GENDER-IMAGE WINE DESCRIPTORS: HAVE THEY OUTLIVED THEIR USEFULNESS?
And, were they ever really useful? A lot of people think not, and prominent among them is Ms. Vicki Denig, who wrote a strongly argued piece that Alder Yarrow picked up and reposted on his website. I’ve been in touch with Ms. Denig to tell her I planned to write this essay, and that I would send it to her before I posted it, so that she could comment. A little civil discourse on a hot-button issue might do the world a little good, since “civil” and “hot-button” haven’t been keeping much company of late.
Ms. Denig took issue with the terms “masculine” and “feminine” being used in wine descriptions and tasting notes. Their use annoys her, and annoys most women and some men. There is much merit to her argument, but before I parse that merit, I’ll say up front that I myself have used those terms, not often but by no means never, but I won’t use them any more. Two reasons: one, I agree with key elements of her argument and two, neither writers nor speakers are eager to annoy their readers or listeners. Whether I happen to think they should be annoyed is far less important than to desist from doing something that distresses them. It seems ridiculous to take some lofty stand on behalf of a couple descriptors when the reward of discontinuing them is so high. Un-ruffling of feathers has to be a good thing all by itself.
The issue has been dramatized by the whole “wine bitch” affair - https://timatkin.com/on-wine-bitch/ - in which, according to one observer, a writer “viciously targeted mostly women in the wine industry – a (very) few men, lots of establishment figures…. but his most cruel and misogynistic attacks were aimed at young women. It eventually transpired that it wasn’t some embittered old guy whose time had come and gone, but a well-paid, well-respected, glamorous and successful member of the wine trade.”
So I am inclined to considerable sympathy for what women in the wine trade (and not only the wine trade) have to contend with.
That said, there are places where I don’t entirely agree with Ms. Denig, and I’d like to explore them because I think it could be fruitful. I hope she’ll call me out if I get anywhere close to mansplaining.
She begins thus: I've long been perturbed by the use of gender-focused adjectives to describe wines. It's 2020, people. Seriously?
As wine professionals, I understand that it is our job to convey what we are tasting to the consumer. However, 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?
TERRY: I think we are, but it may be helpful to consider why we don’t. The words themselves are shorthands for image-tones which would otherwise need to be described at greater length. Image-tones are understood to be metaphorical. And if I substitute the many words that could be used to convey gender metaphors, I’m guilty of the same ill, only at greater length.
DENIG: What does that say about us as professionals? And don't even get me started on what that has to say about our vocabularies.
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 "masculine" 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.
TERRY: Here I think Ms. Denig is pulling at the edges of her argument a little. She “assum[es] we’re going by societal context (which isn’t always the case) and tells us she doesn’t support societally created gender norms. Nor do I. But I don’t see an ineluctable link between describing a wine using a gender metaphor, and reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. I see (and respect) that she does. But if you notice that I’m introducing the notion of stereotype, I’m actually anticipating its arrival a little later on.
I find “stereotype” to be a socio-political prism to view this issue through. And that’s fine. For many people it needs to be viewed that way. Speaking as a man, i.e, a person of privilege, one of the drawbacks of privilege is a sort of obtuseness of imagination; we literally can not imagine how the unprivileged person feels, or experiences life. I am chastened by this.
VICKI DENIG COMMENTS: When you say 'She assumes we're going by societal context (which isn't always the case) and tells us she doesn't support societally created gender norms,' this makes me furrow my brow a bit. Of course I fully agree that not all people abide and fit into societally created gender norms – but I'm curious as to how the exceptions to this rule apply when using the masc/fem descriptors for wine? I'd be hard-pressed to find people using the term 'feminine' to mean something other than what society has dubbed that word to mean.
She has a strong point. But I also have an idea to introduce. Gender descriptions can definitely seem like stereotypes, but they can also be seen as paradigms. And the paradigm is rather more abstract than the stereotype. The ideas of the “masculine” or the “feminine” aren’t invariably normative. Sometimes they depict a pure essence of being. Denig’s substitute adjectives are just a little beside the point. How would she feel if a writer or speaker described a wine as “androgynous?” Would that perpetuate a hurtful stereotype? I think it’s a question worth asking.
VICKI DENIG COMMENTS: I agree re: paradigm, but I still think these 'abstract' ideas fall into the societally created gender stereotypes.
I think they don’t. Or don’t always. Let’s dig into this disagreement some more.
