The End of Gendering Wine

In traditional wine writing, education and marketing, gendered language has been used to describe everything from texture to geographical region to level of skin contact. Structured wines are masculine. Velvety wines, feminine. Rich, tannic Napa reds are for him, while satiny, pink Provençal rosé is for her. In Robert Parker’s 2002 Wine Buyer’s Guide, the terms are deployed no fewer than 75 times each, with “masculine” appearing most often in association with the words “powerful” and “muscular,” and “feminine” coinciding with “supple” or “sexy.” Today, it’s commonplace to hear the descriptor “slutty” wielded to describe a particularly aromatic sauvignon blanc, or “mom wine” used in correlation with a particularly suburban marketing sector.

It takes only a quick peek into the archives of wine atlases, compendiums and study guides to understand that the wine world has been built upon a binary that is restricted not only to gender but socioeconomics, politics and colonization—a dynamic best encapsulated by the terms “new world” and “old world.” And of course, these binaries have been defined by a mainstream positioning itself in opposition to “the other,” or anyone who falls outside of the paradigm of wealthy white male wine collector.

Of late, though, the language of wine is beginning to shift. This panel was originally born out of an observation of the term “nonbinary” as used on a wine bar’s menu to describe wines that defied the categorization of white, red, rosé or orange. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of nonbinary includes: a) “not restricted to two things or parts”; b) “of, relating to, or being a system of numbers that does not use 2 as its base”; and c) “relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female.” Nonbinary Wiki defines “nonbinary” as someone who “can identify with not having gender at all, with both binary genders, with a third identity, or an identity which can change over time.”

As the definition of “nonbinary” has evolved to become synonymous with the concept of gender identity as a spectrum, what does it mean to describe a wine as such? Does it perpetuate the same problem as calling a wine “feminine” or “slutty”? This question bloomed into a much larger conversation about appropriation, colonialism and the ways in which people have been forced to experience wine through the lens of a gender binary. In the end, another question was raised: What might the world look like if such a notion was dispensed with altogether?

Darwin Acosta (they/them): Winemaking, vineyard and hospitality assistant at Burgess Cellars and founder of Co-Fermented, Napa, California
Jirka Jireh (she/her): Wine consultant, New York City
Justine Belle Lambright (they/them): Co-founder and director of external business for Kalchē Wine Cooperative, Fletcher, Vermont
Drew Record (he/him/they/them): Managing partner at Chezchez, San Francisco
James Sligh (he/him): Founder of Children’s Atlas of Wine and co-founder of Industry Sessions, New York City
Eryka V. (they/them): Sr. global director of culture & community Blue Bottle Coffee, Oakland, California
Kae Whalen (they/them): Wine consultant and host of “Gay Wine,” Los Angeles
Luke Wylde (he/him/they/them, X): Winemaker at Abbey Road Farm and owner of Statera Cellars and Lares Wines, Willamette Valley, Oregon

To start, can we all throw out one of those things where we’ve encountered someone gendering wine or beverage or food?

Luke Wylde: Brosé. It’s a common one that we’re all experiencing real-time in the market.

Justine Belle Lambright: The first thing that popped into my head was the gendered nature of order-taking that you’re taught when you go through a certification course. It’s asking you to make the assumption of people who are sitting at your table and put a gender onto them. And then from there, make prioritization based off of archaic rules on who should be served first.

Kae Whalen: I’m not going to name the winemaker, but they—I don’t know how they identify, so I’m just going to use “they”—named a [yet-to-be-released] wine “They/Them/Theirs.” My first thought when I saw the bottle was, “Why do that?”

Darwin Acosta: For me, it’s always been the assumption that the person in charge in the cellar or in the winery, or who’s running whatever’s going on that day, has to be a cis man. And whenever I’d come out and I have a bandana or a colorful shirt or something, or one of my co-workers comes out, or even Meghan, the winemaker, [the assumer has] a puzzled look.

Drew Record: I think the descriptions of wines as masculine and feminine as we were coming up, being trained, there was always this binary. We’re going to talk about Bordeaux in these terms and Burgundy in these terms.

James Sligh: When I worked for Pascaline [Lepeltier] at Rouge Tomate, she made the observation [that] you have these classic wine regions that are plugged into exactly that framework. So you have Barolo and Barbaresco or how people try to sort the Bordeaux crus. She hated that and she was like, “Well, it’s this backhanded thing where it’s always code.” When they’re saying that Margaux is feminine, it’s because it’s dilute; the level of quality is low. It’s actually just not as good. So it’s both: It’s both gender essentializing, but then also implicitly making a hierarchy based on gender then based on wine.

Why has the impulse in traditional wine education been to use this binary structure?

JBL: How we view wine in general is directly a product of colonialism. Specifically from these countries using what we will call romance languages using gendered language. So we’re inheriting not only these linguistic aspects of gender, but then we are imparting our own stereotypes and biases onto it. It doesn’t say anything about the wine. It just makes assumptions [based on] the person’s intrinsic biases.

