The new force in wine

Friday, 20. October 2017 - 11:15

I have just received photographs of me in the company of young Russian women. Admittedly, there are also snaps of me with Russian men of varying ages, but the women are in the majority and I think this is quite interesting.

The background to the pictures is easily explained: I was in Russia to work with our importer, Simple, to promote our wines, and everywhere we went there were photographers insisting that I pose briefly with each group of attendees.

The gruelling schedule included a conference in Moscow attended by some 400 professionals, tastings with sommeliers and wine dinners with consumers in the southern regional cities of Anapa, Krasnodar, Novorossiysk and Rostov. At almost all of these events, the women outnumbered, and were younger than, the men. In Krasnodar, for example, 30 of the 50 paying consumers at a wine dinner were women, in pairs or tables of three or four.

Nearly 15 years ago, when I judged at the annual Russian sommelier competition, the ambience was much more macho. The competitors were almost all men. But to judge by the events I attended, today, they might soon be in the minority.

Russia seems to be ahead of the game in this respect. Japan may boast 8,000 sommeliers, but only 4% of the national total are women. From the number of female North American ‘somms’ I’ve met, it would have been easy to imagine that they represent a far larger chunk of the holders of the Master Sommelier qualification, than the “under 14%” reported by Elin McCoy in a 2015 Bloomberg article .

But, as McCoy says, the proportion is rising. The same can be said of consumer events that were once largely the domain of men of a certain age. In China, in particular, the wealthy older men who were such good customers for top flight Bordeaux are being supplanted by professional women in their thirties who’ve developed their own a taste for red Burgundy. Events like Isabelle Legeron MW’s RAW WINE fair in London are packed with young women.

The observation that most wine is bought in supermarkets and that most of those retailers’ customers are female is commonplace. But the apparently logical conclusion that wine buying decisions are generally made by women is often countered by the suggestion that, in a nuclear household, it is still the man who gets to choose – or certainly veto – the alcohol. As one marketer, put it, “the husband has very little say over what goes into the shopping basket – apart from wine, beer and shaving cream”.

But the women who are buying their own tickets to wine tastings, or training to become sommeliers, are self-evidently taking a greater than average interest in the subject.

What difference might this feminization, both in the on-trade and among interested consumers, have on the wine industry? Some feminist readers might balk at the suggestion, but women are thought to use different criteria when shopping. The male of the species, according to Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts, the authors of Inside Her Pretty Little Head is more likely to worry about how his purchases reflect his status to his fellow men. This helps to explain why car manufacturers targeting male buyers make so much effort to promote expressions like horsepower, GTI, Turbo and 16-Valves, and computer sellers are so keen to promote processing speed and the latest operating system. A buyer might have little to no idea what difference eight more valves might make to his driving experience but he’d hate to have fewer than the man next door.

The vinous equivalent of these macho symbols of superiority, comes either in the form of words such as Grand Cru, Special Reserve or Vieilles Vignes, or, of course, as a score out of 100.

If Cunningham and Roberts are to be believed, female car and computer buyers are more practical. Does it do what I want it to do? Will my friends like it? Does it look appealing? According to this theory, Apple, which has always majored on usability and aesthetics is a far more female-friendly manufacturer than Dell, for example, whose ranging has been based on speed and power.

At least one female sommelier seems to agree with the Cunningham and Roberts view. As Lee Campbell, wine director at Brooklyn’s Reynard, told McCoy “For me it’s more about nurturing, providing diners with an experience and unique stories. The male psyche is all about owning, commodifying, and measuring wines. In my early days, at Nick & Toni’s in Easthampton, a hangout for barons of industry, I had to be able to talk about how much the wine was worth. It was like learning to play golf."

My own anecdotal evidence. including my most recent experience in Russia, is that female buyers are indeed far less interested in the number of points a wine has scored, and much more bothered about high alcoholic levels and tough tannins. They have also been among the most open minded when it comes to judging wines from unfamiliar regions. If there is a red wine style that seems to win their approval, it’s often Pinot Noir rather than Cabernet.

Of course, there are plenty of men and women who fail to conform to the stereotype, and all generalisations are only generally reliable. But I’m ready to bet that the women in those Russian photographs - and their counterparts across the globe - are going to have a greater impact on the kinds of wines we’ll all be drinking than most of us probably imagine today.
Robert Joseph