DENIG: As someone who is based between the States (New York) and Europe (Paris), I’ve found that these descriptors are much more prevalent in the Old World, particularly in France. However, I'm still constantly floored at how often these words are thrown around at trade tastings, wine dinners, and even in published media – yes, people are still willing to write tasting notes using these ridiculous descriptors and attach their byline[s] to it.
TERRY: This may be good place to interject with a quote from a remarkable series of pieces written by Ms. Vinka Danitza (which Tamlyn Currin shared on Facebook).
"The language we use in wine is also indicative of the stereotypes that keep infiltrating our field; it is not unusual for some wine nerds to describe wines as feminine or masculine. I’m not referring to typical clichés that women only drink white and sweet wines, and men only red wines. No, in wine lingo, we discuss everything from body, tannins, structure, alcohol, and persistence. A wine that is lighter-bodied, bright, with silky tannins, elegant or delicate can be referred to as very feminine. While a wine that is full-bodied, round, muscular and structured, is masculine. Why do we use these useless descriptors? I once asked a social media influencer, an Italian Sommelier, why she used feminine and masculine as a way to describe two wines she was featuring. She responded, “There is substantial difference in the structure of the feminine and masculine body. I think it’s nice to transpose it to wine.” (TT: my emphasis)
TERRY: One person is speaking in terms of paradigm (“the structure of the feminine and masculine body”) while the person taking exception will observe – reasonably – that each gender’s bodies are full of variation of shape, size and proportion. Yet how, for instance, would that bear on the parfumeur creating a blend? This person seems also to be guided by paradigms of male and female, or would Ms. Denig like to decry the hurtful stereotypes at work in the fragrance industry? She might have a case.
VICKI DENIG COMMENTS: “There is substantial difference in the structure of the feminine and masculine body. I think it’s nice to transpose it to wine.” Oof. I take big issue with this statement. I am not sure that we've ever met in person, but to give you an idea, I am 5'1 in height and about 105 pounds. I workout 1-2 times per day and have a very small, athletic frame.. I am basically a walking piece of cardboard (to be clear, I am very happy and comfortable in my own body). So, when statements like this are made, I have to firmly disagree. I have a rather 'masculine' build, if you will, so when a 'voluptuous' and 'curvy' wine is therefore described as feminine.. how do you think that makes me, or someone built like me, feel? This I must challenge. Also, can we lose ALL REFERENCES to bodies, male or female?
Well, can we? Obviously we can, but the collateral damage is to barricade an avenue of imagination. That bothers me because I find imagination to be something that needs to be unfettered and protected. But – people also need protection. Let me repeat, the paradigms I’m talking about are not so precious that I must cling to them in writing and speaking. It’s easy to let them go. But as a way to view the situation, it seems to be at least as plausible to infer no ill will, as it is to assume that when gender-names are used it is because the user is lazy and falling back on outmoded clichés.
Apropos Ms. Currin, for those who don’t know of her work, she writes for Jancis Robinson’s “Purple Pages” and is uncommonly lithe of intellect and rich in imagination. She has this to say on the subject of “masculine” and “feminine” as wine descriptors:
“ I taste metaphorically. When I taste, I sense the wine in shape, colour, movement, music, texture. I use metaphors all the time. A wine to me can taste of early summer morning, or a ploughed up field. It can taste of a small child slipping her (and I use that deliberately) small hand into yours and skipping next to you. It can taste of an upright piano in a tiny, quiet, empty chapel. Sometimes the wine has, to me, the shape and energy and explosive but sinewy muscularity of a gymnast – and sometimes the picture in my head is of a female gymnast, sometimes a male. I write that. Sometimes a wine has swirling skirts, and although I know men wear skirts, the picture in my head is of a woman’s skirts. Sometimes a wine is sweaty and thick and solid and mucky and (having spent way too many teenage years on the side of rugby fields watching men hammer each other) it tastes to me like a rugby prop. I know women play rugby, but my memory back, my reference cards, are of men, or very large boys, playing rugby. Sometimes the wine tastes like an arrogant, wealthy, privileged, super-polished man in a very very expensive Saville Row suit. I can’t, for the life of me, put a woman into that suit because I taste a man. I can’t put an android in there either.
But I have also sat next too many smug male wine tasters who lasciviously and salaciously compared wines to women, and not in an authentic attempt to describe the wine. They’re looking for reactions – approval and admiration from their male colleagues, humiliation and discomfort of their female colleagues. It’s the acceptable wine version of smutty toilet humour, which some (maybe even make that many?) men don’t seem to be able to grow out of. They seem to think it’s sophisticated and risqué rather than the puerile slavering that it really is.
