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Vinous sisterhood of sensibilities ~ An inside view of how wine women think and write about wine and more

When in high school, I wasn’t one of the sorority girls. I roamed the hallways of Lewiston High School during lunch time to drop into any number of groups, listen to what they were saying, voice an opinion. and then move on. I wasn’t a joiner back then. Women were discussing women’s issues, I was looking for my soul mate, and I knew it wasn’t going to be a woman. Over the years, most especially since I did find that special man who complements and completes my wholeness, I’m now getting to know women better.

I had a bit of trepidation when pulled into a women’s writing group on Facebook. At the time I thought, “What?” And then I just decided to go with the flow, thinking “Maybe it is time for a sorority?” I still believe I’m the odd woman out, but there I am, still listening and voicing my opinions, and really getting to know women better… appreciating them in ways I could never have imagined years ago… Maybe giving birth to three daughters has also helped me to understand this mysterious creature. (I wonder if I was a guy in my immediate past life; I grew up as a total tomboy?)

Recently, I read a story on Steve Heimoff’s blog, entitled: Wine and the Feminine Esthetic. I loved his story, because he was honoring a woman who had blazed trails for me. And, even though I didn’t know her, as Steve stated, neither did he… still, he felt moved to single her out and thank her in her passing.

He wrote: I didn’t know Shirley Sarvis, even though she was a legendary resident of San Francisco, and despite the fact that I own some of her books, including “American Wines and Wine Cooking,” which she co-wrote (with the great Bob Thompson) in 1973. She died last week, at the age of 77.

I was touched and wanted to comment. I moved through his comments and found one that took me by surprise, because it wasn’t about Shirley Sarvis; instead it took a completely different tack into winds of gale force. The author Meg Houston Maker is a writer whom I greatly admire. She has her own wine blog called, Maker’s TableThis woman is brilliant, if you’ve not come across her blog yet, be sure to check her out. She’s a serious wordsmith and concept crafter.

Here’s what she wrote, which for me… got me going, too, but in a bit different direction.

Meg wrote: The “feminine aesthetic” is a myth as dangerous as the feminine mystique. There is a long tradition in formal criticism to group like ideologies, aesthetics, and praxis: fine. But associating an approach primarily with gender is fraught, partly because exceptions are more common than the supposed rule, but mostly because an explanation from gender, tempting as it seems, often glosses over other, more nuanced drivers, deeper structures—ones we need to probe further to understand fully.

Okay, wow…. Then, I wrote my comment, while also reacting to Meg’s; because not only had Meg written her thoughts, but a couple more women chimed in, agreeing with her.

I wrote: Thanks for your piece on Shirley Sarvis and the feminine aesthetic. I, too, never met Shirley. Any woman who’s carved a path for other women… the likes of Shirley, Leslie Sbrocco, and Jancis Robinson, is very special. Your mention of me in this delightful group… I’m beyond honored to be included.

If it weren’t for women who know who they are and what they want… beyond barefoot and pregnant, we’d still be light years away from doing our own thing and getting respect.

As for Jancis… she’s the real deal. I once ran into her at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, and she was as down to earth as anyone can be… Perhaps people have to experience her live and in person… for me, up close and personally.

I love my feminine aesthetic, by the way… Just as I love my husband’s masculine one…

I’m writing the following blog, because it shows a dialogue of where women have come in their thinking, and the civility of where we can agree, disagree, or agree to disagree. It’s worth historically sharing. (Web 2.0 has allowed for so much more than what we shared years ago… it’s a different edge, POV, etc.) Meg is so articulate, and had a profound influence on me that day… One that I’ve yet to shake, but will with this story being out there for others to also ponder, because it brings up some great points.

I believed, on that day, that Meg misread Steve’s story. And with the ensuing comments that developed on his blog, I thought… “Uh oh… she’s got the group going.” I went right over to Facebook and found exactly what I thought I’d find.

Meg: This headline, and the post’s assumptions, make my blood boil.

That’s all she had to write, and included the URL: Wine and the Feminine Esthetic

The race horses were off and running….

This post mobilized my group in a way that was one sided against Steve, and I just didn’t see it the same way. I couldn’t resist jumping in and defending my friend. The stream had become one person after the other defending Meg’s blood boiling.

