In Defense of Describing Wines as Masculine, Feminine, and Sexy

Neal D. Hulkower

Except for my own personal use, as a favor to a friend or colleague, or to satisfy a requirement for a gig, I eschew writing wine tasting notes. Consequently, I dismissed Vicki Denig’s rant against alleged sexist terms on wine-searcher.com on 20 October 2020 (https://www.winesearcher.com/m/2020/10/time-to-kill-gender-stereotypes-in-wine) as yet another misguided lunge by a hypersensitive. But when it became the subject of an entire session entitled “Term Exploder” on the first day of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers (WWS21, held via Zoom from 10 to 12 May 2021), my reverie was disrupted, and I was rudely awakened. The cancel culture has seeped into the world of wine writing. In response, I took to the chat to offer a different perspective.  I offer this rebuttal based on the position I put forth in that chat.

At the start of the session, the panelists were asked to “Explode this Tasting Note”: “A wine of great breeding, the XXXX bursts from the glass with sweet smells of black currant, pain grille, and exotic spices. Masculine on the palate, with a sexy core of rich, dark fruit supported by a lingering acidity. Has the potential for medium to long-term cellaring and would pair well with almost any stewed meat dish. A serious wine for the collector set and a fine example of the varietal.” Almost every adjective and noun pushed someone’s buttons, with “masculine” and “sexy” singled out for extensive condemnation. Who knew the path from wines to lines could be so fraught?

This session elicited responses from two admittedly more notable wine writers. In her article, “The evolving language of wine” (https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/evolving-language-wine), Jancis Robinson writes: “I guiltily did a quick search of the 200,000+ tasting notes published on JancisRobinson.com since 2000 and – sure enough – found 192 masculines, 147 feminines and 37 sexys, although many of them were quotes from producers, or were preceded by the get-out ‘stereotypically’.”

Without an ounce of guilt, I decided to scan through my 450 notes on wines I sampled between 1969 and 1979.  I found three that contained “feminine” and none with “masculine” or “sexy.”  (More on how I’ve been making up for this omission lately below.) Here is part of my description of a 1962 Château Margaux that I tasted on 2 October 1977: “… Lovely medium deep elegant mature color. Flowery perfume – vegetable bouquet prominent at first – with air – nose becomes better balanced – flowery, fruit, herbal. Delicate flavor – flowers and fruit fade rapidly into a lovely long finish. Very feminine. Overpriced [at $27.50 less 10%, mind you], but interesting…” My reaction to a 1967 Corton “Hospices de Beaune” consumed on 12 January 1976 concludes with “A very pretty, feminine burgundy.”   And then there is a 1970 Gevrey Chambertin sampled on 7 November 1975: “…Light, elegant well balanced taste – very feminine taste.” Decades after they were written, these records of wines help me recall the experience of drinking some truly exceptional bottles.  Until recently, I would engage in a parlor game with my dinner guests and ask them to read a description I had written decades earlier to see if I could recall which wine it corresponded to.  Gender terms are among those useful in stimulating such memories.

W. Blake Gray blogged his reaction to WWS21 under the heading “Professional wine tasting notes are for the reader, not the writer” (https://blog.wblakegray.com/).  A long time hater of sessions on tasting notes, Gray offered a two-part rant focusing on the purpose of describing a wine in words. While I appreciate his complex and nuanced arguments, I take issue with the following: “Nobody should call a wine ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ in 2021 because nobody knows what that means anymore; half the women in San Francisco can kick my ass, and the other half say, ‘What do you mean, only half?’”

