A Schooling in Wine Writing And Gender

genderI’ve heard it said that where winemaking is concerned, women may have an advantage either because they may have a more acute palate or because they are more natural nurturers. I don’t know. It’s an intriguing and not altogether outlandish set of ideas.

However, I’m wondering if there is such a substantial difference between male wine writers and female wine writers that it is important that we read, listen to, or observe or both in order to get a full rendering of what it means to be a good writer?

This is what occurred to me as I read these two criticisms about a specific panel at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference

“First of all, I couldn’t help but notice the complete lack of diversity when assessing the panel members.  Though the panel was moderated by an awesome woman, the actual panel consisted of just three older, white, men who are traditional print journalists…. Okay.  But, they were speaking to an audience of wine bloggers. Many of whom were women.   Many were younger.  And several of whom were not Caucasian.”
MARY CRESSLER, Vindulge Blog

“Despite blogger participant diversity, the WBC seminars and keynote speakers continue to feature grand-fatherly white male traditional print writers as the only “true experts” to whom we should aspire.”
AMY CORRON POWER, Another Wine Blog

These are two fine writers and bloggers, but it is interesting to me that if I did not know they were women and if they did not hint at it, I would probably be unable to come to that conclusion by reading their writings on wine. But maybe that’s a problem with my own powers of perception.

So, I wonder what it is about maleness that makes them somewhat unsuited to offer observations about writing and blogging to women bloggers? Or maybe it’s a case of women having such a unique perspective from men that it is necessary to pair women with men on any panel that hopes to offer a complete or near complete perspective on the topic of writing and wine blogging.

Then there is this question: If you had a Caucasian woman, an Hispanic male, a black man and a woman of Chinese dissent, all from the same general economic class and all from Topeka Kansas on a panel to discuss the quality and character of the 2000 Chateau Haut Brion, would you get four unique perspectives because the four participants were a Caucasian woman, an Hispanic male, a black man and a woman from of Chinese descent?

Here’s an interesting experiment: Have these four wine writers each pen a review of the 2000 Chateau Haut Brion then everyone else try to guess which person wrote which review.

Or maybe the issue is one of fairness, simple fairness; proportionality if you will. If that’s the issue, then that I understand, even if I don’t agree. However, If proportionality is to be the goal, then it would make sense to not only take stock of the proportion of men to women in the audience before composing a panel at a wine bloggers conference, but also the proportion of gays to straights, and of the different ethnicities in the room. I think we’re going to need a bigger panel.

I suppose the two complaints noted above as well as from others could come down to some adult women in the audience being able to find more inspiration by looking at people on a panel who look somewhat similar to themselves. If this were the case I’d not hold it against them. I just don’t understand it. At past Wine Bloggers Conferences I’ve found tremendous inspiration by listening to and watching Lettie Teague and Jancis Robinson. And I’m a male.

Still, I come back to this question: Is there such a substantial difference between male wine writers and female wine writers that it is important that we read, listen to or observe both in order to get a full rendering of what it means to be a good writer?

I’m willing to be schooled on this question by considered thoughts and ideas. I’m willing to be convinced that as a male, I need to be exposed to male writers and male publicists in order to be properly inspired. I’m willing to be convinced that in order to be a better writer, I need to be exposed to insights that are unique to women and inaccessible to men.

21 Responses

  1. Carl Giavanti Consulting - July 24, 2014

    Tom, thanks for taking this on. The panelists in question were a product of their times after all, as some of them started writing 40-50 years ago. Given the context of modern day “wine writers” conferences, their comments about quality writing and relationship integrity still rang true for me and I expect many others in the audience.

  2. Thomas Pellechia - July 24, 2014

    A good mind housed in any type of body in any race remains a good mind. It’s the same with talent. Not saying this is the case with your example, but it seems to me that focusing on the package first and the contents second–or not at all–might spell out some other agenda in play.

  3. Charlie Olken - July 24, 2014

    1. Political correctness
    2. Fairness
    3. Looking for new voices rather than listening to my buddy Steve Heimoff again–or maybe just in addition to.
    4. Who knows the answer to your question about 2000 Haut Brion until you run the experiment
    5. What’s the harm in increasing the participation of folks who may be younger, female and from more diverse backgrounds but do not sound different from “old white men”, of which I am one.

    Nothing wrong with old white men, of course. We have paid our dues. Some of us even have knowledge. And some of us know how to apply that knowledge. Listening to us does have its usefulness.