LW: The pervasively patriarchal structure of the court of sommeliers is probably a large part of that as well—that we’ve all just come to expect white men to determine how things are defined or marketed to the rest of the world.

JS: To build on that, I think that the Court of Masters didn’t even invent it. They’re playing this game of telephone. If you look at British wine writing a hundred years ago, how wine was described was not in terms of fruit or flowers, but it was what they found important, which was social hierarchy. So wine was rustic, or it was aristocratic. It had mud on its boots, or it was in a drawing room. And so much of how you learn to talk about wine, if you’re on the floor, is hearing how other people talk about it and implicitly understanding that that’s the way you’re supposed to talk. I came up in more fine-dining settings. So that’s how I felt, that there’s a right way to go to a table. Especially when you’re young and inexperienced, you’re wanting to fit in to sound like you know what you’re talking about.

DR: We tend to inherit words from whoever we trained under, and they inherit words from whoever they trained under, which is how evolution of these terms ended up getting things like “sexy” being set in a dining room, or even—or “slutty” to describe a wine. Why is an entire generation of wine professionals describing something as “slutty”?

KW: I’m reeling from this. I feel very lucky that Lee Campbell was the person to first train me… I was at Diner and Lee was the beverage director of the Tarlow group. Her emphasis was always on process and story of the person who made [the wine]. That was something that I took to heart as the most important thing to communicate to a table, as opposed to trying to describe how something tastes. What I took from her training was that trying to describe something as subjective as taste is often not the best way to communicate what a wine is really about. Masculine, feminine—these are, in a way, kind of empty categories if you really start to interrogate them.

When we get into these categories and we start to look underneath the surface of “sexy” or “feminine” or “masculine,” how are these terms impacting the way that people experience wine? How are they constructive, destructive?

LW: I think that, often, use of descriptors along gender lines limits people’s experience based on privilege in the same way that using food descriptors is a way of limiting people’s experience through tasting notes. For instance, not everybody who grew up in a specific environment is going to know what currants [a fixture of The Flavor Wheel] taste like. Using food descriptors that place people outside of a generalized experience is a way of limiting how newcomers can come to the table or about making it about all people. And the same thing goes for the limited experience of describing something like masculine or feminine. It’s just a lack of imagination and it’s really, I think, our job as the new wave, nonbinary set to come up with things that really aren’t exclusive when describing the kind of experiential aspect of enjoying wine.

Jirka Jireh: I just want to add that I think it’s everyone’s job to do that. Not just laying it on your shoulders—it’s everyone’s job to do that.

JS: It says a lot about who they imagined is a wine drinker.

KW: If I remember correctly, the jumping off point for this conversation was that there was a bar in New York that was using “nonbinary” to describe wine. I don’t have much context around that.

JJ: There’s a whole category on their wine list, like their wine list is separated by category and there’s a whole “nonbinary” category.

LW: In doing a little bit of research for this, I found some other instances, like Alto Piedmont is a region that’s described as being nonbinary. I think there’s a winery in New Zealand called Non-Binary Winery as well, but specifically is trying to make wines that are “different” or like, “the other.” [Editor’s Note: There is a wine shop in New Zealand that uses “nonbinary” as a category to differentiate wines that are “neither white nor red.”]

What do we talk about when we talk about these terms—in terms of appropriation, in terms of rainbow-washing? How does this make you all feel? What comes up when you see this term being deployed on a menu to describe X, Y or Z thing?

KW: It’s violent.

DA: For me, it’s an educated decision and you’re not being educated in history. You don’t know the impact that you’re going to have on the people that actually put in time to create this language that helps to identify us. It’s really upsetting.

Eryka V.: I think it’s actually quite normal for gender marketing. And now “nonbinary” has just been put in there. Gender marketing has been happening for years. And it alienates the people that it’s actually marketing towards. Gender language is harmful all the time. It’s beyond wine. There’s just gendering of everything, like, “This is bold enough for the him in your life.” It’s constant, daily, repetitive conditioning. This is new conditioning, so they condition you to hear these terms over and over where it becomes alienating for us folks who identify within those realms or love people within those realms or understand what those realms even are.

And then to hear that they’re trying to describe something that’s “different” or “other,” I think it’s violent and harmful… If we could get back to where it’s gender-neutral at all times for everything—we shouldn’t have gender language, period. We’re actually made of a lot more things than just two things.

DR: I think a great example of that terrible gender marketing was a couple of years ago when a prominent whisky brand decided that they needed to change their first name from Johnnie to Jane for a women’s edition of the whisky. This is completely unnecessary. It’s happening now with “nonbinary” because people find it trendy. The only positive that I see from “nonbinary” popping up in nonqueer contexts or more mainstream contexts is folks that have no experience with “nonbinary” then see this word and think about it. And maybe it gives them a moment of, “Oh, what does ‘nonbinary’ mean?” And if they really loved that wine and now positively associate with that wine, when they meet me and I introduce myself as nonbinary, that’s the only glimmer of hope in this entire thing. But there are a lot of other ways we can bring the conversation of “nonbinary” to the broader audience without having to other ourselves on wine lists.

