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On a recent breezy afternoon, Team Lily gathered around three bottles of red wine. Our task? To blind taste all three — and try to decipher which was cheapest (around $10), mid-range (around $15) and most expensive (around $30).
The assignment sounds simple enough. But all too soon, we discovered that describing and identifying wines is much more difficult than we’d assumed. One art director likened a syrah from Greece to a wet, damp basement; another used emoji, including the pink flower and the dancing woman, to describe what she tasted. As sips gave way to giggles, we realized there’s more to wine than meets the eye. Or in this case, the tongue.
For your entertainment, we’ve included snippets from that tasting session alongside official descriptions of each bottle.
Official tasting notes:
“Grown in the hilly area around Agrigento, it has a very pleasant and harmonious taste and aroma. The grapes are harvested by hand in small crates, then destemmed and macerated at a controlled temperature of 24-27°C. Refinement takes place in stainless steel tanks for a period of about 6 months.”
How Team Lily describes it:
“Oh my god, what is this? It tastes like cough syrup.”
“This tastes like slapping a bag of Franzia.”
“This is my least favorite. I think that it looks like red water, and it has a really bitter, angry aftertaste.”
“This reminds me of a real-life date that I went on in my younger, less-wise days, with a man named Lucifer. He spent the entire time talking about the women who had wronged him.”
You may be wondering: Why devote an entire newsletter to wine? We’ll admit that our blind taste test was a bit of an excuse to have some fun. But we also can’t ignore the proliferating messages regarding women and wine, everywhere from films to social media feeds. Just look on Instagram, where “rosé all day” populates thousands of captions. Or in the movies, where films like “Wine Country” revolve around it. And in shows such as HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and Netflix’s “Dead to Me,” it seems that female characters hardly go an episode without gulping down a heaping glass of vino to cope with whatever quandary they face.
Other research, however, indicates that gender has little impact on the frequency with which consumers actually purchase and drink wine. One 2012 study showed that while women and men drink it at similar rates, they tend to do so in different settings. Where men are “more interested in discussing the technical aspects of wine and exhibiting knowledge,” the research found, “women want to relax and socialize with friends over wine.”
Official tasting notes:
“Beautiful intense color, deep purplish. The nose is intense and complex, with notes of ripe red fruit, cherry, morello cherry, black currant, plum. The palate is concentrated and silky, with a very nice sweetness of fruit. The tannins are round and gentle, giving way to a beautiful length.”
How Team Lily describes it:
“Guys, I love this wine. It’s so good. I don’t even like red wine, and this is good.”
“It smells like fruit juice to me and it tastes like sugar water. I think it doesn’t have any character.”
“This tastes like a sleepover with your girlfriends in the ninth grade and you’re getting drunk for the first time.”
“It reminds me of Gatorade, if Gatorade made wine. For that reason, I like it, because I don’t know much about red wine.”
Marketing has a lot to do with our perceptions of the typical wine drinker, and companies have been turning toward women-centered ad campaigns for years.
These days, even the presentation of wine seems to cater to a certain consumer. Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre recently wrote about the rise of canned wine. To paint a picture of the phenomenon, he shared what his 19-year-old daughter remarked about one can: “It’s rose gold, a perfect color for millennials, and this DIY script is great.”
Official tasting notes:
“Deep seductive scarlet color. Its nose surrounds you in aromas of red and black fruits, such as sour cherry and cherry with notes of eucalyptus. The full body blends harmoniously with the medium acidity and the moderate, balanced tannins. Bitter chocolate, leather, pepper and blackberries compose the tasty palette, which is wrapped up in a long-lasting black fruit aftertaste.”
How Team Lily describes it:
“This is what I would expect, I guess. Red wine.”
“Do you know that wet, damp, cement basement smell? This is kind of like a damp mildew, but a good one, like one that you want to eat.”
“It tastes like if springtime were translated into red wine.”
“I’m pretty sure if the grape emoji and the pink flower emoji had a wine, this would be the one. It’s a little floral, but mostly just tastes like a squished grape to me. I like it. It’s good.”
Those in the industry do agree on one thing: Wine is very much wrapped up in gender — who’s making it, who we market it to and even how we describe it. So we set out to learn more from women experts who — unlike some of the rest of us — know what they’re talking about.
The first U.S. woman to earn the title of master sommelier in 1987; now the in-house sommelier at Plum Market
A master sommelier and partner at Goodnight Hospitality Group
A professor specializing in the history of wine at Trinity College
Wine is as old as history. But for much of that history, imbibing was reserved only for men. Just think of Ancient Greek symposia: long, languid gatherings during which men drank from vessels filled with wine, and then tipsily chatted about the meaning of life. Women did not partake in the revelry; instead, they were relegated to providing entertainment. Such was the case throughout the ancient world, according to Ann Matasar: If you drank wine as a woman, you were seen as promiscuous, degraded.
