Producers have been criticised for aiming less complex wines at women. But when it comes to collecting wine, they’ve got a point, says ROSI HANSON
Men collect, women appreciate – discuss. It is startling to discover how few women collect wine. There are increasingly high-profile female winemakers, buyers, educators, writers, and 64 MWs (out of a total of 264). But as merchants and auction houses know, wine collectors are mainly male. So are women an untapped market? Or is there something about collecting that turns women off?To shed some light on the subject I turned to psychologist Felix Economakis. Collecting tends to be a male thing, he says. ‘Males like to have possession; they like to make lists and strive to complete a set of something – for instance, match boxes – and they like to impress people.’Serena Sutcliffe MW, head of Sotheby’s International Wine Department, agrees that most collectors are men: ‘It seems to be a “boys toys” category. Many collectors’ groups, especially in the US and Asia, are men only. We don’t keep
actual statistics by gender but one knows from observing. It’s as if women are happy buying the everyday stuff but feel the higher realms are not for them!
‘I do know a few women who buy and they do so with great skill and sense.
But the fact is that the top women in business and banking almost never collect
wine, as their male colleagues do.’ There are exceptions. V Cheryl Womack (subject of next month’s My Passion for Wine) is one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs in two male-dominated industries: trucking and insurance. In a recent clear-out of her cellar of 9,000+ bottles, including Mouton, Margaux, Pétrus, La Tâche and Screaming Eagle, she consigned 4,775 bottles to Sotheby’s, saying she had far more than she could store and considerably more than she could ever drink. Monika Schuster grew up in Austria. Her palate was formed as a teenager by tasting in local growers’ cellars. She pursued her interest in wine determinedly, taking every opportunity to taste and learn. She already had a great cellar before meeting her husband, wine writer and educator Michael Schuster. He believes ‘epiphany moments’ when young are crucial. ‘A motivation for building a cellar is the possibility of re-creating that moment.’ In Monika’s case, her moment was a 1966 La
Tâche, which she claims she can still taste.
Dentist Maeve Logue didn’t know where to go in order to learn about wine. It’s something many women say. Theymight be expected to turn to Jancis Robinson MW’s website but, sadly, Robinson says, only 17% of her members are female. Logue was already buying wine at the supermarket and beginning to read wine books when she met wine educator Nancy Gilchrist MW at the school gate.
Several wine courses later she had moved to a house with a cellar and then
methodically built a collection for drinking in the short, medium and long term, including some wine as an investment. She started buying en primeur in 2003, with cases of Châteaux Latour and Lafite.
Harriet Joll, a specialist in Christie’s International Wine Department, believes
tradition and expectation play a part in putting women off collecting. ‘Far more
men have a disposable income, but I think it is also the way we’re brought up,
that it won’t be the woman’s role to think about choosing wine. Often women lack confidence.’ She thinks there are practical considerations too. High-earning single women often live in flats, with no storage for wine, and can be too busy to entertain at home. ‘Most of those who email us about valuations are men. Sadly, many of the women we talk to are in a bereaved state, selling their late husband’s collection. The wine reminds them of their husbands and makes them miserable.’
Tom Hudson at Farr Vintners says:
‘When it comes to private wine collectors, well over 90% of our customers are male. That said, there are plenty of women in the wine trade, and if you include the female wine buyers who represent the companies we sell to, the figures would be much less male-dominated.’
One of those women is Alison Buchanan, associate director of buying at Corney & Barrow. ‘We have tried targeting women,’ she says. ‘The events are fun but
little comes from them. It is hard even to get women to buy everyday wines from us when it is so easy to buy without pressure or embarrassment with the weekly shop. I can only think of about three women customers who buy en primeur. It is simply not seen as a priority, even among the most financially astute and well heeled.’ For Becky Wasserman, who set up her wine-broking business in Beaune 30 years ago, there is a distinction to be made between fascination and obsession.
She travels regularly to the US to conduct Burgundy tastings and dinners. ‘It seems to me there are two kinds of collectors. My ideal is someone with a wonderfully curious mind who collects out of a pure love of wine. They have a curiosity about each vintage, and often have an interest in an area which is not necessarily fashionable. Then there are the extremely competitive ones. I had a man announce proudly that he only drank grands crus and premiers crus. When I told him I felt sorry for him the room fell silent. These men – and it always is men! – can be obsessive about getting their hands on the wine.’
There also seems to be a ceiling of £7–8 a bottle on most occasional wine purchases by women, unless for a present. Siobhan Gillespie, part of the buying team at Haynes, Hanson & Clark, notices that young women are only likely to become interested in wine as part of a couple. But if they have young children they rarely have the time or energy to sit down and enjoy it. Even high-earning women tend to raise an eyebrow if wine invoices equal the cost of a holiday, says Buchanan. Although Monika Schuster says she would rather forgo a holiday and spend the money on a case of wine she really wants, she is unusual. Women in pressured careers seem to prefer to spend their money on spas and holidays in exotic places to recharge their batteries. But there are signs of change. For women, knowledge of wine may be more important than possession.
While only 8% of Decanter subscribers are female, women make up an increasing proportion of wine course attendees, suggesting they prefer information delivered by a person. When he started Christie’s Education Courses, Steven Spurrier says they were dominated by men. ‘It is only a generation ago that it was out of the question for women to pick up the bill in a restaurant or choose the wine,’ he reminds us. As a lecturer Gilchrist has noticed an increase in women attending courses. Michael Schuster has kept records since starting wine-tasting courses for beginners in 1987, when two to five out of 20 were women. Since 1999 it has been 10–12 out of 20. His Fine Wine courses attract slightly fewer women, which may bear out Sutcliffe’s suggestion that women feel happier buying everyday wines. Or perhaps not enough of them have had that ‘epiphany moments’ yet.
Written by Rosi Hanson