Dish

In the Company of Men

In the process of learning about wine, I have discovered I am a woman.

A woman among men. Among many men. In fact it's not unusual for me to supply the only burst of estrogen during a testosterone-dominated winemaker's luncheon. Every once in a while I'm joined by Simone Zarmat Diament, editor of the South Florida Gourmet, or by Elizabeth Kuehner Smith, associate publisher of the Wine News, a nationally distributed glossy magazine based in Coral Gables. But more often I'm sole representative femme. And I'm not even a wine journalist, just an enthusiast.

As far as our local wine writers go, Smith estimates that about 90 percent are men. "Men tend to be collectors [of wine] more than women, and the writing comes out of that," Smith says. "Many have other professions, like [being] doctors or lawyers." Smith herself admits that she began the Wine News fifteen years ago with her husband, publisher Tom E. Smith, because of his passion, not hers. Still she got into it; her knowledge and commitment are apparent, and a good example to follow.

But it's not just in journalism that a lack of female presence is noted. Take a look at Miami restaurants. More emphasis is placed on fine wines these days, lists are getting longer, prices are rising. Increasingly patrons have been asking for advice. So restaurateurs have been installing sommeliers once again, a tradition that had gone out of vogue in the let's-be-independent-and-think-for-ourselves Nineties. If you're fortunate enough to be dining in an eatery where a beverage director or sommelier is on hand, though, 99 percent of the time that position will be filled by a man.

I asked Laura DePasquale, sommelier at Norman's, why so few women seem to be in charge of wine lists. "The hours are crazy," she admits. "It's very demanding, the same as any demanding career for a woman. Usually something has to give, and it's the career. You have to have as much devotion and ambition as you would in law or medicine."

True, which is one of the reasons why Terri Newman, former food-and-beverage director at Wish, recently left her post. She is spending a month or so with her family while she decides where to go from there. If she doesn't remain in wine, that leaves only DePasquale and Dale LoSasso, food-and-beverage director at Mark Militello's new restaurant on South Beach, in high-profile wine positions.

"One problem is, there aren't mentors for women," says DePasquale. There also are few companions. In DePasquale's blind-tasting group, where members practice their skills in preparation for the extensive testing that is required to be named a master sommelier, she is the only woman. Indeed she's the only female sommelier, albeit at the first level of certification on her way to master, in the State of Florida. (There are three levels: guild member of the Master Court of Sommeliers, advanced guild member, and master. Each level requires passing a five-day test that includes blind tastings, oral exams, and written exams.) Has she ever even met another female sommelier? "One or two," she says. "I think."

Lack of opportunity starts from the top -- i.e., with the winemaker himself. And I do mean himself. Eileen Crane, winemaker at Domaine Carneros and one of the few highly regarded women in the industry, says that in the past the "winemaker was king, literally, because there weren't many women in the field." But if you think times have changed, look at the stats: In 1890, Crane says, about ten percent of the winemakers in California were women. In 1990, amazingly, that number did not budge. Ten percent, in fact, was an astounding figure for 1890. Subsequent eras, however, proved not particularly conducive in inspiring women to stride forward in the world of wine. (Prohibition, for instance: The Mafia was never known to be big on equal rights for women.)

Going back even further, European winemakers traditionally have been men. This, Smith says, despite the fact that "women have more acute palates, as a result of having to tell the difference between poison and food." Crane agrees in part with an adaptive evolution theory: Females have more developed palate memory, a sort of cooking as part of the collective unconscious. But she also concedes that men who cook "make great wine."

Historical reasons might account for the shortage of women in wine, but it certainly doesn't excuse it. Nor does it justify comments that DePasquale frequently gets, which range from "You're the sommelier?" to "You're too pretty to be a sommelier." It is a big boys' club, she realizes, and understands that, as when a female reporter invades a locker room, the men can sometimes be on their excruciatingly best behavior. In other words, not themselves.

As a result of endemic if not deliberate discrimination, winemakers like Crane are making conscious efforts to provide employment for women. In fact she concludes that about half of her staff is female, as compared to other vineyards where women number about one in five, similar to the ratio I'm encountering at these tastings and seminars.

What they eventually hope to accomplish depends on both inspiration (the proper role models) and attitude. Women have to live up to the challenge by participating in every role: winemaker, wine writer, wine retailer, wine drinker. Self-education is part of it, as is entrepreneurship. Take Mayra Wenig for example, who's out there marketing, selling, and distributing the vino for Leon's Wines. But to paraphrase the Beastie Boys, excellent role models themselves, they must fight for the right to party. Because for the most part, no one's handing out invitations.

 
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