The Question of Cancel Culture and “Feminine” Wine
Gendered words such as “feminine” and “masculine” have come under some pretty severe criticism as wine descriptors in recent years. In nearly every example of a commentator discussing such terms, the conclusion has been that they are, in today’s world, inappropriate for describing wine. These condemnations—and they have been condemnations—are misplaced, rely on a misunderstanding of the utility of gendered wine descriptions, confuse gender expression for gender identity and, when they lead us to jettison the words from our wine vocabulary, leave us worse off as writers.
Vicki Denig, an accomplished food and wine journalist, most recently explored the issue of “masculine and feminine” as wine descriptors in an article for Wine-Searcher in which the title of the article gave away her position:
“Time to Kill Gender Stereotypes in Wine”. At first glance, Denig’s concern with using gendered words to describe wine is that there are other, more descriptive words that can better reveal what a writer thinks of a wine:
“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?…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.”
Denig’s objection to using what she believes are imprecise adjectives is really a prelude to her real objection, which is telegraphed in the article’s headline that insists the problem is not one of style, but rather one of stereotyping. Denig goes on to press her point by interviewing six of her colleagues on the question of gendered wine descriptions.
Victoria James, the beverage director at Michelin-starred Cote, tells Deng that “masculine and feminine terms are a bit archaic and our industry should evolve past this.”
Denig’s friend Matt Kaner, a wine professional from Los Angeles, admits to Denig that he had used these terms in the past, but that he has now moved beyond them, suggesting that these words no longer express his values: “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.” Denig endorses Kaner’s re-evaluation of his use of “masculine” and “feminine” by admitting, “my point exactly”.
Anther of Denig’s friends, Jeff Harding, of New York’s Waverley Inn, while admitting to still using the terms, gets more directly to the point that the problem with these gendered terms is not necessarily one of writing style, but rather a stereotyping problem: “It oversimplifies gender into black and white and doesn’t allow for shades of gray, and probably insults a lot of people. 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’—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.”
Finally, Richard Betts, who obtained his Master Sommelier certification in 1997 and admits to having once used gendered wine terms, gets to the very heart of the perceived problem with these descriptions that Denig really wants to convey: “Today do not use these terms for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are offensive. We all need to be thoughtful and deliberate about the words we choose, as they can both empower and do great damage. 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.”
Denig finishes off her article by asking her readers to see the real problem with gendered wine terms by imagining something different: “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.”
Recent commentary is filled with similar denunciations in numerous articles of the terms “masculine” and “feminine” as wine descriptors. Last year at the Snarky Wine blog, Kevin Gagnon made the case:
“They [gendered wine terms] beg defining, and the ensuing definitions inevitably rely on tired and inaccurate gender stereotypes. The words are imprecise at best, downright insulting at worst….All they symbolize are outdated gender-based stereotypes that are losing their relevance, if they ever had any.”
In all the commentary condemning gendered wine terms, there is usually a nod to the idea that the terms “masculine” and “feminine” are imprecise and capable of being replaced with more specific and meaningful words. However, this criticism isn’t the primary problem folks have today with gendered wine descriptions. In fact, this criticism is usually offered as an aside to the primary argument, which I believe can be accurately described this way:
Wine descriptors like “masculine” and feminine” stereotype the genders in ways that undermine individuality. They convey a binary expression of “male” and “female” that is at odds with today’s understanding of gender that properly admits to a spectrum of genders and a spectrum of roles that can be adopted by a person irrespective of their gender identity. Using the term “masculine” to describe wines that possess more structure, tannins, intensity and aggressiveness and using the term “feminine” to describe wines that are softer, more delicate, less powerful and rounder only serves to reinforce outdated gender stereotypes. For all these reasons, the use of these words to describe wine is offensive and should be discontinued.
This is incorrect.
One thing is clear. The vast majority of people (95-99%?) understand what is meant when the words “masculine” or “feminine are deployed to describe a wine. This alone should tell us that the words are useful metaphors and I don’t think we are ready to argue that metaphor should be banished from wine descriptions. Moreover, any metaphor that is understood by nearly everyone is by definition a useful metaphor.
It’s true a writer could use a series of more specific words to replace “feminine” in a wine description. While this might be useful and justified in many contexts, I’m not ready to advocate for the over-boarding of poetry, particularly when we are talking about a product as sensual and personal as wine.
But even more important, the argument that gendered wine terms are offensive for their stereotyping of men and women is just incorrect.
