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Pleasure, Principled: rethinking the body of wine-writing

Interview with Sandrine Goeyvaerts, author of 'Manifesto for Inclusive Wine' (Nouriturfu, 2021)

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Sandrine Goeyvaerts is a Liège-based wine merchant, feminist, literature-lover and prolific author. She primarily writes about wine. Her latest essay, Manifeste pour un vin inclusif (Manifesto for Inclusive Wine), was released by Nouriturfu at the end of 2021.

On an August morning, we were lucky enough to steal an hour of her time, wedged between coffee and two slices of toast. We discussed the motivation – and the goals – behind her manifesto.

Hi Sandrine! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us this morning. Could you please introduce yourself?

Hello! Of course. For twenty years, I’ve been selling wine and writing about it. I’m passionate about wine, as I really see it as a cultural, sociological, and philosophical product. Over time, my feminist perspective has led me to dissect these aspects of the wine industry, too.

Your latest book is a manifesto for inclusive wine. What inspired you to write it?

The way we discuss wine can deeply influence behaviours and expectations. I’ve always been interested in the language we use. I aim to make wine more accessible, not only by translating scientific terms, but also by rethinking the way wine language was shaped.

“The wine world is very binary, with a passive and fragmented femininity (legs, roundness, flesh), in opposition to a virile and powerful masculinity”

Can you tell us more about the language we use?

In fact, the very codified language that we use today in the wine industry only appeared a few centuries ago, in the salons bourgeois. For the educated white men who used to attend these places, language was used as a means of distinction. It would mark a difference between them and the “vulgum pecus.”

I analysed the lexicon used in history books and in contemporary wine reviews, and counted the occurrence of men and women. I also created a survey to gauge both professionals’ and wine amateurs’ perception of wine language. While men were debating the supposed gendered qualities of wines, women would overwhelmingly reject them.

So tell us, what’s the impact of gender when it comes to wine?

The wine world is built on a very binary understanding of gender, featuring a passive and fragmented femininity (‘legs’, ‘roundness’, ‘flesh’…) and a virile, powerful masculinity. It forwards the image of a wine that was produced by strong men and is consumed by fragile women.

Some people might argue that men have legs too. However, context is essential. We can’t simply isolate the words and put labels on them. It’s their combination, their contextual use, that makes them problematic.

When a wine is described as ‘masculine’ and ‘robust,’ it directly falls into the strong male stereotype. On the other hand, when a wine is said to have ‘light, velvety, or supple legs’, the sexualization of the female body appears very clearly.

These gendered expressions are still being taught nowadays in wine schools and educational programs. Recently, I read a comparison between a wine and a lipstick on the official Burgundy wines website.

And here we are, falling both into sexism and metaphors. This is a poetic drift that you regret among some of your peers.

Indeed, wine critics are often tempted to lean into poetry. This is particularly true in French-speaking cultures, while English speakers tend to be more pragmatic. 

For instance, quite often, when discussing notes of exotic fruits, an Orientalist and colonialist imagination is invoked. The description is then often completed with the words ‘savage’, ‘odalisque’, or ‘musk’, to describe its taste or notes.

Here lies a double pitfall: we drift away from the actual taste, in a very Western-centric way, and we use references that we consider ‘exotic’. Despite the fact that they aren’t viewed as such in other cultures.

“If we use connoted expressions, we perpetuate stereotypical visions. When we make the effort not to use these terms, we initiate change”

You talk about notes of ‘musk’ and ‘odalisque’ – and the snobbery of wine critics, who often use very rarefied vocabulary. How do we break this habit?

Simplification without oversimplification is key. Using complicated words (‘carbonic maceration’, ‘volatility’, ‘empyreumatic’….) might sound tempting to those who put a lot of effort into learning them, but these words can easily be replaced by more evocative words. 

Understanding your audience is crucial. Do they even want an explanation? If so, are you able to provide it? Nothing is more irritating than someone imposing their unwanted knowledge on others.

Language is a very adaptable tool. As a wine merchant, I can be a psychologist, a teacher, a student… I put myself in other people’s shoes, and by doing that, I learn a lot from them. 

Sometimes, people ask me for a wine that has a nice woody taste. I then explain that this specific taste is not the end goal. In fact, the aim isn’t the taste or the smell of the wood, it’s the complexity that such a taste can bring to a wine. Many people also think that ‘fruity’ means ‘sweet’, which is not always the case. In both cases, we see the direct consequences of faulty communication.

