The Boston Phoenix
February 17 - 24, 2000


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Wine & women

Mars and Venus in the glass

by David Marglin

At the Boston Wine Expo last weekend, the featured guest and star of the show was the English writer and Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, one of the world's best-known wine journalists. Robinson is a rarity in the wine world, not for being an influential wine writer, or for having edited several books, but for something much simpler: she's a woman, one of just a few among a predominantly male wine elite.

After one of her lively seminars at the Expo (it was titled "Aging Fine Wine"), I caught up with Robinson and we talked, quite candidly, about the impact women have been having recently on the wine world -- and about the glass ceiling that almost all women in the wine business around the world eventually encounter.

She made it clear at the outset that although she could easily "natter on" about women and wine, gender isn't an issue she spends much time dwelling on. She seemed bemused when a woman approached her to ask whether she wore any special lipstick so as not to leave a mark on the glass. (Robinson replied politely that she did not, nor did she know of any such lipstick.) But she acknowledged that gender is, in both subtle and direct ways, a serious issue in the wine industry. Around the world it is mostly men who control the business of making and selling wine, and male-only tradition can run deep. She recalled being struck when Decanter, the leading British wine publication, bestowed upon her its highest honor: "Man of the Year."

But change seems to be on the way. "In journalism, in Britain, it's becoming 50-50," Robinson says, and she agrees that women have made great strides in the wine industry. Two of California's superstar winemakers are women -- Heidi Peterson Barrett and Helen Turley -- as is Sotheby's top wine auctioneer, Serena Sutcliffe. And are ever-increasing numbers of women are selling wines. There are prominent women sommeliers (including at least two in Boston: Cat Silirie at No. 9 Park and Alicia Townes at Grill 23).

The interesting question, of course, is what this means for the future of wine. On the surface, a gender shift in the wine world shouldn't mean much. Wine is an equal-opportunity drink, and a good wine is a good wine, right?

Well, maybe. Among people who spend a lot of time tasting wine -- Robinson says she's noticed this too -- there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that women have more-sensitive palates than men. Women also tend to have more-open attitudes when they taste wines, and to approach the whole process with fewer prejudices. Expert women, as a rule, usually are more receptive to less established varietals, and they aren't as likely to be hypnotized by the massive, powerful, high-alcohol monsters favored by many male experts (Robert Parker et al.).

Women are less concerned, Robinson hypothesizes, with wine as a symbol of "status": they want to drink wine they really like, as opposed to wine they think will impress other people. Women experts, she says, generally tend to be more relaxed about wine, and more independent-minded when voicing opinions (as opposed to men, whom she often sees trying to gauge others' reactions before they assert their own views).

Generalizations can be dangerous, but it's a safe bet that as more women start to throw their weight around -- both as consumers and within the industry -- we can expect a broadening in the wine world. The hegemony of cabernet and merlot and chardonnay may eventually give way to less status-obsessed lists of gamays, rieslings, vernaccias, and various members of the pinot family. We could also see an increase in the sales of white wines -- not because white is a ladies' wine, but because, as Robinson puts it, men tend to cling to the notion that "white wine is for sissies."

Of course, not all the changes will be for the better. Robinson posits one final sign of wine-world gender equality: we'll know it's happened, she says, when one encounters as many female wine bores as male.

This week, all our recommended wines are made by women.

1997 Vega Sindoa Bodegas Nekeas Cabernet Sauvignon-Tempranillo Navarra ($7.99). It always astonishes me what excellent Spanish table wine you can buy for such a low price. Sure, it's a touch sharp and a tad volatile, but the more you drink it, the better it tastes, and wow does it pair well with red meat. A pleasant currant finish.

1996 Vega Sindoa Bodegas Nekeas Merlot Navarra ($8.99). Very approachable, like many merlots. Lots of fruit, little depth, but round and harmonious. Not as ripe as most California merlots, but still, lots of black currant and a hint of leafy greens.

1998 Chateau de Flaugergues Languedoc La Melanelle ($9.99). Made from roussanne and viognier, among other grapes. Very floral, with soft fruit notes up front. A delicate wine, with just a little kick. This will match nicely with big-flavored fish such as salmon or monkfish.

1998 Teroldego Rotaliano Foradori ($14.99). As I said when tasting an earlier vintage, this wine is not for the faint of tongue. It is a bold bastard, very deep and complex but sharp as nails. Best served with a touch of chill on it. Some anise, some blackberry, and lots of spiciness. This should pair well with hearty dishes: ragouts, stews, and cassoulets.

1997 Clos du Bois Merlot Sonoma ($14.99). Normally I stay away from mass-marketed wines, but this one is worth checking out. Ninety-seven was such a good year that even the big producers made rewarding wines, and this one is no exception. Easy drinking, wears its fruit on its sleeve. A touch of butter, gobs of black fruit scattered about willy-nilly. A big merlot, to be taken seriously.

1998 Domaine Weinbach Riesling Colette Faller et ses Filles Réserve Personelle Alsace ($23.99). As it says on the label, Mme. Faller and her daughters make this exceptional Alsatian riesling. Apple and pear, with a dab of butternut squash. Not sweet, really, but clean, refreshing, nicely balanced, and amazingly approachable at this tender age.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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