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PLAY NICE BOYS AND GIRLS

Last week I posted a kind of symposium on the subject of “masculine” and “feminine” as wine descriptors. My thoughts continue to circle this topic, but before I tell you where they alighted, I need to repeat my thank-you to the author of the original article, Vicki Denig. She and I are separated by thirty eight years of age – she’s younger than my son – and beyond the calendar years we are also separated by sensibility, frame of reference and by our essential experiences of the world. Yet we quite easily conducted our conversation – one in which we definitely did not always agree – in a lovely mutuality. I would describe it as a calmly reciprocal attentiveness and respect, and an assumption of good will from each other. Yup, I’m fussing about it maybe too much, but how often do we see online debates (or any debates) conducted so cordially? I don’t assume it can be done, the world snarls away and makes us itchy and stroppy, but I’m here to say that Vicki Denig seems like a truly good person.


We still don’t completely agree, and I’ll share some of our later exchanges down the page a bit, but I’ve had time to reflect on her experience – and that of far too many women in the wine industry – and much of what I’ve seen is distressing. I’m going to free associate now, and before you come at me with pitchforks hoisted, bear in mind that some of these ideas have not been logically vetted. And yet….


Victoria James’ book Wine Girl (and Tamlyn Currin’s remarkable review of it in last weeks “Purple Pages”) made me wince more than once, and brought me to my current narrative, which begins, Once Upon A Time there were men who had jobs that paid them incredible amounts of money, so much

money that it seemed to insulate them entirely from the moral world. Whether these men were deliberately immoral is beside the point; the final privilege of insane wealth, atop all the other privileges whereby they reached that point, seemed to banish the moral life to an easily disregarded and barely legible footnote.


Some of these men hit upon wine as a status symbol. The wine community obliged them by erecting the notion of “collectibles” and these collectibles became, in turn, commodities. Men-with-money understand commodities quite deeply. And so these men learned to identify such “wines,” how to acquire them, to store them in expensive and photogenic cellars, to sell them later at some ludicrous profit, and perhaps even, once in a while, to drink them. Even more crucial, to be observed drinking them. That is what symbols are for.

Scene two brings us to the restaurant where Ms. James is working as sommelier. Um, what, a woman? This is hard for the men to absorb, conceptually. It is disquieting to them, because there is a freemasonry among men that when the gentleman orders an extremely expensive commodity wine, the male sommelier is complicit in the status game. You big man, buy crazy-expensive bottle, take selfie, leave half of it in the bottle…. It’s another nudge-nudge wink-wink, until some girl comes along and ruins it. Mr. Moneybags has arrived dragging his ego and his status behind him like some pet blimp, but Ms. Sommelier can’t possibly understand the arcane rules of engagement. She thinks she’s there to serve a wine, but he needs someone who will, with exquisite subtlety, suck up to his status. So he disrespects her, belittles her, maybe hits on her (that’s a currency he knows how to spend) and basically turns her into another commodity because that’s how he navigates the world.


The wine community has its own role to play and it isn’t always pretty. One of the most depressing things I ever did was watch the entirety of the film Somm. And before I continue, I’m going to make some really contemptuous statements now, and I need you to know that they refer to an element of the “somm” community but not to the community as a whole. What I will decry is, though, a way of thinking, a sadly conspicuous phenomenon that contributes to the problem that ends with Victoria James being dissed.



While I watched the boot-camp-like study protocols, in the service of passing a test that seemed more like an arbitrary decathalon instead of a measurement of someone’s depth of wine understanding, I kept thinking This is just more machismo. It was so goddamn MALE, such a futile exercise in defeating wine, interrogating the prisoner until the prisoner cracks, and to what end? “My wine knowledge has a bigger dick than your wine knowledge, and I have the title to prove it!”


It’s a waste of wine, a pitiless way to live in the world, a mean way to treat oneself, and a contributor to unhealthy obsessions. And a way to avoid gratitude, which is to say, a way of avoiding humility.


All “somms?” Of course not. All of wine study? No, but too damn much of it. Does anyone escape? Yes, thankfully. Does it color the wine community in ways that make it easy to be cruel? You tell me.

