Unpacking the women-shaped gaps in wine with Felicity Carter

Aug 20, 2021

Over the past decade or two, various studies have shown that women’s olfactory abilities are far superior to those of men. Among other things, it has been proven that women have 50% more brain activity when processing smells, and that they are also more sensitive to new odours and fragrances.

Considering the importance of aroma and its impact on the taste of a wine, one simply has to wonder: does this biological advantage not set women up as the preferred sex for tasting panels? And if so, why these panels continue to be dominated by men?

In the latest episode of the Vinimark Podcast, host Jono Le Feuvre asked acclaimed wine journalist Felicity Carter to speak to this contentious issue and her answer might surprise you.

“It’s a very dangerous road to go down,” Carter said. “There’s a long and ugly history of using physiology to discriminate in various ways. It’s called biological determinism and it’s often been used against women.”

She added that having the ideal physiological traits for a certain activity does not necessarily mean anything unless it’s paired with appropriate training and interest.

“So, a guy of 60 who spent 40 years immersed in wine with knowledge and experience will always beat somebody who may be physiologically better able to smell, but doesn’t have that knowledge and experience,” she explained.

This does not, however, mean that Carter is unfazed by the still fairly poor representation of women on critical panels.

“Of course we need more women on tasting panels, but not for that reason,” she said. “Rather because we know that more diverse panels in terms of age, gender, ethnicity will always outperform panels that are more homogenous.”

A question of wealth

Sadly, when it comes to the wine, it’s not only critical panels where women’s representation falls short. Even though research shows that, globally, women make up a larger segment of the wine buying market, a measure of discrimination exists in the deeply embedded notion that women prefer cheaper supermarket wines, while men are the ones buying and drinking fine wines at premium price-points.

“That, in fact, is true. If you talk to people at Sotheby’s or those who deal in fine wine, you will find that it’s still men who buy predominantly top end wine,” Carter confirmed. “But what’s never been considered is that maybe this is a function of wealth rather than of gender.”

In the much younger wine markets of China and Hong Kong, where things only really took off in about 2008, it’s interesting to note a fifty-fifty split in terms of the fine wine consumer.

“So, this actually seems to have a lot to do with cultural expectations and money much more than anything else,” said Carter. “And I think what we’ll find is that as women get wealthier – which is beginning to happen – they will naturally move into this fine wine area.”

Women owning land

Women getting wealthier, of course, greatly depends on discrimination in the job market coming to an end.

Carter pointed out that while women are well represented in the marketing side of many industries, finance, logistics and land ownership are still very much male territory.

“There are more female winemakers as employees, but there are still very few women that own wineries or land. And that’s a really big thing,” she said.

A new dawn is, however, breaking in this regard, Carter reported.

“We’re in the middle of a major transition at the moment,” she said. “As baby boomers start retiring, they’re handing over their wineries to the next generation. And for the first time in history, the next generation includes women.”

In eras past and across most cultures, land was considered an asset exclusively passed down along the male line of a family. There were various reasons for this, mostly concerning the family name (and the fact that married women were expected to change theirs to those of their husbands) as well as the possibility of land handed down to a daughter ending up in the possession of her husband’s family.

Fortunately, in many wine-making cultures, we’re finally seeing daughters being considered equal heirs to sons.

“What we’re seeing in Europe is a massive feminisation of wine, which is really extraordinary,” said Carter. “Some of the really big properties in France are being passed to daughters and are now being run by women. Women are now at the helm of some of the most prestigious and important parts of the wine industry that have ever existed.”

Time to take women seriously

With these promising changes taking place on a high level, Carter expressed her hope that we will see a fresh approach to women in wine filter down to all spheres of the industry.

She referred to the fact that while many wine companies recognise women as good consumers, they continue to assume that women prefer cheap supermarket wines to fine or artisanal alternatives.

“Of course, in reality, there are loads of women who are involved in this area, but if we talk about the vast mass of consumers, the marketing messages targeting women are still about cheap and nasty rosés and I’d like to see that change,” she concluded.

“I’d like to see women taken more seriously as consumers rather than being treated as cash cows.”

Listen to the full podcast episode below.

You can also visit Felicity Carter’s website to find out more about her and read some of her work.

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