VINTAGES Buyers’ Guide – May 25th

Mind the Gap; There is no Equality in Wine

By John Szabo MS

This week I make the case for inequality in wine, and gender equality in winemakers, with a nod to the May 25th VINTAGES release main theme of “Women in Wine”. While David was sipping Mantonegro in Mallorca, Sara was knocking back Porto in Portugal, and Michael was marvelling at the Sicilian countryside (and tasting all of the current releases) last week, I alone was left holding the glass, without anyone to rein in my questionable philosophical ramblings or corroborate my tastings. But give it a read in any case and let me know what you think. Or, head straight to my buyers’ guide which features the top five selections made by both women and men – parity in picks, or minding the gender gap, as it were. The rest of the Crü will be back next week to share their exciting finds.

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Mind The Gap

Four out of nine members of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury are women. Last year, five women out of nine awarded the festival’s top prize. An average, even split. At the 2018 National Wine Awards of Canada, 9 out of 21 judges were female, and this June we’ll have 11 out of 21, also more or less 50-50.

But that’s not to say there’s gender parity in the world of either film or wine. Far from it. Those isolated stats are misleading. Male directors still make more films and earn more money on average than their female counterparts. And out of 164 Master Sommeliers currently in the Americas’ chapter, for example, only 26 are women, or 15% (although course enrollment is now far closer to even). Both film and wine are male-dominated businesses; I guess the Cannes organizers and WineAlign just try a little harder to represent reality, and convene panels that reflect society.

The desperately tradition-bound wine industry is particularly male-dominated, especially when it comes to the people who make the stuff. It’s why initiatives like the various “Women in Wine” events held yearly to celebrate women in all aspects of the wine business are, sadly, necessary. You often have to push hard past the mid-way point in order to return to equilibrium. And it will still take a lot of pushing to even things out in the wine world.

There’s a great deal of irony in the fact that, on paper at least, women should make better winemakers. Among the attributes of a great winemaker in my view are less ego, and more humility and sensitivity, to allow the individual expression of each grape and place to win out over any imposed idea of style. A great winemaker listens to the wine and reacts intuitively, and even then only when absolutely necessary and as minimally as possible, rather than jumping straight in to problem solving when there may be no problem, thinking they have all the answers. Patience is critical. And, of course, a very good nose and palate also helps shape and guide wines to their maximal expression. These are not the attributes of the average testosterone-heavy human.

And yet despite their obvious biological deficiencies for this particular business, some men manage to make pretty good wine, too. Some might even say equally as good as those made by women.

So can you tell the difference between a wine made by a man and woman? Of course not. Even the descriptive terms “feminine” and “masculine”, now outmoded, are flimsy social constructs, which have historically been applied to wines made largely by men in any case. No, there’s little to tell between man-made and woman-made wines; they come in all conceivable shapes and sizes from both sides of the gender divide. They are equally different.

I also find some irony in the fact that that the world’s fascination with wine is driven by inequality. I’m talking here about the product itself, not the people in the business. Each grape has its own range of potential, some greater, some lesser, as does each patch of land where grapevines are grown. None of them are perfectly equal. The trees grown in different forests produce barrels with different qualities. Different climates produce different results, for better or for worse. These are only a few of the unequal origins of wines. And the inequality of wine extends beyond style to status and prestige. In fact, the wine business encourages a downright medieval concept of social status, from peasant to seigneur, reflected in price and desirability. Some wines have it by birthright, others will never have it.

But is that so bad? Imagine how dull the wine world would be if every wine cost the same, like line-priced soft drinks with different flavours. What would you aspire to? How would you celebrate, or enjoy a more casual evening when you can switch off and not feel the need to focus on every flavour detail? How would you show more love, or less love to a dinner host or gift recipient? Inequality has its advantages. And the beauty of wine is its technicolor variations in history, flavour, availability and hierarchical status. Wine thrives on inequality and difference.

So what’s the best way to achieve maximum variation and inequality in wine? A logical starting point is maximum variation on the production side, not just the places, but also the people who make it, for as broad an interpretation as possible. This means that production would also have to logically split down the gender divide, lest one gender corner the market and threaten variation. And since the world’s population is split just about 50-50 (with allowances for non-gendered individuals), this means we need an equal percentage of female and male winemakers to achieve our goals.

So, if it takes a few Women in Wine features to push us closer to our goals, and encourage the equal enrollment of women in the winemaking schools of the future, I’m all for it (even if my argument is philosophically questionable). I also look forward to the day when we can have just plain old “wine” events, and revel in each bottle’s diversity and inequality.

To celebrate the Vintages May 25th Women in Wine Theme, and to also respect my goal of maximum diversity, I’ve selected ten excellent wines that happen to be made by an almost equal number of men and women. They’re all worth trying.

Vintage’s Buyer’s Guide May 25th: Best Wines Made By Women

Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2018, Margaret River, Western Australia ($24.95) John Szabo – Not only is Virginia Willcock one of the most awarded female winemakers in Australia (actually just winemakers, tout court), she’s one of my favourite people on planet wine. Sharp and vivid, just like her wines, she brings a breath of fresh air and sorely needed irreverence to the business. It helps that she has a choice spot in Margaret River as her canvas, but her interpretation of it is equally brilliant. This is another fine example at the (excellent) entry-level from Vasse Felix, over-delivering at the price.…


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That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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