She later explained to me “I’m… not sure ‘anger’ sums up my reaction completely, even though I said it had made my blood boil. I left a carefully worded comment on Steve’s post, cautioning that explanations from gender are dangerous. Largely, I was disturbed by what I viewed as a simple gloss on feminine aesthetic by yet another male writer.”

I jumped into the Facebook sorority fray, writing…

I disagree, ladies… (Don’t say it’s because he’s my friend or that he mentioned me). It’s because I loved [I didn’t write “lived” for a reason] through the 60s, when we fought like mad to get what the next generation is enjoying, which is more respect, more jobs being available, and pay coming up.

I’m not saying all is perfect, but I am saying that it’s greatly improved from what I lived through, and many of you weren’t even born.

Wine and the Feminine Esthetic, his title honors women. When Paul Mabray wrote about his top ten bloggers and no women were in the list, we went nuts. When we’re mentioned as having a point of view, let’s celebrate the writer.

ANOTHER CASE IN POINT: Wine blog awards… everyone was grumbling. I said, let’s do something about it and got you all nominating and voting. You got your awards because we mobilized… See how it works? It won’t work if we rant, rave, and rag on those trying to say we have a voice and opinions that count.

Also, I got Cyril Penn into the judging post, which has had him pick up a few of you as credible writers…

A great response came back from Meg:

I respect and admire the trail our sisters blazed. The core of my argument is that while it’s tempting to ascribe a phenomenon to gender, that approach often ignores deeper drivers. When you’re talking about a woman, look for reasons beyond gender. They are there, and are often more interesting, and say more about culture, than gender alone can explain.

To which I added:

The phenomenon goes both ways. I commented on Steve’s post: I love my feminine aesthetic, by the way… Just as I love my husband’s masculine one…

Again, the fact that he’s written about a woman of importance is something to celebrate in my view. If he didn’t look beyond all the other implications, that’s because it’s his blog and what he felt like writing. He’s also a product of the 1960s, having lived in an upstate commune for years, and… is very in tune with our struggles. He would NEVER be a sexist… and like many of us, just writes what he’s thinking at the time.

This is a woman’s writers group, because we have an aesthetic, do we not? …

I know we all want equality, and perhaps I’m where you all were 20+ years ago, so I’m less testy, especially when it comes to embracing (literally and figuratively) my supportive husband… and, where you’ll all be 20+ years from now.

We’ve chosen to come here to celebrate what we bring to the diversity table. Let’s champion the champions… while enjoying our aesthetic…

Meg’s Counter:

Well said, Jo. What I value about this group is not, actually, a shared aesthetic. I don’t get a sense that one exists, because I see a great diversity of sensibilities, approaches, and styles among our ~100 members. I really do value that diversity.

What we do share, I think, is not so much outlook or Weltanschauung as our position in society — our way of being viewed rather than our way of viewing. The benefit of the group is being able to share our experiences, get support, get a fresh take, and, with luck, expand both our personal and collective stature.

My final word on this one:

And well said by you, Meg. Especially the word of the day, Weltanschauung… Good one!

From Steve’s sharing with me… His “aesthetic” was more about the beauty that women bring to the world of wine, versus the scoring it by numbers, that we can taste and write with nuance. Women have been proven to have a more defined sense of smell (we have to be able to pick our babies out of a herd, if we lived in a more animal world)… It’s about the delicacies and empathy… and Steve gets that… I, too, am using the word aesthetic in the same way.

The point here is that we all have different opinions, and see life through a different set of glasses. We can voice our thoughts and concerns in evolved ways that aren’t jabs or name calling; while learning more about who we are and what we want, and continue to grow in our sharing.


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13 Responses to “Vinous sisterhood of sensibilities ~ An inside view of how wine women think and write about wine and more”

  1. When I read Steve’s piece (after seeing Meg’s post about her blood boiling) I didn’t have the same reaction as Meg. I thought it was a nice tribute and eulogy to a writer who influenced Steve’s work and mindset.

    What troubles me is that, in general, when women are mentioned, it’s always about gender. There are never any Top 100 Men Lists, but there’s a stream of Women’s Lists, like we are some carnival freak-show, or can’t compete with men, so we have to have our own lists, and it’s very patronizing.