I believe, for example, that a wine can be voluptuous and curvaceous and that doesn’t mean one is referring to a large woman. Mangoes are curvaceous and voluptuous, sumo wrestlers are curvaceous and voluptuous, puddings can be, certain flowers can be, a bowl of creamy yogurt can be, a bean bag can be. But does it now mean that because the words voluptuous and curvaceous are routinely used to describe a certain female body type, one should now not use those words?
Perhaps it is enough to say that a wine has the body of a gymnast without specifying male or female. Perhaps metaphors can be metaphors without an underlying lubriciousness. Perhaps it is possible to gain a sense of whether the metaphor has been written from a source of malice or a genuine desire to communicate the crux of a wine.”
TERRY: Ms. Currin has summarized the crux of my argument.
I fully acknowledge the reality of the aggravation many women feel, and I will respond accordingly in my own work – but there is a larger way to look at all this.
I’ll try to make it as clear as I can. There are in effect two minds with which we encounter wine. One is the analyzing, detailing mind. What does it taste like in terms of simile? And then there is the imagination, which doesn’t so much grasp the wine as make itself lambent so the wine is welcomed and can convey all its textures and image tones. Wine kindles the imagination, and the imagination’s job is to imagine. We do not, as a rule, imagine in terms of simile – this wine tastes like strawberries. We more often imagine in metaphor (this wine is innocent and dewy). Moreover, the imagination often “thinks” in dyads: light-and-shade yin-and-yang, smooth-and-rough, introverted-and-extroverted, vertical-or-horizontal, and in those instances when a metaphor might assume human shapes, such shapes could, spontaneously, alight on paradigms of masculinity or femininity. No insult is intended. And the use of those words is not symptomatic of a feeble imagination; it’s a sign of a lively, febrile imagination – just what we should most cherish about wine writing.
VICKI DENIG COMMENTS: I absolutely loved Currin's analysis, particularly the gymnast of either gender. What a beautiful way to describe a wine without imposing it as male or female. I hear her on the skirt analogy – yes, mostly women wear skirts. However, if a wine has swirling skirts, and you imagine a woman as the person wearing the skirt, I don't find an issue here – the analogy is, after all, about the skirt, right? It's the flowiness, waviness, and texture of the fabric, the air running through it, the way the colors and textures dance in the wind. To me, this analogy is more about the actual object of clothing, not the person wearing it. I take no issue here.
[But when Currin writes] "But does it now mean that because the words voluptuous and curvaceous are routinely used to describe a certain female body type, one should now not use those words?” - Again, no, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't use these words. Seeing as she just gave numerous examples of things that are voluptuous and curvaceous that are NOT women's bodies (mangoes, puddings, sumo wrestlers), I think it goes without saying that these words are not feminine/female specific.
I’m generalizing from my own experience, naturally, but that experience is broad and deep and it has evolved to its current point, and continues evolving. I love old Rioja, and a consistent image-tone of those wines – for me – is “avuncular.” That is, to convey the nurturing affection and tenderness of an uncle; in other words, a masculine image. And yet a warm, loving image. My masculine paradigm is various and capacious. If a wine strikes me as stereotypically “masculine” I’d probably use a word like “brutish” or “musclebound” to describe it. And I don’t want to have to banish avuncular, because it’s a perfect word to describe both a vision of emotion and also the actual emotion.
I am absolutely certain that “feminine” is often deployed by pigs with misogynistic agendas. The question, in my mind, is whether that particular stench attaches to anyone who happens to use those terms. I accept the argument that my paradigms of “masculine” or “feminine” need to incorporate more nuance. Yet as soon as they do, the terms become enfeebled and diluted. That’s a reasonable price to pay to not annoy the women in one’s vicinity. But in my view this entire discussion needs to be conducted with more light and shade.
At one point Ms. Denig wonders whether she’s merely being curmudgeonly. I don’t believe she is. Whatever dudgeon she may feel has been (sadly) earned by too much shitty experience. Women have to live with so many slights, aggressions, humiliations and just general yuckyness in the wine industry (and elsewhere) that ones tolerance for even small annoyances is worn away. It’s like you stubbed the same toe a hundred times and now it’s red and swollen and if someone even touches it it hurts.
But I still think there’s another way to look at this particular question discretely.
But let’s look at some ways it’s actually being conducted. We return to Ms. Denig.
DENIG: He said, she said
DENIG: So I asked six of my colleagues/friends to elaborate their feelings on the descriptors. I interviewed three men and three women, based across two countries and four different US states. Here’s what I got.