I certainly have no trouble knowing what masculine and feminine mean in the biological sense and have an unambiguous notion of what I mean when describing wines with these terms.  Also, there are plenty of wine terms being used that have no universally recognized meaning. For example, consider the pervasive “minerality” which carries with it the additional absurdity that rocks have taste or smell. Instead, what we are doing here is using the terms as metaphors which can evoke memories of similar tasting experiences.  They are certainly not intended to be offensive or to be in any way exclusionary. The latter was the justification given by the panelists for retiring these terms without any evidence, anecdotal or statistical, that folks are traumatized by their use.  Certainly, men enjoy wines described as feminine just as women enjoy wines described as masculine. In an inane conflation, Denig advises: “Next time you’re tempted to use a gender-focused tasting descriptor, think about how you would react if someone characterized a wine as ‘white/Black’, ‘gay’, or ‘elderly’ on the palate. If you’d find any of these terms offensive, then imagine how some of us men and women feel.” I’m sorry, I simply don’t buy into this comparison and even find it offensive.  

I remain unchastened. In fact, I have since increased my use of these terms and even found a way to acknowledge those who have not made up their minds which sex they are.  At one of the tasting rooms in which I pour, there is a wine that naturally lends itself to being described in gender terms. It is a lovely pour that starts masculine, i.e., rustic and funky, then gets in touch with its feminine self, exuding floral and perfumed aromas, before returning to show its more macho side. This single vineyard Pinot noir is a shining example of a gender fluid fluid! Far from offending visitors, my characterization is appreciated, revelatory, and even endorsed.  No one has pushed back, and sales are good for this higher priced bottle.  Denig made this offer to those who might be offended:  “Next time a winemaker, tasting room employee, or sommelier uses a gender-focused descriptor, feel free to check them. Or send them my way.”  I look forward to her call.

“Sexy” also came under attack.  One of the WWS21 panelists termed it awkward. But once again, these PC word police have arrogated the responsibility to purge the language of descriptors that they deem inappropriate without offering any evidence of the need to do so beyond their feelings or the feelings of those they seem to want to represent. But since “sexy” is used to describe a particularly alluring or seductive bottle without any reference to the various facets of the act like who, how many, what, what kind, where, how often, and with which parts, the word should remain in the lexicon of terms.  One is free to ignore the term or use his or her imagination to personalize its meaning.  “Slutty” also came up and in the heat of battle, I agreed in the chat that this was an unacceptable term.  I hereby withdraw my objection.  I have in fact had wines that were overly generous and a little too eager to please.

Like Denig, the same panelist who had problems with “sexy” labeled “masculine” and “feminine” “lazy cliches,” and was joined by his fellow scolds. But like all imprecise descriptors, really the preponderance of those used for wine, they are merely suggestive and can elicit memories of similar wines. If you want to attack a term for being lazy, look no further than the afore mentioned “minerality,” the pandemic use of which has led Alex Maltman, a noted Welsh geologist and winegrower, to produce a stream of articles and a book to set straight the record.  It is also a term for which there is no consensus definition. Everyone seems to acknowledge, and science provides solid evidence that one’s perception of wine is subjective. Compound that with different cultural references and experiences and no one can expect anyone else’s tasting note to precisely reflect his or her perception. Furthermore, tasting a glass of fine wine over a period of time is like dipping your feet into a stream.  It is never the same moment to moment.  

And what about wine scores?  Despised by many but used, nonetheless.  Even WWS21 keynoter Jancis Robinson expressed her disgust with them yet still assigns them. As an applied mathematician, I regard scores as a most egregious form of number abuse ironically referenced with reverence by innumerates!  Should I start a movement based on my bruised sensibilities to ban their use? Better to simply ignore them.   

While free speech is a precious right, there is no inalienable right not to be offended, especially on behalf of unnamed others.  As such, I am not particularly interested if you find my terminology lazy, inappropriate, non-inclusive, or dated.  It works for me and likely others who use it or resonate with it. If you can’t stand the reference, take heart, many of us are boomers who are slowly leaving the wine scene. I hate tasting notes anyway. What these verbal prohibitionists are advocating is a one size fits all version that will certainly make them so diluted that they become even more useless.  Nevertheless, this free speech absolutist welcomes all voices in wine writing and believes that all should be heard…including mine.

Now go ‘way and let me nap.

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