Gendered Wine Marketing Is Still All Too Real

Even in 2016, many wine brands are still integrating a handful of tired gender stereotypes into their marketing campaigns and brand identities. Zachary Sussman on the research that’s given rise to the disconcerting trend of gendering wine.

I had never heard of Galentine’s Day until a couple of months ago, when I received a press release promoting a certain iconic French wine as “the perfect drink” for the occasion.

One of the milder hazards (compared to, say, alcohol poisoning or hepatic cirrhosis) that beverage writers face in the practice of our trade is weathering the relentless barrage of such pitches. Most of them are just benignly irrelevant, deflected with a simple “no thanks.” But every so often you get one that compels you to drink, just not in the way intended.

The pitch tied to Galentine’s Day—a media-fabricated holiday first introduced in an episode of Parks and Recreation—confused me from the outset. Its authors appropriated the “Galentine’s Day spirit,” if you will, to make the following claims: First, that the wine in question represented “a woman’s favorite” by virtue of it being “low in alcohol and low in calories compared with most cocktails, beer and red wine.” Second, that women seek these particular traits in order to “indulge in and ramp up the fun without feeling heavy or weighed down.”

I’ve been privileged to know countless dedicated wine-drinking women, but somehow not one of them has ever shared anything in common with this “typical” female wine drinker. Surely she exists, though, because she’s invoked all the time. (See: How to impress her. What she really wants.) I just can’t figure out why this kind of type-casting is still happening in 2016. Is it lazy marketing, or do these gender-based messages actually work?

If anyone ought to know the answer, it’s the wine brands themselves. Eager to refine their tactics for targeting specific demographics—college-educated millennial professionals, for instance, or suburban Gen-X mothers—they’ve catalyzed a large body of research on the subject of gender and wine consumption.

Not so shockingly, it turns out that men and women aren’t all that different when it comes to their wine habits. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Wine Research, Dr. Liz Thach, Professor of Management and Wine Business at Sonoma State University, concludes that “overall, there is much in common between California men and women in terms of wine-drinking occasions, motivations to drink and preferred wine style” and that “gender-neutral wine promotions will most likely be more successful in reaching a larger demographic and thus market-share.”

Based on this evidence, the push for female-focused marketing might seem counterintuitive. But at a time when, according to that same study in the Journal of Wine Research, women constitute over 55 percent of American wine consumers and make around 80 percent of wine purchases in the U.S., it’s unlikely that brands will be giving up the chase anytime soon. 

What seems to be encouraging them in this pursuit is one important distinction revealed in the data. According to Thach’s study, “men are more interested in discussing the technical aspects of wine and exhibiting knowledge, whereas women want to relax and socialize with friends over wine.” Offensive as it might sound, savvy brands have incorporated this feedback into their strategies. The result? A rising tide of supermarket labels with kitschy, focus group-approved names like “Flirt” or “Middle Sister.”

This kind of audience segmentation is nothing new, and large commercial brands aren’t necessarily to blame for taking aim at a profitable area of the market. But I don’t get it. How is it advantageous to reduce the female drinkers they’re courting to the most generic lifestyle magazine stereotypes?

Consider, for instance, winemaker Margaret Leonardi’s statement on the website of Little Black Dress Wines: “I aim to make . . . wines that can be appreciated while curling up on the couch to watch The Bachelor [sic] on Monday evenings, hanging out with your girlfriends on Wednesday nights, flirting on date nights, or relaxing on Friday evenings at home over dinner with friends.”

As if this wasn’t sufficiently cringe-worthy, a quick glance at the supermarket shelf yields a whole host of different personality types. There are labels for the diet-obsessed, the yoga set, the Bravo TV housewife and, naturally, the perpetually frazzled mommy, ready to indulge in a little liquid therapy after the kids have gone to bed.

Granted, many women in this country happily identify as mommies or yogis or even Real Housewives, which is, of course, their prerogative. To me, however, the way wine brands play into these cookie-cutter gender roles is degrading. As Bloomberg wine columnist Elin McCoy once wrote, “most [female-focused wines] are targeting women 21 to 34, but their marketing efforts often treat this audience as if it had no more sophistication than a bevy of sorority sisters on spring break.”

It can’t be denied that a certain sort of gender binary has always informed our context for wine. Rather than end at the supermarket checkout aisle, it pervades the industry in subtle, problematic ways. How many tasting notes printed in glossy critical magazines adopt awkward sexual language? What are we to make of  Robert Parker’s claim that the 2009 Château Talbot Saint Julien is “almost slutty in its exuberance and ostentatiousness?” There’s also the bizarre proliferation of sexist puns on French natural wine labels, not to mention every possible incarnation of the “women in wine” trope, which, while well-intentioned, so often exudes a whiff of condescension.

The question is whether this condescension is strong enough to impact sales. The latest data from the Wine Market Council is illuminating. According to their research, 26 percent of women report having purchased wines “that have been created for and are marketed specifically to women.” Of that group, 69 percent either “purchase this type of wine regularly” or “will likely [do so] again.” This might not seem like an enormous amount, but within the $38 billion U.S. wine market, even this smaller subset of female consumers represents a lucrative niche.

As these labels try to expand their market share even further, however, they seem to be overlooking one obvious demographic: men. As Thach notes, “more [men] are drinking wine than previously recognized.” They also “drink wine on more new occasions and spend more money on wine.” To her view, this makes them “a potential untapped opportunity.”

Historically, wine marketers have spared men the most flagrant strains of gender-based marketing that dominate beer and spirits ads. That said, this shouldn’t suggest that gender plays no active role in promoting wine to men. It’s still part of the formula; it just feels less direct, trading upon notions of status and cultural capital. (Though, just the other day, I received a pitch describing a certain celebrated Champagne house’s blanc de noir as “bold enough for him,” which is notable for its miraculous ability to offend both sexes.)

“The traditional message has always been something like, ‘If you’re classy, you’re drinking cabernet,’” explains Dan Fredman, who heads his own wine-focused PR company, DFPR. “The idea is that chicks will dig you, and you’ll do well in business.”

In an effort to bring non-wine-drinking men into the fold, brands have increasingly been pursuing some of the same identity-based strategies formerly directed at women. Among the first was California’s Gnarly Head, which built a massive following by cultivating a dude-friendly “gnarly sensibility” (as they put it) to lure guys away from the keg. Similarly, there’s the rugged, outdoorsy image of Redwood Creek, whose winemaker Cal Dennison could have materialized out of a John Denver song. Others, like Rebel Coast winery (“not your parent’s winery”) or Gallo’s urban butcher-chic Carnivor project (“#DevourLife”), cater to men in the millennial hipster crowd.

I haven’t tasted any of these wines, but let’s be honest: Whether aimed at men or women, any label whose identity centers around a cultural cliché is unlikely to survive on its own merits. With so many bottles competing for space on supermarket shelves, it becomes critical to sell some kind of story. In the absence of more compelling narratives, the gender-based angle offers one way to differentiate a brand, not unlike the “critter wine” phenomenon of years past.

Still, there’s a difference between tugging at the heartstrings with an image of a cuddly kangaroo and pandering to the shallowest patriarchal stereotypes. An adorable cartoon animal has never insulted my intelligence. The ManCan, on the other hand? Not so sure.

Tagged: gender, marketing, wine