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French Wine, Cancelled? The Sexist World Of France's Winemakers

Discriminatory comments and practices still reign supreme in wine cellars. But the women of the French wine industry are determined to break down old barriers.

French Wine, Cancelled? The Sexist World Of France's Winemakers
A person sits at Château de Gilly in France with two glasses of red wine
Ophélie Neiman

PARIS — On June 8, a Paris court rendered a decision that satisfied both parties involved, though in very different ways. After the wine magazine En magnum published a caricature of a scantily clad woman promising a dazed male wine merchant that should he order a pallet of wine bottles, she would "take off the top." In response, female wine seller, Fleur Godart, filed a complaint on the grounds that she had been "publicly insulted because of her sex." The judges considered the action to be legally inadmissible because the caricature did not feature an "identifiable" person. Logically, the director of the magazine was pleased with the decision. But, surprisingly, Godart was also claiming victory.

For her, she had won in a sense because in rendering its judgment, the court qualified the drawing as sexist. "The misogynistic nature of the drawing was officially recognized," Godart told French daily Libération. "That was my main motivation ... I think that this will make magazines in the wine profession start to think twice before publishing drawings like this in the future."

Sandrine Goeyvaerts, wine merchant, author, journalist specializing in wines and spirits, poses for a photo — Photo: Creative Commons User Debby Termonia

In light of the #MeToo movement and evolving social attitudes, the importance of denouncing sexism has become a priority in various industries — and that includes the wine industry. Still, the challenge is all the more difficult in the world of wine, which has been overwhelmingly male in the past while now rapidly growing to include more women. On top of that, the industry itself is founded in many ways on sexist attitudes and beliefs towards women.

Take, for example, the age-old tradition of prohibiting women from entering wine cellars. The practice is rooted in a superstition that women's periods could make the wine go bad (powerful witches that we are). And, surprisingly, this tradition did not end in the Middle Ages: A recent female wine employee recounted her experience with a former manager on the Instagram account @Pay_tonpinard: "At the winery where I used to work, the general manager wouldn't let me access the cellar during the harvest season because "You never know, if you get your period, you'll screw it up." I told him that he didn't need me and my period to make his wine disgusting." The Instagram page, which encourages speaking out against harassment and sexism in the wine world, is full of similar anecdotes.

"But it's not just the vocabulary. It's also the way expressions are used," said Sandrine Goeyvaerts, a wine merchant and sommelier.

In reality, women have always been a part of the wine industry. But, they were mostly invisible. "Since the creation of modern vineyards, women have been used for small jobs in the vineyards, or for administrative tasks," explained Goeyvaerts. "But they have been excluded from the cellars, from every part of the process that is "prestigious' because even though wine is made in the vineyard, we always turn to the cellar master as the expert."

Wine is frequently qualified as feminine or masculine.

Goeyvaerts, who is a Belgium native, is the most prominent French-speaking feminist figure in the wine world. She is both adored and abhorred on social media, where just a single one of her tweets or photos can provoke hundreds of reactions. She co-founded "Women Do Wine," an association meant to bring together female wine professionals, and give them a larger platform to the media. She also published the book, Vigneronnes, in 2019, a collection of portraits of "100 women who make a difference in the vineyards of France." Her next book comes out in September, titled "The Manifesto for Inclusive Wine."

En magnum's cartoon that led Godart to sue the magazine for sexism — Photo: Instagram User @paye_tonpinard

In a phone interview, Goeyvaerts explained that she wanted to write about the language of wine, and how it influences behavior. "It's not just the vocabulary. It's also the way expressions are used," she explained. "There are the clichés that wine is frequently qualified as feminine or masculine. A powerful or structured wine is always linked to manliness. But for me, a strong frame makes me think more of a house, just like power makes me imagine a car. But nonetheless, the clichés about the feminine and the masculine persist." It does not take much effort to notice how descriptions of wine borrow largely from the feminine repertoire: the wine has a dress, thighs, even suppleness. "When we use these terms, we give the impression of paying homage to the woman by speaking of her curves, her flesh," she says. "But the wine does not personify a woman herself, but the pieces of woman ... a reductive view of the fragmented parts of her body, which is very symptomatic of the heteronormative male gaze."

All of this reinforces the idea that women in wine are still seen as exceptions, described using metaphors and clichés: "We are treated like unicorns. The media feels compelled to single us out ... to talk about my nail polish or to point out aspects of my femininity in ways that aren't always comfortable." Yes, it is time for wine to be inclusive too.

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