“Feminine” wine: Why are we still having this conversation?

I’d thought that “masculine” and “feminine” wines were on their way out. Or, rather, I’d thought that the use of gendered stereotypes to connote particular wine styles was on its way out. One small sign that my hopes were premature: Wine Enthusiast’s online feature on “Top Wine Terms Defined” not only includes “feminine” but asks me not to “automatically bristle at this gendered wine term.” Okay. Tell me why. Unsurprisingly, their reasons are unconvincing and point back to why we shouldn’t be using this term in the first place.

The article praises the term for being easy to understand and quotes a beverage director to the effect that feminine wines share a woman’s “best qualities,” being “light, refined, and delicate.” So, I’m being asked not to bristle because, first, everyone knows the female stereotype of womanly refinement and, second, because it’s implied that we’re paying women a favor, referring to their best qualities. After all, “feminine” wines aren’t moody, flighty, or hysterical, equally stereotypical but negative characteristics associated with women. Nope. I’m bristling.

We’re being invited to agree that women are supposed to be — or at least that the best women are — gentle, fair, and fragile. I don’t need to belabour the point. Women can and should be praised for being a lot more than that: strong, intelligent, capable, funny, and any other praiseworthy characteristic we appreciate in people. Heck, we have plenty of television ads of women getting muddy playing sports or brokering business deals but — stereotypically — at least some part of the wine community is being backward. It would be funny if it wasn’t damaging first. Asking to be mollified by the idea of being paid a compliment just makes it worse.

Men aren’t treated well by the gendered wine phenomenon, either; stereotypes of big, burly, strong, rich masculinity put them in a box just as much as do the female stereotypes for women. Suggesting so is hardly new. Steve Heimoff’s blog hosted a promising debate over his reference to the feminine aesthetic in winemaking last year, for example. Nonetheless, Googling “feminine wine” suggests that the term remains reasonably common. Backwardly.

What’s the problem? The short answer: stereotyping is bad. One better: stereotyping is bad because it limits individual’s identities in terms of who they feel they can be and in terms of who other people allow them to be, because it let’s us treat others as something less than human — because when we label them with a stereotype we apply and expect the contents of that category to how we see them and stop seeing them in their fullness as people — because we make categories and then fill them. Ideas don’t exist out there on their own. We construct them. And so every time someone uses the term “feminine wine,” they help build the cultural phenomenon of the associated stereotype. In a small way, sure, but large ideas are built of small instances. Castles and bricks.

I’d like to hand the editor of Wine Enthusiast some Michael Foucault (or Judith Butler, or pretty much any other late-2oth c. critical theorist). Instead, I guess I’ll just rail a bit and embody the outraged middle-aged woman. You know the type.

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10 thoughts on ““Feminine” wine: Why are we still having this conversation?

  1. I believe the remaining options are to agree with you, or to start defining wine using racial and religious stereotypes as well (those are “easy to understand” too, right?) — this is really well done. I hope you won’t mind if we ask other people to read it. Great stuff.

    • An excellent point: if we’re going to call wines masculine or feminine, we might as well be calling them caucasian or hispanic, and we’d certainly never tolerate the latter. Indeed!

      • But we do use ethnic stereotypes, usefully and in a non-derogatory way, to describe aromas and flavors and colors and design aesthetics. They just aren’t particularly useful for describing wine.

        eg. -This dish has hispanic flavors.

        -The architecture is decidedly japanese as opposed to western.

        -This teacup is very chinese as opposed to english.

        Is it wrong to describe an aroma as feminine as opposed to masculine? My societal/cultural gender cues and experience have molded me to distinguish between ladies perfume and men’s cologne. Am I subconsciously debasing women for associating rose pedals, jasmine, and lilac aromas as feminine and tobacco, diesel fuel, coffee as masculine? Stereotypes can convey a lot with so little, and are thus cognitively easy and useful, and I think can be used without malice.

        Interesting topic.

      • Chris, I’d argue that the three examples you cite are all instances of something very different: description not by racial stereotype, but by reference to a specific cultural phenomenon, to a style or fashion of sorts. It would, similarly, not be derogatory for me to say that a particular piece of music reminded me of a dapper turn-of-the-20th-c (male) dandy, because I’m referencing a particular cultural phenomenon, an archetype rather than a stereotype.

        Funny that you mention the perfume/cologne example. I actually often use the perfume/cologne question as an example of cultural stereotyping. Why should women smell like flowers and men like musk? I can’t stand women’s perfume as a rule, but have been known to wear men’s fragrances (and like a good many of them). And there are certainly serious, tobacco-and-musk fragrances for women. I’d point to the higher prevalence of such “transgressive” women’s fragrances over similarly transgressive male fragrances — colognes with flower and fruit notes — as more evidence that we as a society are a lot more comfortable with women taking on male roles and fashions than with men taking on female roles and fashions.

        Stereotypes are useful — they’re mental short-cuts that allow us to skip some of the work of actually thinking about people — but they’re dangerous for exactly the same reason.

  2. Some of my French producers still refer to feminine wine on the English versions of their websites. I’ve tried to get them to cut it out but it seems entrenched with them at least for now. I wrote a post a month or so ago about how much of the wine jargon we use has feminine connotations and that this was making people think it was pretentious — even though sports jargon can be just as off-putting (http://firstvine.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/why-is-wine-jargon-pretentious-but-sports-jargon-isnt/). Only one commenter picked up on the feminine/masculine divide, so I’m really glad you’ve spoken up about it.

    • Tom, I tend to feel a lot more lenient towards other cultures’ jargons just because I know I don’t understand them and therefore can’t criticize them without potentially misunderstanding (and being misunderstood) as an outsider. That said, when contemporary critical theory (including plenty of gender theory) came largely out of France… On a different note, the book you reviewed lost me on point one, if it’s for you “if you drink wine but don’t think wine.” What’s the point in doing anything if you don’t think about it?

      • I should have said that they ask me for advice on their English-version websites in order to make them more appealing to Americans. Despite my recommendations, they leave the “feminine” in.

  3. As humans, we like to pull %#$@ apart, relying on reductionism to break things down into their constituent parts. Attaching emotional context to wines is just another lexicon beyond the often rolled-out cavalcade of fruit salad descriptions & the usual structural definitions. I have no problem with attaching gender specific traits to a wine….have you really got that P.C. that this causes offence? I often describe certain wines as ‘calm’ or ‘composed’….can I expect a backlash from up-tight people?….. wine-rage even?

    • Dave, you’re right that we rely on reductionism, and to some extent doing so is necessary and inevitable when dealing with the complexity of the world. But we need to be aware of — and yes, I’d even say vigilant about — how the simplifications upon which we rely control and shape what we see. That means constantly reevaluating and revising our reductions when they no longer work. I’m arguing that this simplification — this way of seeing both women and wine — doesn’t work, and prevents us from seeing both. I’m not actually offended by “feminine” wine, but I do think that it’s both harmful and stupid. By suggesting that people who care about such things are likely to “rage” at you, I’d say that you’re just perpetuating one more not-useful reduction.

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