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March 15, 2012

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A toast to wine industry women

THE history of wine-making and wine appreciation has not been kind to women. Traditionally the wine trade and media as well as the art of wine appreciation have been bastions of male domination and chauvinism. Only in more recent times has the business and appreciation of wine been more open to women.

I think this a particularly germane topic for this week's column as women worldwide, and in particular women in Shanghai, are playing more important roles in the making and consumption of wine.


Since early civilizations in the Near East first started making wine around seven millenniums ago; the business and appreciation of wine has been a male domain. There are exceptions but it's accurate to say the wine industry has historically been one of the most male-dominated and gender discriminating of all industries. As the art of wine-making spread to the early Mediterranean cultures, women continued to be kept away from the business and appreciation of wine.

Ancient Rome was not much better and during certain stages of the empire, women caught drinking could legally be put to death by their husbands and family.

Some aristocratic women did drink in ancient times but only under the close supervision of men. Medieval times continued to depict women who drank as less than reputable characters and it was only in the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment that women who drank were gradually more accepted by society. But this was not the case in the wine-making industry where women were still only allowed to carry out the menial tasks of sorting and pressing grapes.


The wine industry of Europe ultimately couldn't resist the progression of women in society. While there were undoubtedly women who played important roles behind the scenes, it wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries that women started to become prominent in the industry and get credit for their contributions.

In 1806 Francois Clicquot, owner of Clicquot Champagne, died, leaving his 27-year-old widow with a small wine business. What happened next is one of the great stories in wine history. Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin took charge and made the once struggling company into one of the world's greatest and most successful Champagne houses.

Other legendary wine industry women like Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery in Champagne, Dona Ferreira in Portugal and Mary Penfold in Australia also helped pave the way for women in the wine business.

Some of Europe's most respected winery owners and winemakers are women like Lalou Bize-Leroy, who owns Domaine Leroy, one of Burgundy's most respected wineries.

One of my favorite Italian wineries is Lungarotti where three generations of women make Umbria's finest wines. In the US, women wine celebrities include winemaker Heidi Peterson Barret, who helped make wines for several of California's most famous cult wines including Screaming Eagle, and Zelma Long, who was a winemaker at Robert Mondavi and now owns Zelphi Wines. Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Winery is another fine example of a dynamic woman making great wines in California.

Women consumers

As recently as a decade ago, almost everyone in China who made decisions on what wine to buy was a man. Whether at a restaurant, hotel or wine shop, decisions on wines were predominantly made by men. But there's a very good reason why this is changing and why letting a man pick the wine isn't such a great idea. Recent scientific studies have indicated that women are better tasters than men.

This is consistent with what I've observed over the past two decades here in Asia, where on average women have more sensitive and perceptive noses and palates. Wine-tasting related studies at the Clinical Smell and Taste Research Center of the University of Pennsylvania, Social Issues Research Centre of the University of Cardiff in Wales and the Yale School of Medicine's Surgery Department have all shown that women have more heightened perceptions of both smell and taste. So gentlemen, the next time you want to buy a wine I suggest you let a woman taste it first.

For women only

With the perseverance and heightened importance of women in the wine world, I would be remiss if I didn't recommend some wines that I believe are particularly suitable for the independent, confident and successful women of Shanghai. I know few men who don't like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines, but the fresh and unshackled exuberance of these white wines make them perfect for the liberated women of today.

These whites from New Zealand are market leaders, not followers, and they express their own unique styles. They also match beautifully with many seafood or lighter white meat fare that woman may favor. Top New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines readily available in Shanghai are made by Villa Maria, Kim Crawford and Tahua.

Many wine-loving women in Shanghai I know have a passion for bubbles. In addition to Champagne and its historic women, the titillating bubbles and elegant fruity flavors of top CAVA sparklers from Spain and Prosecco sparklers from Veneto, Italy, offer a great deal of drinking fun at quite affordable prices.

In fact, whether enjoying as an aperitif of with light dishes, drinking a good CAVA or Prosecco not only demonstrates good taste, but also economic acumen. Top CAVA producers include Freixenet, Segura Viudas and Vallformosa while excellent Prosecco producers include Carpene Malvolti, Tenuta S. Anna and Zonin.

For women who desire red wines, the Rubesco Rosso di Torgiano DOC and Rubesco Riserva Vigna Monticchio DOCG from Lungarotti beautifully combine the sunshine and unique beauty of Umbria.


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