Marketing can be a fantastic educational tool. I’ve been talking about feminism in the wine industry for over a decade. Lately, I’ve been receiving more and more press releases written in inclusive language. Most of them I don’t respond to, but I enjoy reading them. I see them as a kind of barometer that helps me analyse the industry’s evolution.

How can we drive that evolution forward?

We need to rethink the words we use. From offensive terms such as ‘femmelette’ [weak, girly], or “tapette” [similar to the English slur ‘pansy’], but even terms like ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ wines… examining the wine language is a first step in order to rethink our behaviours. If we use these expressions, we perpetuate stereotypical visions. When we make the effort not to use these terms, we initiate change. We fight something that perpetuates sexualization and systems of dominance at one of its roots: language.

What other factors contribute to the perpetuation of sexism in the wine industry?

Alcohol is undoubtedly at the forefront, and this topic is an absolute taboo. Within the wine culture, we firmly avoid discussing overconsumption. We don’t address wine’s ability to lower inhibitions, and thereby to encourage behaviours that push the line, or even cross it entirely. 

There is also a structural problem. Within wine domains, women’s names often go missing. They tend to feel less qualified to run a wine business, they encounter greater challenges in setting up vineyards, in securing loans…

“Women-only settings help women realise that they aren’t inferior tasters, that they can enjoy this moment without being interrupted”

So… let’s step into the future. How would you describe a truly inclusive wine?

An inclusive wine is a wine created without harmful power dynamics, that invites everyone to the same table to enjoy a simple, uncomplicated, and unpretentious experience.

You also organise women-only tastings, right?

Women-only settings help women realise that they aren’t inferior tasters, that they can enjoy this moment without being interrupted. The gendered education we received gave men the authority to speak up, and has forced us, women, to internalise a kind of discretion, of politeness. I fight against that in all my work, especially in my writing.

Thank you so much for doing this! What you’ve shared is very eloquent and thought-provoking. Before we finish, would you indulge us in a quick exercise?

Of course!

Alright, let’s make it quick. I’ll read you two tasting notes from the Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite as they appear on their website, and you’ll provide a critical interpretation. Sound good?

Yes, go ahead!

The first one is a 2021 Carmes de Rieussec, and it reads as follows: 

The nose is subtle, with an initial minerality, and with notes of hot stone and dry grass after a storm. This is followed by fruity notes of fresh apricot and white flowers.

On the nose and palate, we are guided by a Sauvignon aroma (39% Sauvignon Blanc in the blend) with a light lemony feel and plenty of freshness on the palate. 

The confit is discrete, the wood very well integrated, bringing life to a chiselled wine – to which we want to return.

I like it. The descriptions are very clear, there’s less poetry than in some other texts. The beginning reminds me of a sort of rural petrichor. It’s not the smell of the sidewalk after the rain, but of stones and grass after a storm. It’s both pretty and very evocative.

However, the word ‘minerality’ seems straightforward, but each person has their own definition of it. It encompasses both umami and saltiness. I’m currently working on my next book focused on the concept of taste, and this is one of the observations I’ve made while interviewing sommeliers from all around the world.

The second one is a 2018 red Château d’Aussières, it says:

The 2018 vintage has a fine, intense robe.The nose reveals a very complex aromatic bouquet of fresh and cooked fruit, undergrowth, garrigue, pepper and fresh vegetal notes. On the palate, there is the same generous expression of fruit, the balance is harmonious and full-bodied, supported by fine tannins which bring a pleasant freshness. The finish is long and rich with notes of jam and chocolate.

It is fine to discuss a wine’s ‘robe’ (“robe” means “dress” in French, and refers to the general appearance and colour of a wine), as long as it isn’t followed by a description full of connotations. In this description, it’s clearly used in an analytical context, rather than a sexualized one.

I’m a bit surprised by the pairing of fresh vegetation and chocolate. Fresh vegetation makes me think of freshly-mowed grass, and I wonder: is that really a favourable note in a wine? The description is perhaps a bit vague. It’s always difficult to find the right balance between precision and inclusivity.

Thank you very much, Sandrine, for your critical insights and for your time! And we invite all our readers to explore your Manifeste pour un vin inclusif.

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