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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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.