  4. Sasha Smith - July 24, 2014

    The thought experiment you mention above, while interesting, doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. (Though I do know a Filipina sommelier who, when she moved to the US, initially struggled with “blueberry/cherry/strawberry” as descriptors, given that these fruits weren’t standard fare back in Manila. She could sniff guava a mile away, however.) The issues are more subtle and pervasive. MW Liz Thach has research showing that men are drawn more to Parker scores than women are. Women tend to consume wine in more of a social context with friends. Women and men metabolize alcohol differently. Yale researcher Linda Bartoshuk has found that 35% of women, and 15% of men, are supertasters – so I think we can upgrade “not altogether outlandish ideas”, as you state above, to “pretty likely.” I’m guessing that none of the gentlemen on the panel could answer questions like “how do you handle interviewing a winemaker who’s trying to hit on you?” Many people in the wine service profession — somms, tasting room staff and the like — are going to assume very different things about a 28 year old female guest vs. a 48 year old male one, and will provide them with different experiences. I haven’t done scientific research on the matter, anecdotally women writers are less apt to use the extremely unhelpful “masculine/feminine” descriptors in their work. Sometimes these differences may not show up in the writing at all, sometimes they may have a subtle influence…and then there’s this. http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2014/06/26/why-do-women-drink-more-wine-than-men/ One can’t help but feel that the takeway from Heimoff’s piece is “isn’t it a shame that more guys aren’t drinking wine” instead of, say, “how do we get even more women to drink wine?”

  5. Mary Cressler - July 24, 2014

    Hi Tom,
    Thanks for including my comment. Though it was my initial observation that the panelists were older, white, men, my main frustration of the seminar (and the bulk of my post) was not with the demographic of the panelists, but their message to the audience.

    I can’t prove that men and women write differently, but I know there are many ways to write successfully for print. I know this because I read a lot of print. Those three panelists, to me, represented only one way — an old-school journalistic way. There are multiple ways to reach an audience in this day and age (in print and online).

    One of my main points was that the three turned their nose at the use of the word “perfect” to describe a wine. This past weekend (several days after I wrote my piece) I received the most recent issue of Wine & Food (print magazine) that had an article on rosé. The author of the piece (who happened to be a woman) described a wine as “Perfect for drinking on the front stoop.” (The article is on page 74 for quick reference)

    Now, I would have loved if Ray Isle (a white man, and executive wine editor of F&W magazine) were on that panel (in addition to the other three panelists), giving a different perspective on print writing because I have a feeling he would have offered something different in the way of advice.

    My issue is not as much with gender, or race, but with perspective and context. Though they were there representing print writers, I can think of several other print writers who could have offered something different, and perhaps inspiring, rather than the same feedback thing offered by the three panelists.

    Now let’s talk about that 2000 Chateau Haut Brion. I’d be more than happy to review that representing the perspective of a half-Mexican/half-Caucasian woman 😉

    • Mary Cressler - July 24, 2014

      Sorry. Meant to say “Food & Wine” magazine, not “Wine & Food”.
      My editor wasn’t available to proofread my comment 😉

  6. Becca @ The Academic Wino - July 24, 2014

    In order for there to be *true* equality, I think it’s important to not over stress the distinction between the man and the woman. I’m not a woman wine writer. I am a wine writer, and I happen to be female. It sounds to me, Tom, that you are in agreement with this mentality as well, but certainly correct me if I’m wrong.

    I highly doubt there is a gender difference in regards to writing quality, nor should we even try to find one.

    To give the organizers the benefit of the doubt, not including a woman in the panel does not mean that they think there are no female writers that are good enough. It just means the organizers had an idea for the session (getting print writers to talk to bloggers about that side of the universe), and that these three men (who undoubtedly deserve respect based on how they’ve been able to built their career, regardless of whether or not one agrees with their point of view), happened to be willing and available at that time.

    Should they have asked some female print writers? Sure—maybe they did—maybe they asked but they weren’t available. I have no idea.

    Anyway, the point of all this just goes back to what I mentioned before and what I’ve mentioned on my blog when discussing gender issues: True equality is when we are all writers. Not “male writers” or “female writers”, etc.

    We need to stop thinking one group is inherently better than another, because doing that will only keep us separate, not equal.

    Yes, I realize Mary did not mean to turn her post into a gender issue, but since it has been brought up here, I just thought I’d add my two cents 🙂

    Good discussion!

  7. David Vergari - July 24, 2014

    I judged wine last weekend. There were three women judges. My advice to anyone who feels they have the tasting chops to participate in wine competitions: throw your hat in the ring, contact the Head Judge/Organizer and keep at it without being a pain-in-the-ass. Don’t wait for your ship to come in…swim out and meet the damn thing! Worked for me.

    • Becca @ The Academic Wino - July 24, 2014

      “contact the Head Judge/Organizer and keep at it without being a pain-in-the-ass. Don’t wait for your ship to come in…swim out and meet the damn thing! ”

      AMEN to that! This is exactly what I believe as well. JUST DO IT! 🙂

  8. Wine Harlots - July 24, 2014

    Diversity matters.

    Each voice is unique.
Wine writers are not fungible.

    Nannette Eaton

  9. John Kelly - July 24, 2014

    I can understand frustration with a lack of diversity in perspective on any discussion panel in a conference setting. But to ascribe that lack of diversity to the panelists being “old white men” smacks of a casual and facile ageism, racism, and sexism all it’s own.