Which brings me back to Ms. Denig’s (and others’) objection to the use of “masculine” and “feminine” as wine descriptors. If I had to live my professional life tiptoeing among the unexploded land mines in a weird sort of DMZ between the genders, I might also become quite sensitive. I yielded that point the first time I heard it, and I yield it here again. But there was another way to view the use of that language, and I tried to say what it was. I did say it, but I didn’t entirely justify it, because there was a rift in my argument which I discovered while mulling it over later. My original observation was; describing wines as masculine or feminine could be seen as a gesture toward paradigm, notwithstanding whatever socio-political ramifications those terms might have.


I believe that and still do. This is what I came to with my mullings-over: When I was a little kid, say four or five, I did what many little kids do and crawled into bed with my parents in the morning. And one thing I noticed, and recall myself noticing, was that dad smelled one way and mom smelled another. Dad’s man-body had a particular smell associated with it, and mom’s was different. (Nicer, actually, but that’s beside the point.) So if we take that early, almost pre-cognitive imprinting of man-smell / woman-smell and move it to the present, they’ve become memory and sense anchors that have the force of paradigm and perhaps also of archetype. When I myself write or talk about wine it is less in the world of the everyday and more in the worlds of imagination, creativity and emotion. Perhaps I’m a minority but I’m by no means alone; there are others who engage with wine in similar ways.


Imagination is such a lovely and necessary force in our lives that I instinctively struggle against anything that threatens to curtail it or to force it into “acceptable” channels. So my approach to the debate with Ms. Denig was to ask whether the two worlds could coexist, the crappy everyday world where too many men are swines, alongside the other world of free-range dreaming and wondering and grabbing images that spontaneously come.

Denig pointed out that even work-arounds whereby one doesn’t say masculine/feminine but instead uses words powerfully associated with those (presumed) attributes is also sometimes objectionable. She cited the term “voluptuous” as one connected to a cliché of femininity. Personally I doubt I’ve ever used that word except facetiously. I think “voluptuous” is a queasy kind of word. If I found a wine to be that way I’d probably call it adipose, flabby, “excessively endowed” or just plain fat.   For me a feminine wine is one that calls to (my) mind a set of virtues I cherish, but she’s right, there are other ways to say it.


I also heard from an old pal who had many thoughts of her own but who didn’t want to “share them with a bunch of strangers.” I assured her that y’all were paragons of humanity and civility, and so she agreed to let me share her comments anonymously. I will call her PEG and call myself AL.


PEG: I think the terms masculine & feminine are—while frankly lazy writing—problematically reductive, particularly when used as synonyms for strength, voluptuousness , elegance, etc. 

Taking out questions of offense, I think what struck me the most about all of this debate is the current effectiveness of using the terms “masculine” and “feminine” in talking about wine.  Clearly it’s a matter of semantics, but I wonder [if] these words with their heavily loaded baggage of these words [are] still helpful when discussing wine, or if they are more of a distraction from the message. As synonyms they reduce the words to one specific category. 

AL: True, but it’s a category with many facets. They have indeed become distractions from the message, partly (but not entirely) because of all the recent fussing about them. A writer or speaker cannot control what transpires when her words are loosed into the world and received by other people with all the jazz they bring to the party. But she does well to anticipate when her message may be obscured by static, and then she decides accordingly; does she speak her piece anyway, or does she adjust it in anticipation of her audience’s sensitivities?

PEG: My point is just the opposite, it’s a category with only one facet.  If we write that a wine is “masculine” instead of say...“brawny,” we reduce masculinity to mere brawniness in that moment.  In turn the reader’s mental space of what makes something masculine or feminine is reduced, which is problematic when we are already fighting for wider definitions in spheres outside of the wine world.