Sexism in wine has revealed itself in other ways throughout history, says Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre, including in the language used to describe it. Words such as “feminine” and “floral” have traditionally been used to describe lighter wines, while “robust” and “strong” are often used for deeper, darker reds — wines that are considered masculine.
Winemaking has been somewhat of a different story. France in the 1700s and 1800s was a good example, says Regan-Lefebvre: Unlike other businesses, it wasn’t unusual for women to take over tavern and inn licenses when their husbands died. That’s why you might see the title “veuve,” or widow, in a number of French chateau and champagne names.
One of the most well-known examples is Veuve Clicquot: Madame Clicquot took over the business after her husband died and turned her champagne into an undeniable success. Of course, says Regan-Lefebvre, Madame Clicquot was an exception: “It was unusual to see a woman working at that higher level, but it wasn’t totally rare.”
In the United States, a big industry change came in the 1960s, when universities began admitting women. In 1965, Mary Ann Graf became the first woman to graduate from the University of California at Davis in enology (fermentation sciences). To this day, UC-Davis is considered the “premier wine-making school in the world,” says Matasar. “There is a reason that California, more than any place in the world, has so many women winemakers.”
Many of our experts agreed: While women have always been crucial in the wine industry behind the scenes, they’ve only recently begun rising to its highest ranks.
Passing the master sommelier test is widely considered the pinnacle of wine expertise. It consists of a theory section, a blind taste test and a service exam, and hopefuls study for years. When Madeline Triffon took the test in 1987, the first year it was offered in the United States, she became the first U.S. woman to pass. Only 25 other American women have since passed, alongside more than 130 men. (And that’s despite the fact that research has long shown that women are more reliable tasters.)
Triffon, June Rodil and Jancis Robinson all say they feel lucky — they’ve never felt their gender was a barrier to reaching the most storied positions within the industry. And all agree that while they’ve seen an uptick in women becoming sommeliers and wine critics, there’s still work to be done.
Robinson is particularly hopeful for women who don’t necessarily work in wine but are still interested in it.
“There’s a certain expectation of men about their wine choices. I do firmly believe that women feel much freer and drink what they want to drink,” she argues. “We don’t play this silly game of, ‘I’m on this wine mailing list.’ We don’t turn wine into a competitive sport, I think, as much as men.”
• Try everything. “Taste as much as possible. … There are so many wine bars, so many restaurants, that have exceptional wine-by-the-glass programs. Make it a mission to always try something different. If you love something, take a picture of the label and look up its label information.” — Triffon
• Make a friend. “Develop a relationship with a friendly local wine retailer. Tell them what you’ve liked so far, and it is in their interest to recommend something that’s an even better value, or similar. It’s just like going into a bookshop and saying, ‘I loved this book. What can you recommend?’” — Robinson
• Find your sweet spot. “A lot of times people think they don’t like sweet wines. The lower the alcohol level, the sweeter the wine will be, generally. My mom loves sweet rieslings, so she’s looking at the 9 percent alcohol range. If you’re 12 percent and up, it’ll generally be a drier wine.” — Rodil
• New Zealand sauvignon blancs. “Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand is unabashedly what it is. You know what you’re getting right away. New Zealand wines tend to have a really high level of quality — the quality starts really high, even at the lowest tier and lowest price. That’s my grocery store wine and that’s also my airplane wine. It’s probably really decent and really refreshing.” — Rodil
• Cotes-du-Rhone red wines. “This is an easy-to-find category in most stores, and always a good, dependable buy.” — Triffon
• Wines from the Beaujolais region. “Beaujolais is full of really good, young producers now, making very artisanal wine. And the prices are very low.” — Robinson
• Any wine made by a woman. “I remember saying to [famous wine critic] Robert Parker, ‘How come women are making all these great wines?’ And he said, ‘They don’t have a choice.’ In other words, you couldn’t be just okay making wines as a woman. You’d get cut out. … So when I’m looking for wine myself, I look for a wine made by a woman.” — Matasar
In 2004, Robinson became part of the Royal Household Wine Committee, which advises Queen Elizabeth II on her wine cellar. Robinson goes to Buckingham Palace three or four times a year, she says, where wine merchants present various wines. Robinson blind tastes them all and weighs in on her favorites. “I have to admit, it does give me a bit of a kick to walk through the crowd of tourists straight into the yard in front of Buckingham Palace,” she says.
Does she ever follow up to see which of her wine choices the queen liked most? “I don’t think the queen is the world’s biggest wine lover,” Robinson says. “I think Charles’s wife, Camilla [Parker Bowles], is keen on wine, and the next generation down — William, Harry and their wives — are more interested in wine than the queen, really.”