“Do Wines Make Women Giggly?” On Sexism in Wine Culture
Meg Bernhard Looks at a Long and Problematic Tradition
In April of 2018, I took a train to Barcelona to help my friend Carmen present her wines at a fair held in the city’s regal maritime museum. We set up her table in the sunlit event room and placed bottles of red wine on ice so they wouldn’t overheat. She gave me a speech to remember:
We’re based in Toledo, a 14-hectare vineyard with Graciano and Tempranillo, soil is clay and limestone. Five hundred meters altitude, extreme climate, little precipitation.
When the fair began sommeliers, importers, distributors, and restaurant owners streamed into the space clutching glasses. Carmen was friendly and informative, and I was happy to stand next to her silently and absorb her expertise, but after a few hours, she had to drive back to Toledo, more than four hundred miles away. “Defend the wine,” Carmen told me, and I was alone.
A wide spectrum of men came to taste Carmen’s wine that afternoon. I met a giddy sommelier-in-training who raised his wine glass above his head, rather theatrically, to comment on the depth and nuances of the wine’s color. I met a flannel-wearing man who turned to his wife and repeated everything I said, as though his words made more sense or his wife didn’t understand.
I met men in business attire who spit out their wine after tasting; a backpacked tourist dad with three children in tow; a man in a white tank top who held his glass aggressively, with a clenched fist; several slim, bespectacled men quietly taking notes on the soil’s characteristics; and tan winemakers, parched and bored from repeating the same talking points to hundreds of tasters. Every so often, they slinked over to my table to drink a little for themselves.
I was pouring too much wine into people’s glasses, I learned, when a shocked woman shouted, “That is quite enough!” One man approached the table, and, looking from my face to the winery’s name—Uva de Vida—said, “You’re not from here, are you?” to which I replied in my accented Spanish, “What made you guess?”
When I asked another man if he’d like to try Carmen’s wine, he eyed her bottles, crossed his arms, and frowned like a toad. “Convince me,” he said. I poured. He took a sip, then walked away with no further comment.
In the evening, a man who seemed to be in his late fifties approached my table. His unbrushed gray hair stuck to the sweat on his forehead. He wore a wrinkled polo shirt tucked into khakis over a sagging beer belly and donned a watch on his wrist but checked the time with his cellphone. He did not take notes, nor did he raise his glass toward the overhead lights.
I offered him my memorized speech, with the caveat that I was not the winemaker. He sipped, cringed, and sweated. His face grew red. Carmen’s wines were high in alcohol and best suited for a dinner of stew in the wintertime; though I loved drinking them, they were less appealing in hot, stuffy rooms.“I know Graciano,” the man said. “When the Graciano is done well, it is acidic and fresh. This wine … It can’t be saved. It just can’t be saved.”
I wondered if Carmen would be ashamed of me. I was not heeding her command to defend the wine. The man asked about maceration with grape skins. He asked about the level of volatility. He asked about the grams of residual sugars. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know.”
Acidity, residual sugar—knowing these things feels powerful. So does knowing about the land, about its rocks and soil, its wind patterns, its slopes. They’re two different but related epistemologies of wine: the structural and the ecological, the first primarily stemming from cellar work and the second from vineyard work. In the social world of wine drinking, the pursuit of that first set of knowledge has spawned a culture of performativity, one that often suggests certain people are more authoritative than others.
Years after the wine fair in Barcelona, I read, in the special collections room of the University of California, Davis library, a headline in the Chicago Tribune: “Do Wines Make Women Giggly?” The writer, Ruth Ellen Church, was an approachable yet incisive critic and the first person to pen a wine column in a major American newspaper.
In her column “Let’s Learn About Wines,” she aimed to demystify the drink for her readers, suggesting pairings for Thanksgiving, explaining different wine styles, and recounting tales of casual sexism in the industry. This particular piece, from 1965, began with an anecdote about a “member of several gastronomical societies” who claimed dining clubs wouldn’t open their membership to women because they ‘don’t know how to drink wine. They take too much and get giggly.’” In another piece, Church wrote that wine “has always been man’s exclusive field of scholarship and enjoyment. If a woman appreciated wine, it was usually because her husband or lover permitted her a glass while serving as an audience for his philosophical discussions of what was in it.”
Church was writing more than half a century ago, but these stories of doubt cast on women’s expertise resonate today. When Esther Mobley was offered the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic job in 2015, Charles Olken, a wine reviewer in Northern California, expressed skepticism. “There is a raft of others out there who could have also brought the wisdom of experience to the job,” he wrote in a post on his website. “Miss Mobley does not.”
By the time she started working at the Chronicle, Mobley had been an assistant editor at Wine Spectator, a major wine magazine, and had worked harvests in North and South America. (Olken, meanwhile, spelled her name incorrectly and had gotten her age wrong.)
In 2021, Kryss Speegle, a San Francisco Bay Area-based winemaker and sales professional, was named a Master of Wine, one of the industry’s most prestigious titles, after passing a rigorous theory and tasting examination. A previous job had her working and giving tours at a winery in Northern California. During a tour, a man in the group asked,“Do the winemakers let you taste the wines?” He then asked to speak with a winemaker. When Speegle responded that she was one of the winemakers, he was clearly surprised.
In her twenty years working in the industry, Speegle has also noticed how wine professionals tend to patronize certain customers for their presumed tastes. People who drink sweet wines are often considered “bottom shelf consumers,” as are people who drink wine with Coca Cola, Speegle said.
It’s a reductive stereotype, meanwhile, to assume women only like light or sweet white wines, and that men like complex, heavy, oaky reds—stereotypes often found in wine tasting notes, too.
In his 2012 book The Juice: Vinous Veritas, writer Jay McInerney described one wine as “a youthful and powerful beauty like Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil,” and a different wine as “more voluptuous and decadent, with a honeyed quality that put me in mind of Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa.”
In another part of the book, he wrote that some Australians refer to certain shiraz wines as “leg spreaders,” letting the crude language speak for itself. “However, given the sheer size and power of these behemoths,” he continued, “stereotypically masculine metaphors seem more appropriate to me; high-octane potions like Kaesler’s Old Bastard Shiraz remind me more of a muscle car like a Dodge Charger or a Viper than of a starlet, more of Russell Crowe than Naomi Watts.”
Taste is not innate, nor is it sacred. It’s learned, based on our sensory experiences—the food we ate growing up, and the drinks we try as adults. “No one comes out of the womb drinking wine,” Speegle told me.
As anthropologist Sidney Mintz wrote in Sweetness and Power, taste is bound up in class dynamics; to have “good taste” is often a signifier of wealth, and once a certain commodity becomes accessible to lower classes—as is the case with sugar, Mintz’s focus—it loses its exclusionary power. Once the rich can no longer distinguish themselves from the poor based on what they consume, they consume something else.
Wine, by Meg Bernhard, is available now from Bloomsbury.