Where Are the Women?
By Thomas Matthews, senior editor
I recently met some friends at Henry's End, a casual but wine-savvy Brooklyn restaurant, for a wine tasting dinner -- not a commercial or professional affair, just 15 wine lovers who chipped in to taste a range of new bottlings from California's Central Coast region. I was having a great time until the woman seated next to me leaned over and said, "Look at this group: a dozen men and only three women. Where are all the women?"
There was no denying the glaring disparity. I asked Stuart Leaf, who organized the dinner, if the ratio was unusual. Leaf, a successful money manager and serious wine collector, shook his head. "I would estimate that of the tastings I have held or the other groups I attend, the range of female participation is zero to 20 percent, with a bias toward the former."
I have to admit that my own experience is substantially the same. Women just don't seem as passionate about wine as men. When we polled readers and Web surfers for Wine Spectator's Readers' Choice Awards this spring, for example, only 18 percent of the 17,650 respondents were women. Over a thousand people attended our annual Wine Experience, held in New York this year, drawn by great wines, good food and convivial company. Fewer than one-third of the registrants were women.
But why? If we were talking about a group devoted to football, I could understand it. After all, as a general rule men are bigger and stronger than women; they play football from the time they're boys; and like the game, they're physically aggressive by nature.
Wine isn't like that. It doesn't take brute strength or blind ambition or the will to power to become a wine connoisseur. It takes sensitivity, the ability to grasp vague and changeable sensations, a vivid imagination -- qualities you see at least as often in girls as in boys.
In fact, when it comes to wine, women have significant advantages over men. Marcia Pelchat, who holds a doctorate in physiological psychology, works at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, exploring the mysteries of taste and smell. She says, "Women are superior to men in just about every measure of olfaction we have studied. There is some evidence they're more sensitive when it comes to taste, as well. It doesn't make sense that there are fewer female wine experts or enthusiasts."
Not only are women physiologically superior when it comes to wine, they also have more economic clout. In 1998, men accounted for a whopping 77 percent of all alcoholic beverages consumed in the United States, according to Impact Databank. But when it came to wine, women took over, accounting for 54 percent of wine volume.
Which gender is trained more intensively in the nuances of smell and taste? Who wears perfume? Who cooks the family dinners? Yet when it comes to wine dinners and tasting groups and special wine events, most of the participants are men. Where are all the women?
Leaf, Pelchat and Usha Cunningham, the woman who called my attention to the unbalanced tasting, all agree that cultural factors are largely responsible for the dearth of women wine enthusiasts. They note that historically, women have been discouraged, if not prohibited, from drinking at all. They point out that fine wines are expensive, while women earn less money than men, even when doing the same work. They suggest that the rare and collectible side of the wine world is, in fact, something like football: competitive, obsessed with statistics, a way to mark winners and losers among bottles, vintages and even tasters.
These observations may all be true. Yet I can't help believing that the obstacles standing between women and wine are not as fearsome as they may seem. Blind tasting is not a contact sport. I know too many women who are skilled and passionate wine tasters to believe that they are exceptions to some general rule.
Ladies, don't let the barriers of history, stereotype and inertia block you from one of life's most intense and complex physical pleasures. Natural gifts and lifelong training have already prepared you to appreciate wine. All you need now is the courage to pursue it. I promise you won't regret it. And you won't be the only ones to benefit. When more women are wine lovers, men will be better off as well.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)