JBL: The word has so much weight and so much meaning. When I first heard the term “nonbinary” and met a nonbinary person and had them talk to me and describe what that was, the level of connection that I felt and the validation in my personhood was so intense and so extreme. And so to see something that means so much—a word that literally changed my life and changed my mind and my heart, or at least allowed me to unleash that part of myself—to see that being used and commodified and sold in that way is dirty. It doesn’t feel respectful and it doesn’t feel right that I get one lifetime to figure out who I am and how I am. And I can’t even have a couple of years where this term can exclusively be for me and for my community. Like, it’s going to be sold by a cis-het person for money. And it just feels bad. Let us keep one thing.

I’m really struck by the use of the word “violence.” I don’t think that I quite understood the impact of what that word meant in these terms.

EV: Language is the easiest violence that is normalized. That is what we hear all day, every day, and has been accepted. We’ve thought of labels like microaggressions, gaslighting, all sorts of little things to label, versus just being able to tell someone, actually, “How you’re speaking to me, the words you’re choosing to use, are violent towards me,” because that’s truly what it is. It takes a toll on you day after day.

KW: I think that we all feel pretty protective of this language because we’ve seen how language can get redeployed in more explicitly violent ways. It’s happened time and again. Even something as innocuous, seemingly, to these people who are putting it on their wine list—it’s not actually innocuous. It’s—I think “lazy” has come up a couple of times—there is a violence in that kind of laziness. It’s obviously couched in their privilege, not really having the full context of that word’s meaning. But it is a lot more insidious than that.

JBL: One of the conversations that we did have at Wild World [Festival] this weekend was wanting to remove categorization and borders from wine lists. This restaurant that we’re talking about … made the wrong choice. However, the direction that they’re going is a good direction. We don’t need to be categorizing white, rosé, red. Having the grape, having the producer, having the agricultural practices or viticultural practices makes a lot of sense. I don’t think that the idea was necessarily bad. I just think it was not well thought out.

As a person just walking into a wine shop or looking at a menu, you’re faced with a barrage of language that isn’t easy to decipher. So in talking about dismantling categories or doing away with the language that we know, how do you lead somebody who doesn’t know wine, but knows that they love it? What’s the new system? Is there a system?

DR: Earlier, we were talking about the inherent privilege of The Flavor Wheel [see: currants], right? And so we have to think about that in whatever system we’re putting together. If we’re describing wines as an experience—there’s a wine that I like to describe as like driving down Highway 1 with the wind blowing through my hair, but that’s also a privileged experience. Someone has to have been able to have the chance to have driven down Highway 1 and been afforded that, and the thought of describing wines as movie stars or fictional books—not everyone’s going to be able to connect to that. Whatever system we are putting together, we have to take into account the experiences of those who are in front of us, which means a more personalized experience getting to know who’s in front of us.

DA: I wanted to pull from what was said earlier—trying to focus on storytelling, and the experiences of the people that are making the wines. It’s the people, it’s the hands that have been involved in making this wine that we as somms or wine sellers are to communicate. It’s really important that we focus on, how does the wine make you feel? Is this creating an experience for you that will make it memorable?

KW: It’s not about relying on the categories, but relying more on process and people and the culture that produces the wines—focusing on, for lack of a better word, facts. It can be both educational and less alienating because you’re not trying to describe an experience that someone else might not share. Instead you’re describing how this wine came into being, and trying to connect that person to the process of the person that created it. The more that people are connected, not just to a product, but how it got to them, is ultimately, to me, the most enriching way to share wine, because it brings that person closer to the source.

JBL: I have never met someone at our level of wine that is not willing to put in thousands of hours of studying. Who’s not willing to hand-write 10,000 flashcards. Who’s not willing to pay thousands of dollars or write grants to get them thousands of dollars to further their education. People are willing to taste thousands and thousands of wines. It’s this obsessive necessity for education that gives us professional growth in the system. And it’s bullshit that someone can’t also do that to make everything more inclusive. And the work doesn’t have to be our work. We don’t have to be the ones that create the new system. I don’t want to be the person to create the new system. That’s not my job. I’m the one that’s being excluded right now. So what I’m saying is, all of the other people who are willing to put in the work to better themselves and to advance themselves and to get themselves professional opportunities, you can take 10 percent of that time and put it to your community. How about that?

EV: I practice that once you categorize things that come from earth, just like ourselves, that you minimize the space of what it is and you minimize its natural state. Because things that come from earth are vast and spacious, ever changing and ever flowing. So once categories come, they make things stagnant and trite. Language reflects and shapes how we experience the world. The more you see categories, that’s how we’re experiencing the world, versus how we’re supposed to experience it as vast and with no boundaries.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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