John JuergensMen are from Zin, women from Pinot

These days a person can get into a world of trouble talking about differences between women and men on just about any topic. Right away some people tend to translate this to mean inferiority or superiority, rather than just biologically determined differences.

But when it comes to wine, men and women are as different as a California Cabernet and a French Bordeaux. Let's face it: If males and females can be so very different in so many obvious ways, why should there be any question whether they might perceive certain aspects of wine differently?

I conduct a lot of wine tastings and have been teaching wine classes for many years. Call me a voyeur, but a large part of my fascination with pouring wine for other people is in observing their reactions to different types of wine. I have been accumulating a mental database over the years of the preferences of my "clients," particularly the differences between the genders. Yes, I do know the wine preferences - and I promise that is as far as my curiosity goes - of a large majority of the people who have taken my classes, as well as the more frequent attendees at the tastings I have conducted. (Hey, it's both a gift and a curse, okay? Would you want to carry all this stuff around in your head?)

There has been very little research conducted on this issue, probably because wine marketers don't know how to conduct a valid clinical trial on sensory differences among men and women. However, what is out there does support the notion that women tend to have a more acute sense of smell for the components in wines.

It follows, then, that they might also have a more discriminating perception of wine nuances in the taste. Men tend to go for the big and powerful wines such as massive Zinfandels, while women seem to pick up on the complexities in more delicate wines such as Pinot Noir and have a greater appreciation for white wines. This has been the general pattern I have observed in my wine classes, but, of course, it doesn't mean that there isn't considerable overlap between the sexes. I know lots of guys who drink nothing but white Zinfandel, and women who revel over big, blocky Petite Sirahs.

If this is the case, that women tend to have greater sensitivities to the complexities of wine, then why are men so often in control of the wine list? It probably goes back to the ancient division of labor: Males did the heavy hunting and gathering, and females took care preparation and feeding of the clan. Maybe there was also one of those Darwinian things going on where those who had the more sensitive noses and palates avoided the diseased meats and poisonous plants. In modern times this translates to the man usually doing the heavy lifting in terms of paying the bill. Therefore, he gets to select the wine, regardless of whether he has a clue what he is doing.

There probably is some snobbery involved and a control factor at work here as well. I've heard snobs many times assert that the only real wine is dry red wine, and white wines, especially with any degree of residual sugar, are sissy chick wines. Real wine is man's work and guys think they need to be in control.

One of the great pleasures I get from teaching my wine classes is when a young female student comes back to tell me about a dinner date where the guy is obviously struggling with the wine list and she snatches it out of his hands and takes over the wine ordering.

Marketing research has shown that, overall, women purchase more wine in retail stores more often than men. This means they are making a lot of decisions about what wines their guys drink. A cynic would simply say that the women are just buying what the guys are telling them to buy, but that doesn't seem to be the case. So you would think marketers would develop advertising directed at female consumers, but I have not been able to discern any overt patterns to indicate this is happening. Maybe I'm just too insensitive to notice the subliminal messages imbedded in the ads. After all, I have never been able to comprehend the fundamental issue of what difference it makes whether the toilet seat is up or down.

On thing for sure is that the wine industry is still largely dominated and controlled by men. I'm not sure why this has persisted, but I have seen a trend toward more female wine makers, if not winery owners. Does the gender of the wine maker have an effect on the type of wine produced? I don't know; my intuition (male) tells me it doesn't, but it would be a fun research project.

I just came back from judging a wine competition in Dallas, and I was disappointed that there were no females on my judging panel. I always learn a lot from listening to their perceptions and comments about individual wines. I helps me refine my palate even though sometimes I might not be able to pick up on what they are tasting and smelling.

A female wine writer and educator I know has made similar observations in her wine classes that women tend to have a more sensitive sense of smell. But she also believes anybody can greatly improve their sense of smell by just paying attention to everyday smells, such as different kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery store.

I routinely witness this in my classes. When people take the time to focus on smells and tastes without a lot of other distractions, they quickly learn to recognize more wine components, which greatly expands their wine vocabulary and their ability to verbalize what they are smelling and tasting. It just takes practice.

So ladies, assert yourselves. Let the guys have the remote, but start taking control of the wine list. And guys, if you want to get better acquainted with the feminine side of your wine palate, start sniffing and pay attention to what you are smelling. Hell, even dogs do it.


June 2005

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