A while back, I wrote a piece commenting on overly exaggerated wine descriptions, and how convoluted they can sound.

“Sophisticated and balanced with a hint of pretension. Elegant and silky with a feminine nuance reminiscent of the Old West. Forward and brazen with a left hook that will leave you speechless. … Words like fleshy, sexy, demure and even slutty are a wine writer’s way of reinventing the wheel and keeping it interesting. Who wants to read the same old descriptors of New Zealand sauvignon blanc over and over? Gooseberry, cat pee, fresh grass, blah, blah, blah. How many times can one read (or write) about caramel, butterscotch and toasted oak? The flavor profiles haven’t changed; the times have.”

Oh, boy, have they ever. Who knew that just several years later, wine writers would be expected by some to censor the way in which we wax poetic about this deeply personal and subjective thing we call wine?

Several wine industry professionals are on a mission to eliminate the words “feminine” and “masculine” from the wine writer’s vocabulary. The terms are accused of being outdated and inappropriate, archaic stereotypes—offensive ways to describe a wine. The words “feminine” and “masculine” are said by critics to be at odds with the spectrum of gender roles, which is not necessarily tied to gender identity.

I sat and pondered this for a long time. I thought about the notion that the word “feminine” denotes a softness, a sense of delicacy, or even voluptuousness. As a woman, if I don’t possess these traits—if I’m flat-chested, big-boned, and a little surly—would I be offended at these adjectives? Should I be offended?

“Masculine” wines are often described as being structured, aggressive, muscular and bold. If can we agree that being “masculine” and being male are two completely different concepts, would the adjective hold as much power over an individual?

The dictionary defines “masculine” and “feminine” as both adjectives and nouns. Interestingly, the dictionary does not have a definition for these terms as an identity. Is it because they are mutually exclusive? Could it be that the words to describe traits traditionally considered feminine and masculine have nothing to do with the actual gender identity of the object?

The idea that this verbiage is now considered sexist among some in the wine world prompted a conversation with colleagues regarding the words we are taught to use as sommeliers. We use these words to identify the characteristics, quality, age and value of the wines we taste. We use words like “body” to evaluate things like the mouthfeel, weight and concentration. When talking about the body of something, it seems natural to use adjectives to describe, oh, I dunno, a body. Adjectives like lean or brawny, lithely and supple come to mind. The term “full-bodied” is used daily by both professionals and consumers alike.

The conversation reminded me of an article that was written for wine–searcher.com back in 2020 by Vicki Denig, where she poses various scenarios of possibly insulting or offensive wine conversations. She writes: “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.”

The fact is, apart from most rose, wine is classified as white or black—not in the racially tinged way Ms. Denig uses, but then again, we’re speaking about an object, not a person. Blanc de blancs literally means white from white, and blanc de noirs translates to white from black. We have grapes like garnacha negra and pinot noir, which are the black grapes to white counterparts grenache blanc and pinot blanc.

We focus on vintages to determine whether a wine has peaked, if it’s still youthful, or if it is past its prime. We could argue this kind of ageism should be banned from wine-speak due to its insensitivity to the elderly, but we know that wine changes over time, and it would be a disservice to our customers if we didn’t acknowledge when a wine was at the end of its life. Similarly, we should inform a consumer when a wine is too youthful and either needs more time in the bottle or needs to be decanted.

So … if numerous other languages and cultures clearly understand what “feminine” and “masculine” mean as a way to categorize or describe objects, why do we choose to view these words as having pejorative connotations?

I won’t even touch on the “gay” hypothetical. What a wine does in the bedroom is none of my business.

Our thoughtful conversation segued into the structure of languages in other countries. Most Latin-based languages assign a gender to their nouns. In Spanish, cabeza, which means head, is a feminine word. Is this because women are clearly smarter? Coraje, or courage, is a masculine word. Is this a coincidence, or should we look at the structure of these languages as sexist and outdated?

In the Chinese language, they use the terms yin and yang. The dictionary states that yin, Chinese for “female” or “moon,” represents darkness, femininity, passivity and the earth. Yang (“sun” or “male”) represents light, masculinity, activity and the heavens. These two concepts of duality are present in every aspect of the Chinese culture.

So … if numerous other languages and cultures clearly understand what “feminine” and “masculine” mean as a way to categorize or describe objects, why do we choose to view these words as having pejorative connotations?

I look at it this way: Wine is a lot like art and music. It has a way of conjuring up emotions, opinions and memories. The best ones have a uniqueness to them, and they can be thought-provoking, puzzling and exciting. When something non-human can be that captivating and expressive, those of us who share our experiences in writing have a propensity to give that something—wine, in this case—a human element. I love to anthropomorphize the wines that I find thrilling and try to capture their personality with my words. I think writers love describing tangible items in a way that sounds human, alive and full of mystery.

The purpose of a writer is to connect a reader with a thought, idea or concept, and to use language that is not only captivating, but engaging and relatable. As much as the lines of gender roles and identities have changed over the years, people still understand what these words imply. I shudder to think that the idea of having feminine or masculine traits, no matter what your gender is, would be considered inappropriate.

We are living in an era when we are beginning to right past wrongs and fight the good fight. Today and always, I raise my glass to everyone who bravely brings these issues to light, and starts the conversation.

Katie Finn

Katie Finn drinks wine for a living. As a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and as a Certified Specialist of Wine, she has dedicated her career to wine education and sharing her...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.