Of Wine and Women
Serious wine collecting is no longer a male sport. Why don't marketers get it?
By ALICE FEIRING
Posted Monday, Apr. 03, 2006
Brace yourselves. A new wave of wine marketing is upon us. Julie Brosterman found herself drenched in it as she strolled the aisles of a Rite Aid in Los Angeles. Surrounding her were towering displays of pink and white wines in bottles bearing such flowery names as Seduction and White Lie. Brosterman, creator of the website womenwine.com derisively dubs them the Virginia Slims of the wine trade.
Perhaps the parade of pastel bottles just beyond the cosmetics aisle is inevitable--at least in states like California, where wine may be sold beside grocery items. For while men continue to do the bulk of the nation's beer and hard-liquor buying, new surveys by Gallup and by Adams Media confirm that women make 55% of U.S. wine purchases. With that information in hand, wine marketers, after decades of ignoring women, are suddenly chasing them like dogs after a bone. "I just wish they wouldn't resort to stereotyping and patronizing us in the process," complains Mary Ewing- Mulligan, president of the International Wine Center in New York City and author of several books on wine.
Indeed, several new wines aimed at women border on the insulting. Seduction, a $28 bottle by the Napa Valley's O'Brien Family Vineyard, comes wrapped in a little gauzy sheath as if it were out of Victoria's Secret, with label copy that reads as if it were from a romance novel: "voluptuous, with sensual flavours and a velvet kiss." Says Ewing-Mulligan: "Seduction is so outrageous that it's almost acceptable," and it helps that the Wine Spectator gave the Bordeaux-style blend a respectable 89 rating. But there is White Lie Early Season Chardonnay--a de-alcoholized concoction selling for about $10 a bottle, aimed at women who are counting calories. In this case, it's what's inside the bottle that is "downright offensive," says Ewing-Mulligan, who in 1993 was the first U.S. woman to earn a Master of Wine degree. White Lie has more in common with Diet Coke than with white Burgundy.
The irony is that all this fluff and fribble are arriving just as more women are getting serious about wine. That's the real news, says wine auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski, author of the forthcoming Wine Lover's Guide to Auctions. From her auctioneer's perch, Hermacinski sees more women raising bidding paddles and crashing the largely male club of wine collectors. "At each new auction, there seems to be a new female face, bidding on her own, for her own account, as opposed to holding her husband's or boyfriend's paddle," says Hermacinski. "At the last auction there was a table of three women bidding on top-quality Burgundy. They were having so much fun. They knew just when to stop and just when to push it. I was very impressed."
There are other signs of the trend as well. Wine Adventure, a magazine specifically devoted to female wine buffs, debuted in July 2005; it even has a sex column, "The Sensual Side." And Mulligan has seen a long-term rise in women signing up for classes. Back in 1982, classes at the Wine Center "were predominantly male," she says. "Now our classes are about fifty-fifty." Brosterman's website is another indication. The site, designed to appeal to women who want more from wine than a flirty label, offers a buying club with some sophisticated choices and travel opportunities for women wishing to take wine-tasting trips like the one featured in the 2004 film Sideways.
While surveys suggest that most women continue to buy just one or two bottles at a time for immediate consumption, a growing number of female devotees are discovering the pleasures--and surprising affordability--of starting a small collection or cellar and allowing wines to develop over time. When wine is young, its fruit often pops out of the glass, but as it ages--if the wine comes from good soil and a good producer--the fruit fades and the complexity deepens. Women may actually appreciate the nuances of flavor and bouquet more than men do, because studies suggest that they have a more acute nose and palate. To anyone familiar with young wine only, the old stuff comes as a revelation. And you don't have to mortgage the house to start acquiring; $60 a month will do.
That's how Ronni Olitsky began collecting. A mom, wife, music teacher for tots and co-founder of the Polka Dots (a pop band for young children) in Concord, Mass., she's in charge of her family's wine cache. Olitsky has discovered that even an entry-level wine from a really good producer ages well. She shoots for the best wine in her price range and buys just four to six bottles a month to lay down in the coolest part of her cellar. Food writer Melissa Clark, author of Chef, Interrupted, takes the same approach. But while Olitsky uses her cool New England basement, Clark, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., decided to build a protected environment for her bottles. "I want them to grow old gracefully," she explains. Rather than investing in a refrigerated wine closet, she had a carpenter construct a simple room in her cellar and plunked in an air conditioner. Both women focus on bottles that cost between $10 and $15 apiece that will give plenty of pleasure in five to 10 years. Neither has much interest in holding the wines for many decades, a practice that requires big-budget wines and storage facilities.
According to Hermacinski, this bargain level of wine collecting is mostly neglected by men. "They often shop by reading the Wine Spectator for their high-scoring and expensive recommendations," she observes. Women are more likely to ask advice from a person at a wine shop, according to a survey by Constellation Wines U.S. They appear to be less influenced by formal ratings. (Both genders, however, can be suckers for a nice label, according to the survey, though men are more drawn to images of chteaux, coats of arms and braiding, as opposed to the scenic and floral labels that attract women.)
Of course, it's what's on the inside that really counts. And that falls very much under the mystical influence of time. A bottle of wine, as Maya, the oenophilic waitress in Sideways points out, reflects the soil, the sun and the rain of the year its grapes were grown. Its ultimate flavor, though, will also reflect the burnishing influence of the years it lay in wait of a corkscrew. As more women discover that age-old truth about wine and waiting, it's a good bet that fewer will settle for the little White Lie of a cutesy label.