“Feminine” is not a word that describes a binary view of gender. Nor is “feminine” an identity. Rather, “feminine” (and “masculine”) are words that describe expressions of gender that are every bit as useful and necessary today as they were centuries ago. If I describe a wine as “feminine” this does not mean that all women or all females are feminine or should be feminine. Using this term does not imply I believe “real” women are feminine. Yet this is the implication to which many of the critics of the use of the word “feminine” in wine descriptions seem to object.
Look at any description of gender expressions (and there are many) and you will find that “feminine” is commonly used to describe just one such expression that tends to be at the edge of the gender expression spectrum. At the other edge of that spectrum generally sits “masculine”. Look in the middle of the spectrum of gender expressions and you’ll likely find “androgynous”. None of these descriptions of gender expression are inherently pejorative, positive, or neutral. They are descriptions of a way a person is expressing themselves.
It is easy enough to find a woman who admits to expressing their gender identity as more masculine, just as it is easy enough to find a woman who admits to expressing their gender identity as feminine. We can find women who purposefully express their gender otherwise. We would not take issue with any of these people and the way they choose to express their gender. We should not take issue with a writer who chooses to express their view of a particular wine as “feminine” or “masculine”.
The misunderstanding of gender identity and gender expression is best depicted by looking at Kaitlin Ohlinger’s article on gendered wine descriptions at thebacklabel.com. There, writing on the terms “masculine and “feminine” as wine descriptors, Kaitlin explains:
When you assign a particular gender to a wine, you’re signifying a shared assumption of what “femaleness” and “maleness” really mean. Defined gender identity is a blurred line at this point, so gender-identifying wine is a bit archaic, wouldn’t you say?”
The use of “feminine” to describe a wine is not sexist and it is decidedly NOT assigning gender to wine, as Ms. Ohllinger suggests. It is assigning a gender characteristic or one expression of gender to the wine. This is an entirely different thing than an identity. If you are thinking this is a distinction without a difference then read articles about the challenges transwomen have accommodating their desire to appear feminine.
If we are being honest, then we have to admit that the concern expressed with the use of gendered wine descriptions is almost always aimed at protecting women from stereotyping even though the stereotyping of men through the use of gendered wine descriptors is often noted. However, this inclusion of men in the equation often seems like an aside.
But if, as I suggest is evident, that the use of “feminine” as a wine descriptor is not sexist, should not be offensive and does not stereotype women as meek, light, delicate and less powerful, then what can be made of the fact that so many wine professionals today, both men and women, insist that the term’s use is in fact offensive? Where is the disconnect?
I think the answer lies in our tendency today to be too quick to jump to judgment.
Thirty, twenty and even 10 years ago the use of gendered words to describe a wine wasn’t controversial. In fact, it has been done at least since 1920 when in his “Notes on a Cellar Book”, George Saintsbury described an 1846 Hermitage as “the manliest wine I ever drank”. Yet in the past 10 (more like five years) it has become quite common to see this practice denounced. What’s changed?
I think we live in a moment when a heightened desire to correct past wrongs (sexism, racism, etc) is leading to the occasional overreach. Certainly the effort to cancel “feminine wine” is an overreach that is born out of a misunderstanding of language and intent. While it is good to accept the call to reorganize our habits in order to dash discriminatory tendencies, we must be careful not to let our instincts overcome our reason.
One could just as easily chalk up to “cancel culture” the effort to rid wine vocabulary of its use of “masculine” and “feminine”. And while I think this is legitimate if a somewhat slapdash way of describing what’s happening with the moves being made against gendered wine descriptors, I’m more inclined to assign blame to good intentions gone wrong.
Writers, speakers and communicators of all types need all the tools at their disposal to get the message across efficiently, convincingly and poetically, when poetry is called for. The use of “feminine” and “masculine” to describe a wine is highly useful and proper.
In all my reading and research for this post, I did not come across a single critic of gendered wine descriptors who, despite their antipathy for the use of “feminine’ and “masculine” in wine descriptions, did not know what was meant by their use. In fact, the only way one can criticize the usage of these words in a wine description is by first understanding what they mean in the context of a review. Had I come across a person who worked in wine or wine adjacent and claimed to not understand what these words mean, I would be forced to doubt their sincerity. This is important because it underscores the utility of these words.
By all means, let’s fight the good fight. But let’s not throw reason and logic and metaphor and poetry into the spit bucket in order to achieve our ends.