    If I can tell your age, your race, your sex, your sexual orientation, or your religion from your writing on wine, either 1) you have an agenda that I am unlikely to be interested in, or 2) you are not a very creative writer and perhaps only able to express yourself with stereotypical banalities.

  10. Tom Natan - July 25, 2014

    John Kelly, I can tell the sex and make a good guess at the age and sexual orientation of every wine blogger I read. Does that make them all badly written? No — it’s people using their own experiences to inform their writing.

    I would love to see the organizers reach out wider for panelists, but I think that a lot of these sessions end up being organized by the people who propose them, and who naturally reach out to their friends as panelists. If the conference organizers had a full-time person devoted to content perhaps that would be different. But for now, I’d suggest reaching out to other bloggers you know or read and proposing a session that has the diversity you’re looking for.

  11. Terrence Pershall - July 25, 2014

    The beauty of wine is that there is a wine for every palate. Whether you are Asian, Hispanic , Caucasian , male or female everyone will notice a different taste profile. This is why it’s so interesting to read peer reviews rather than reviews by the “experts”.Everyone’s journey begins somewhere be it white Zin, a French Bordeaux or Calif Pinot. We move on from there until we discover what we really like. It’s interesting in hearing opinions from all quarters especially from people who understand well made wine!

  12. Erika Szymanski - July 26, 2014

    The point isn’t whether or not women and men write, taste, think, dress, or blow their noses differently. The point is — or, at least, the point should be — that all-male, all-white panels facing a more diverse audience suggests that someone is more likely to be a speaker, i.e. in a position of authority and privilege, if white and male. That’s the problem: the appearance of preferencing and reinforcing white male power and privilege. Of course these speakers were chosen because of their history and historical preeminence. But these choices nevertheless perpetuate an environment in which white men have the privileged voices. What they’re actually saying doesn’t matter. That power relates to race, gender, and class does.

  13. Tom Wark - July 26, 2014


    Is the correct solution to take gender into account when creating a panel? Or should race also be taken into account? What about sexual orientation? And if we can’t take all these things into account when formatting a panel, which one or ones should take priority? What’s your solution? If for example we had a panel of two women and 1 man, all of whom were straight, would the panel be open to the same criticism that have been leveled at the panel in question?

    • Erika Szymanski - July 26, 2014

      Tom, all good questions. Look to the participants. If the demographics (race, age, class, gender, sexual orientation, favorite color, etc.) don’t more or less jive with the demographics of the leaders/people holding power and privilege, ask why. If that question produces a well-reasoned answer, keep thinking about it and move on. But in the absence of such reason, and sometimes in its presence, consider that skewed choices may be perpetuating a damaging power dynamic and examine why it’s happening. I don’t hold with affirmative action. It irks me to see anyone — women included — favored for their incidental demographic qualities and not for their excellence; I expect that I don’t need to explain why. But I do hold with being constantly self-aware and self-critical, realizing that there ARE power dynamics, and thinking about how they play into our actions, perceptions, and identities. And realizing that we can change them.

  14. Courtney Holmes - July 26, 2014

    Whenever I see a group of older white men as the sole decision makers in any setting I get worried. It can always be a coincidence, but in my experience whenever I am confronted with that sort of panel I notice a sort dated mindset. One that does not take people of a certain gender, race, sexuality seriously. Almost like they don’t have the same credibility. So it is not so much that the view points of different genders, ages, etc are so much different, but that the authority behind the institution may have some ingrained biases that, in my opinion, reduce their own quality. I don’t think this sort of bias is even conscious, in fact I think it is generational.

  15. Amy Corron Power - July 26, 2014

    If we proportioned speakers to the WBC audience demographics, you’d have many more women than men panelists, period. But that wasn’t my point with the one sentence you, and others including Heimoff, conveniently took out of context. You confuse print publication writing with blogging. It isn’t, and should not be, the same…see http://www.anotherwineblog.com/archives/17310#.U9QeXPk7um4

  16. (More) Race, class, and gender in wine writing | The Wine-o-scope - July 26, 2014

    […] wine blogger Tom Wark is being provocative again (if you know Tom, I’ll wait for your shock and awe to subside, and if you don’t know […]

  17. Tom Wark - July 26, 2014

    Amy, if I write a blog post outlining the pros and cons of spending a weekend in napa vs sonoma, how should that be different than writing on the same topic for a print publication?

    Also, how much writing that shows up in print publications is inaccessible via online sources?

  18. Amy Corron Power (@WineWonkette) - July 27, 2014

    That, I suppose, would depend on your advertisers, subscribers and/or clients. A blog in its purest form doesn’t have to answer to them. The print publication ultimately does. It colors the writing, dilutes and distills it to the personality of the publication vs the personality of the author.

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