March 21, 2007
Wines that Women Love

Agi Toth.jpgJ.Perlman Photography
Agi Toth, a wine educator from Omaha, Neb.

What do women want in wine? Just what men want: Wines of character, interest and value. If you were thinking they'd prefer buttery chardonnays over linebacker zinfandels, think again.

That, at least, is my snap judgment while looking over the just-released results of the National Women's Wine Competition, the first judging in the country made up solely of female judges. The competition was held last week in Santa Rosa, and the results have taken so long to arrive I was starting to think that maybe only women wine writers would be allowed to report on the outcome. (That's a joke; most wine competitions are notoriously inept at getting out word about which wines showed well.)

At any rate, in announcing the results, Lea Pierce, the competition's director, made it clear that women - at least her women judges - don't prefer any one varietal, region or style in wine. "The winning wines span the full spectrum of varieties, tastes and styles, yet all shared the characteristics of balance and elegance." Virtually every wine judge, regardless of gender, will tell you that a medal-winning wine comes down to balance and elegance.

The big winners included a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah from Napa Valley, a dessert wine from Virginia, a hefty zinfandel from Mendocino County and an unoaked riesling from Washington state. How's that for variety?

Pierce's panelists shared with men judges who dominate most wine competitions one notable characteristic: They love to give medals. Of the nearly 1,800 wines in the judging, half got a medal of some sort.

Whereas most wine competitions narrow the field to one sweepstakes winner, the women annointed 10 wines with sweepstakes honors. This was due in part to the competition's structure. Wines were divided into two classifications, an open class in which wines could be made by a winemaker of either gender, and a second class in which wines had to have been made by a woman vintner. Curiously, three of the four wines in the open class were made or co-made by women. (On the other hand, the winery recognized for racking up the most medals - 18 - has a male winemaker. What's it mean? Absolutely nothing.)

Incidentally, I agree wholeheartedly with the competition's longterm intent, which is to groom more women wine critics. At most competitions, women are underrepresented on judging panels, but so are younger people and members of ethnic minorities. Most judges are older white guys who got there by years of experience and passion in such fields as making wine, selling wine, researching wine and writing of wine. Yet, more perspectives and a broader range of palates at judgings would strengthen the deliberations and might even improve the credibility of wine competitions. Few competitions are trying energetically to diversify the composition of their judging panels, but perhaps the publicity given the National Women's Wine Competition and the issues it has helped raise will prompt other judgings to make a more conscientious effort at mixing up the makeup of panels.

For the record, the top overall sweepstakes winners were the Palmeri Wines 2002 Napa Valley Stagecoach Vineyard Caberent Sauvignon/Syrah in the open class, and the Veritas Winery 2005 Monticello Kenmar Traminette from Virginia in the women-winemaker class.

Winning winemakers are to get a supply of stickers proclaiming "Women Love It!" for their medal wines. A list of winners is to be posted on the competition's Web site.

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