    In December 2012, Palate Press did two exposés on Natalie MacLean. The first were plagiarism allegations, the second were pay-to-play charges. What troubled me wasn’t that the charges were leveled against a female writer, but the responses in the comments section. Of the hundreds of comments, very few addressed the actual claims against Ms. MacLean, but rather spewed vitriolic hate. The comments started about her appearance and trailed into the typical misogynic rapey screed of the male pack animal.

    I think men and women do have different sensibilities, which should be celebrated. What I see it that the feminine esthetic is still being used to marginalize and exclude women from their rightful place at the table (or the bar!)

  2. Mary Orlin says:

    Hi Jo,
    Great article. It may interest you to read my latest article on Huffington Post, re how I am not a fan of wine marketed specifically to women that would never be marketed to men. We are wine drinkers, not female wine drinkers after all.

  3. Jo Diaz says:

    Mary, thanks.

    I, too, have long held that belief that marketing solely to women has it’s negatives…and have also written about it…

  4. Jo Diaz says:

    Points well taken, Nanette. I wrote a story about GMO in wine grapes and a couple of men (can’t call them “gentle” men) came at me like they were god and I was “just a dingbat woman.” I privately wrote to one that he’s a bully, whether or not he knows it. His response was very lame… no surprise.

    One of the suggested reading at the end of this story is that feminism still needs to exist… that’s because the good ‘ole boy network still does, too. Fortunately, we don’t have to wear burkas… One million steps backwards.

  5. Thank you, Jo, for such a thoughtful blog post. I’ve responded to the thread on Steve’s original post and would love to hear your thoughts.

    All the best to you. As always, I very much enjoyed your work here.

  6. Josh Stein says:

    Thanks for the synposis and follow up, Jo. I missed the fireworks, I guess. This was a discussion already well going when I entered academia two decades ago, and it it still going now, and twenty years of teaching cultural analysis has left me with only one truth, which is why we produce as many different brands as we possibly can afford to do now that all I do is wine: you can please none of the readers/tasters/fans/critics/[your noun here] all of the time. As with the concept “terroir,” “femaleness,” “maleness,” “American,” etc., they are all ideas which live only as much as we give them life, and because they exist within a framing system, only time and amnesia within their users will bring “true” change. It’s a gordian knot, good for discussion, but less useful for pragmatic change, which was Steve’s point and what you are alluding to above. Focusing on the means is how we best keep moving forward, imo–it’s why we didn’t let all the possible action-freezing self-conscious discussion stop us from being the change we wanted to see in the world. That’s the best way to celebrate, honor, and remember those who did step ahead, pushing and pulling culture with them: by doing more of it. 🙂

  7. Thanks, Jo, for sharing the thread.

    I find more common ground here than not, and indeed, Nanette has just aptly re-articulated the core of my concern, viz., that we first consider a range of cultural and individual factors before ascribing a given behavior primarily to gender.

    A feminine or masculine aesthetic, so-called, is a generalization, open to interpretation. Most of us draw strength from a vastly more diverse wellspring. We should look hard for that, and try to describe it authentically. This is a difficult, but worthy, project.

  8. Mary Orlin says:

    Wonderful. The more voices the better!

  9. Jo Diaz says:

    Thanks, Lily-Elaine.

    I especially love this paragraph: “Gender is always historical, and as such carries historical relevance and change over time. The distinction that Steve describes here initially about Shirley places her at a point in history in which gender was more definitive of her work simply because gender to large degree constrained what work (and voice) was an option for her. In that sense, she is part of a feminine aesthetic because our own history includes such gender distinctions and their associated (even if projected) values.”

    You’re a wonderful writer! Thanks for the introduction to your work. Right now I’m so busy with my Dark & Delicious event, I can barely come up for air, while balancing the needs of other important clients, too. It was a rich segue, which I’ll follow a lot more closely.

  10. Jo Diaz says:

    Great reply, Josh.

  11. Jo Diaz says:

    Meg, so true…

  12. gdfo says:

    Winedinkers are just that, not matter what gender they are and so it is with
    all things. Gender does not effect the quality of a wine and I would expect a wine writer to do their best when offering something to read. I would expect the same from any gender person who makes wine or makes cars or beer, or video gaming cards.

    Marketing to a gender-segment in this case is short-sighted. I read it as Our wine is not good enough for Everybody, but it is good enough for YOU female shoppers.

  13. Jo Diaz says:

    Me, too, gdfo.

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