AL: We’ll need to agree to differ. I can’t accept your statement “It’s a category with only one facet,” because I think that’s an arbitrarily narrow way to frame the idea. If I write that a wine is “masculine” that means “It exhibits traits I generally associate with masculinity,”  or “ it sends images of men to my mind in many different ways,” and then the audience infers what I mean through an understanding they have in common. Some might call that a “stereotype,” but the speaker/writer is responsible to be as clear as possible about precisely what he means. Personally, if I thought a wine was “brawny” then that’s the word I’d use. If I thought it was a “gamine” then that’s what I would say.  I’d use (and have used, and won’t use any more) masculine/feminine to refer to paradigms, and a wine’s ability to ignite my imagination to consider them. I’ll find a work-around going forward, even as I continue to defend the idea that these terms are not merely or exclusively value-weighted.


Let’s establish that both “masculine” and “feminine” describe not one isolated and fixed monolith, but rather a range of options I would describe as fluid, though I recognize that many others see the terms as more normative and rigid. How does one “define” masculine? Is it Steve Bannon, Deepak Chopra, Vince MacMahon or the Dalai Lama? What thing is (or might be) irreducible in all this? 

PEG: You are generous with your audience.  I am more cynical.  While you and I may see these two concepts as fluid, many don’t.    Returning us to the question of how does your reader interpret the term. What does it mean? 

Counterpoint—- if you can’t define it, how do you successfully use it as an adjective?

AL: I assume the best of my audience until I have evidence to the contrary. But if I let myself be over-concerned with how any thing I say or word I use could be misconstrued, then I am paralyzed and the censors have won. The censorship of those with whom I agree may be less caustic then otherwise, but it’s still censorship and it’s something we need to guard against. And to your counterpoint, I do define it, as a metaphorical paradigm and not as a socio-political construct toting its bag-of-grievances behind it.

PEG: [But remember], the goal of avoiding certain phrasing is not merely to avoid offense, but to avoid perpetuating harmful societal concepts, however innocently done (or not) by the writer. I’ll refer you to the current conversation on the use of terms “master” and “slave “ in computer hardware as a good example from outside the wine world.

AL: Got it. But! “Master” and “slave” are definitely, explicitly normative. They describe not merely states of being but states of relationship whereby one party is manifestly inferior to the other. One can quarrel with the descriptive baggage attached to masculine/feminine, but the words themselves do not inherently suggest value judgments.

PEG: I’d have to disagree with this last clause, systematic sexism exists and unfortunately “feminine” can be perceived as a pejorative adjective.  I certainly don’t see myself as inferior, but I am always aware that there are many men who do. Unfortunately we live in a patriarchal power structure, not an equitable one. 

AL: Anything “can be” construed/perceived through the filters of anyone’s agenda. The patriarchy exists, misogyny exists, it’s a weight women carry that you shouldn’t have to. But even if you’re right about everything you say here – and I think you are – it is your inference and not my intent to attach “inferior[ity]” to the word feminine. We all need to be careful about how many eggshells we strew about the landscape, because eventually people will be afraid to rise from their beds and walk at all. Not just men: people – all of us.

PEG: I think the word “cliche” is key here.   The terms feminine and masculine  in their current usage are set up as a dichotomy, where if one is “strong” then the other is not.  Herein comes the implied inferiority.   (And it’s not just inferiority between men and women.  Why are beauty, elegance, art and aesthetics valued less than logic and industry?  But that’s a whole other convo for a diff day!!) 

What you referred to as “cliches about gender typicity” are often baseless and yet we embrace and reinforce them as well as their dichotomy by using them in wine speak with the assumption that our readers will know what we are trying to say.  For many women these gender clichés are dated, tied up with past and present oppression and discrimination.  We can do better. 


AL: My gender paradigms are along lines of Platonic visions and are by no means socially proscriptive. As to my readers, if I assumed they wouldn’t know what I was trying to say, I’d have to stop writing. I hope to be considerate toward my reader by writing as clearly as I can, but if I’m misconstrued, it’s that pesky human-condition thing. Any given reader (or listener) can grind my words through their filters and what emerges is nothing like I said – or meant to say. Can’t be helped. But I do think we need to keep a close eye on our de-facto List Of Forbidden Words, because if we let it get out of hand we’ll barely have discourse any more.

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