Women are increasingly influential in the wine world. Photo: Flickr/Liis Kängsepp
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Why women are becoming the key ingredient in making and marketing wine

What does the success of the Féminalise Wine Competition tell us about wine and women?

Women and wine have long been united in the realm of cliché, from Bridget Jones and her chardonnay to the Ab Fab girls and their endless bottles of champagne. But it's actually a serious business: of the UK's regular wine drinkers, 55 per cent are women, according to research by Wine Intelligence. Making wines that appeal to women is changing the way the industry thinks, from marketing campaigns to all-female tasting sessions.

"I would say there isn't specifically a female palate, but there are trends," says Lynne Whitaker, managing Director of Winebrand, a branding and market research consultancy for the wine industry. "Most women we speak to prefer white or rosé, and upfront, juicy wines." She adds that New World wines tend to do well – partly because they tend to be labelled with the grape variety, which makes choosing easier. French wines are sometimes a difficult sell because the country's classification system means they're labelled according to where they were made.

In France, one competition is designed to find out exactly what women want. On a chilly morning in Burgundy recently, nearly 700 women from across the globe queued outside the conference centre in Beaune. Female winemakers, buyers, scientists, critics and bloggers had gathered to taste 3,700 wines at the Feminalise competition. It's the ninth year the event has taken place, and while the vast majority of wines tasted are French, winemakers worldwide can submit their efforts. Each wine is tasted by three different women, seated apart from each other, and competition is intense for the gold, silver, bronze and pearl medals.

"I wanted to create the competition 20 years ago and it was too complicated, but now there are many more women in the industry, working as oenologists, in commercial roles, as winemakers," says the founder Didier Martin. He took the plunge, financed the entire event himself, and it has since grown from 170 tasters to over 600. Over that time, there's been an enormous evolution in the wines entered in the competition  a change he puts down, in part, to women's tasting expertise.

Traditionally, wines were made to be cellared for years before drinking, but with shifts in society, people now want to buy wine in a supermarket and drink it straight away, Martin explains. Women tend to be more picky about excess tannins or acidity, and will lean towards rounded, smoother wines more suited to drinking straight away  even in big, intense, styles. "Look at wines like Madiran, Pommard, these are 'tough wines', but actually women love them."

A Feminalise medal can obviously help with marketing wines, and Martin, who says he's absolutely not a feminist ("just a man who loves women"), started the competition for business reasons. When working in sales for a major wine producer, he noticed that, eight times out of ten, if a couple came in and the woman liked the wine, the man would buy it.

"I actually don't think there's a big difference in tasting skills between men and women," he says. "But there are still a lot of macho attitudes." He recalls a particularly cringeworthy campaign for white wine  on the grounds it stains less than red wine, and laundry is important for ladies.

Marketing wine to women is a delicate art. Wine companies are, "always very conscious of the need to appeal to women without alienating men", Whitaker says, and novelty brands and fancy bottles can actually make buyers suspicious of what's inside. "Women like something that looks like it came from a vineyard."

On top of that, the way women drink wine is different. The success of Helen McGinn's "Knackered Mothers' Wine Club" in both book and blog form is partly down to her great recommendations  she used to be wine buyer for a major UK supermarket  but also the lively and engaging way she writes about the role wine plays in women's lives. 

Consumer research shows "there's a wine moment at the end of the day", meaning women will pick wines that are good to drink on their own, rather than thinking about food pairings, Whitaker says. Then there's the question of alcohol levels, with some women being "turned off" by heavy wines. Sparkling wines also do extremely well. "Prosecco is going mad," as a market, she says, "and there's an element of self-treating".

Increasing numbers of women are making wine as well. In Burgundy, the Femmes et Vins de Bourgogne association represents around 30 estates in the region. In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, top female winemakers from Napa Valley asked: "When can we stop talking about female winemakers?" There are women making superb wines worldwide, as the wine critic Jancis Robinson points out. Producers and marketers are finally aware of this, and everyone is benefiting.

"When I started the competition, some people said it would never work  well, now it's 'not working' with 700 women," says Martin. "What we want is for men to buy the wine that women have given medals to, because they know it's good."

Frances Robinson has been covering the EU since 2006. Previously a staffer at the Wall Street Journal, she returned to the UK after a decade abroad to talk and write about the UK-EU relationship. 

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.