bring gender into it, especially nowadays, you must be aware that these terms do not have the same meaning for all." My point exactly.
Wine writing colleague Julia Coney agrees – and she brings her personal preference to the table in her analogy.
"I think the terms masculine and feminine are an outdated way to describe wines. When I first started drinking wines people described a lot of Napa Valley Cabernet as big and masculine, but I'm a woman and enjoyed them too," she says. Coney notes that plenty of other wine-focused stereotypes defy "gender norms" (why these exist in the world of a beverage that is meant to be pleasurable, I have no idea, but I digress), such as the fact that tons of men enjoy rosé and plenty of women love bold Cabernets.
"[These terms have] become offputting to me," says Coney. "Every time I read the terms now, I cringe. I stopped putting gender-leaning terms in wine writing a long time ago." Let's hope more people follow suit.
"Masculine vs. feminine: I hate it, but I use it," reveals my buddy Jeff Harding, beverage director at NYC-based Waverly Inn. "It oversimplifies gender into black and white and doesn't allow for shades of gray, and probably insults a lot of people." (Yes, it does.)
"However, when discussing a wine at a table for example, you have to be fairly brief and oversimplify, and this is a thing that everybody understands." says Harding. I agree, but there are so many other alternatives, no?
"I do think we need to steer away from it and start using more nuanced terms: softer/more aggressive tannins, more subtle and nuanced vs. in-your-face aromas," says Harding. "I think people lump these terms into masculine/feminine, but when you just look at a trait, you realize how you can't say aggressive or subtle a 'male' or 'female' trait is." Again, I agree. So let's just lose it.
Richard Betts first took his Master Sommelier exam in 1997, passed it in 2003, and recently resigned from the organization (that’s a whole 'nother story, but definitely worth a read). He notes that when he was first getting into wine and reading about it frequently, these terms were often used to describe wines. Therefore, as a student, they naturally became a part of his vernacular. "However, I've reconsidered this and today do not use these terms for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are offensive," he says.
"We all need to be thoughtful and deliberate about the words we choose, as they can both empower and do great damage," Betts continues. "To call a wine masculine or feminine is to subscribe to an old idea of the world (and a binary one at that) which does not provide for the huge range of wonderful humanity. It is with this in mind that I strive to never use these words." Mic drop. Thank you.
Perhaps the most surprising response was from my friend Carrie Lyn Strong, who told me she wasn't particularly offended by these terms. "I don't personally have an issue with these descriptions. As a sommelier, it is our job to translate using words that people understand. When someone uses these terms, I understand the implication and get a sense of how the wine will taste according to my understanding of said words," she explains. Yes, I get it. Wine is hard. It is our job to make wine accessible. But again… are these the only terms we can come up with?
Thankfully, Strong pulled through with the big O (twice). "However, as a human, I can understand why stereotypes can be offensive and feel that language should change over time to reflect emotional growth in society," she says. Strong notes that over the past several years, she has practiced using descriptive words that are objective, as it is important to steer away from outdated, subjective, and potentially offensive language.
Think I’m being a bit overdramatic? I challenge you to think about it in a different but similar context. Would you ever describe a wine using a race-based, sexual orientation-focused, or age-based (cellaring context aside) adjective?
Next time you're tempted to use a gender-focused tasting descriptor, think about how you would react if someone characterized a wine as "white/Black", "gay", or "elderly" on the palate. If you'd find any of these terms offensive, then imagine how some of us men and women feel.
Next time a winemaker, tasting room employee, or sommelier uses a gender-focused descriptor, feel free to check them. Or send them my way.