"I think that the masculine and feminine terms are a bit archaic and our industry should evolve past this," says Victoria James, beverage director and partner at Michelin-starred Côte. "It limits innovation and imagination, and many use it as a crutch when there are better descriptors out there."
TERRY: So Ms. James doesn’t cite being offended by the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes; she just thinks it’s lazy and sloppy usage. Fair enough.
DENIG: My LA-based friend Matt Kaner of Bar Covell, AM/FM Wines, Solovin Wine Club, and Will Travel For Wine Consulting admits to having used the terms in the past, though has since reformed his language (bravo, sir).
"Years back, I wouldn't hesitate to use the terms masculine and feminine because I found that regardless of the person I was speaking to, they had some sort of understanding of what those terms meant to them," he says. However, times have (thankfully) changed. "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." My point exactly.
TERRY: I’m finding another not-quite-plausible stretch, from terms having various meanings for different people, over to “values and ideals.” It makes me have to question, who’s doing all this inferring? If a writer describes a wine as “feminine” does a woman reading or hearing that description suddenly envision a set of characteristics the speaker may not have intended? Again, this isn’t some Sacred Ideal that needs to be preserved. I understand why a woman could be on a hair-trigger for yet another tiresome truism about what “feminine” signifies in the mind of some guy. But that can’t be the one and only way to look at it.
DENIG: Wine writing colleague Julia Coney… brings her personal preference to the table in her analogy.
"I think the terms masculine and feminine are an outdated way to describe wines. When I first started drinking wines people described a lot of Napa Valley Cabernet as big and masculine, but I'm a woman and enjoyed them too," she says.
TERRY: Hold on; two different things. No one says – at least I hope they don’t – that a woman can’t possibly enjoy wines described as “masculine.” That’s patently false, and the reverse is just as false. Most of my own favorite wines are those for which “feminine” might be used to characterize them.
DENIG: “Masculine versus feminine” Jeff Harding, beverage director at NYC-based Waverly Inn. "It oversimplifies gender into black and white and doesn't allow for shades of gray, and probably insults a lot of people."
TERRY: Really? Pissing people off, that I get. “Insult[ing] I don’t get. If I said a wine was “feminine” would a woman hear “Frilly, girly, weak, ineffectual, inconsequential?” If not, where’s the insult? Maybe it’s the gesture of contempt that a man knows the word is irritating to you, and uses it anyway? I ask this sincerely: help me out here.
DENIG: Perhaps the most surprising response was from my friend Carrie Lyn Strong, who told me she wasn't particularly offended by these terms. "I don't personally have an issue with these descriptions. As a sommelier, it is our job to translate using words that people understand. When someone uses these terms, I understand the implication and get a sense of how the wine will taste according to my understanding of said words," she explains. Yes, I get it. Wine is hard. It is our job to make wine accessible. But again… are these the only terms we can come up with?
"However, as a human, I can understand why stereotypes can be offensive and feel that language should change over time to reflect emotional growth in society," she says. Strong notes that over the past several years, she has practiced using descriptive words that are objective, as it is important to steer away from outdated, subjective, and potentially offensive language.
TERRY: I personally find there are very few truly “objective” words one can use to describe wine. And the few there are, tend to be bloodless. I rather find that the best words to use are those that call forth strong images in the mind of the reader or listener.
DENIG: Think I’m being a bit overdramatic?
TERRY: Not for me to say!
DENIG: I challenge you to think about it in a different but similar context. Would you ever describe a wine using a race-based, sexual orientation-focused, or age-based (cellaring context aside) adjective?
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.
TERRY: It seems apparent that we’re discussing this question in two different “octaves” if you will. At the street-level, life-as-it-is-lived, the dyad masculine/feminine assumes commonly accepted stereotypes that need to be removed, and that are irksome to many women and some men. I accept that argument completely and will proceed accordingly.
There is, though, a parallel world of imagination in which stereotypes assume the level of paradigm. Denig believes that even the paradigm has roots in the stereotype. I don’t claim she is wrong, but I do find her argument to be incomplete. Wines breathe from many atmospheres. It is a citizen of worlds to which we rarely travel. Perhaps the most valuable take-away from this debate is, as much as I find my own gender paradigms to be nuanced and fluid, I need to think hard about whether (or to what degree) they start out at conventional origin points. And if they do, is this inherently bad?
I’ve said elsewhere that you know you’ve asked the right question when the answer is an even deeper question. I am grateful to Vicki Denig for asking just such a question, and for her willingness to engage in the debate that follows.