“I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory.” So said Mme Lily Bollinger of the famous Champagne house. She, and the Widow (La Veuve) Clicquot, show that women have long been powerful and creative in the world of wine but they were exceptional for their time and it is still an industry that in many ways is controlled by men.
March 8th is International Women’s Day and while the fight for equality is of course year round, it makes a useful reminder to reflect on how, and if, things are changing in the wine industry, from the wine growing and making, to the sharp end of sales.
It is a source of shame that hospitality has been a very inhospitable place for many women for too long. The combination of late nights, the high pressure environment of a busy restaurant, a macho work culture and, it has to be said, alcohol, has made sexual harassment unacceptably common. This is changing, but that change cannot come too fast.
Amongst the gatekeepers of wine; the supermarket buyers, the agents and importers, the marketeers, the people who largely select what goes on shelves and wine lists, the picture is happily much more mixed in the UK at least. Many buyers are women and their say holds sway over what we as consumers get to choose from.
Wine being an international business though, this can lead to some unfortunate cultural clashes when female buyers are dealing with countries that still have a male dominated culture. I have been in meetings where the women was the one who had the power but the man in the room, any man in the room, was treated as more important. And a friend was surprised to be invited to her potential suppliers favourite post dinner entertainment, a strip club. Embarrassment and confusion all round when the wine producer discovered the big budget buyer they had been emailing was in fact a woman.
There are some very important influencers too. Journalists like Jancis Robinson (Financial Times et al), Fiona Beckett (The Guardian), Jane MacQuitty (The Times), Alice Feiring in the US to name a few are there very week choosing their favourite bottles.
Isabel Legeron runs Raw, an organisation that presents wine tastings in Europe, the UK, the US and Canada focused on organic and natural wines, the fastest growing sector in wine and one which is attracting a whole new audience.
And “Wine Folly” is a book, series of podcasts, videos, social media content, created by sommelier Madeleine Puckette which are fantastic, no nonsense and fun introductions and explorations of the wonderful world of wine. A fresh and exciting take on a much discussed topic.
But as important as these gatekeepers and influencers are it is the creators, the winemakers whose fresh approach is helping drive change. Two quotes perhaps sum up the attitude of the growing number of women winemakers, especially in the natural wine world. They illuminate what these women have in common: the willingness to accept what nature gives them rather than try to dominate it, too often the default position of old school “male” winemaking.
“In its harmonies and roughness, (wine) talks about the land where it comes from and also about me. Substance is nothing, what counts is the gesture by which they are made”. Arianna Occhipinti, Sicily.
“International style can be produced by everyone, everywhere. My wines are my own. They are here and now. And that is, for me, the most beautiful thing. Like my life in the vineyards”. Judith Beck, Burgenland, Austria.
And of course, everyone knows that women generally have a better sense of smell and taste than men which makes them perhaps the most important consumers of wine. Rather than handing the wine list to any male present at the restaurant table, or letting the man choose the wine in the shop, it is time to take control and choose the bottle you drink!
Two to try:
La Stoppa, Ageno, Emilia, Italy - Elena Pantaleoni runs her estate, La Stoppa, according to biodynamic principles and this wine made with extended skin contact is the epitome of orange or amber winemaking. Herbal, honeyed, peaches, pears, sweet apricot. It's amazing. Drink with some great cheese. Buy it here
La Calmette, Serpent à Plumes, Vin de France, Cahors, France - Maya Sallée at Domaine la Calmette in Cahors, South West France, has brought her technical expertise to a very natural producer. This red is a blend of Malbec and Merlot is packed with fruit but light on its feet. Buy it here