Sex, Sexism and the Natural Wine Label

Images of naked women and references to everything from ejaculation to getting a woman drunk and into bed have become increasingly common on French natural wine labels. Why? Rémy Charest on what's behind the trend.

Would you drink–or serve–a wine called “Big Titties” or “Panty Remover”? Most people’s answer would likely be “absolutely not.” However, if you’ve dined at some of the country’s top restaurants, you may well have.

Those are in fact the names of two well-liked wines in the loosely defined category of “organic/natural”: Grololo by Domaine Pithon-Paillé in Anjou, and Piège à Filles by Touraine producer Les Capriades. Only the names are in French, which is likely why these kinds of labels have largely gone unquestioned in North America. Grololo is a pun on grolleau, the Loire variety from which it’s made, and “lolos” is a somewhat childish word for breasts. Piège à Filles would literally be translated as “girl trap,” but “panty dropper” or “panty remover” describes the idea more, er, faithfully.

There have been other examples of such “sexy” (or is that sexist?) labels within the community of natural winemakers. Pascal Simonutti has produced bottles featuring a full-frontal nude photograph of 1970s pornstar Brigitte Lahaie (in magnum, of course). Another, Cyril Alonso, put out a cuvée of gamay nouveau called Cougar, with a condom under a peel-back label and a slogan that translates to “I like them young.”

More recently, there was a fair amount of discussion surrounding one of the most explicit labels, a recent vintage of J’en Veux (“I want some”) a cuvée by Jura superstar Jean-François Ganevat. It features a drawing of a woman, shown neck to thighs, with her hand in her underwear. Ganevat has added more headless naked women to the labels of two cuvées for his new négociant wines, Cuvée Madelon and De Toute Beauté. On Twitter, writer and ex-sommelier Aaron Ayscough reacted by saying: “Ganevat: the Dov Charney of Natural Wine. Discuss.”

Another example comes from Alice Bouvot and Charles Dagan, the couple who run Domaine de l’Octavin, in Jura. They created an unfiltered bubbly called Foutre d’Escampette, a pun on the French expression “prendre la poudre d’escampette” (“to make an escape”), with the word “foutre” added in, the French word for cum.  An… un-disgorged wine called “escaped semen”? The association of substances is unusual, to say the least, but that didn’t stop a French natural wine blogger from calling it “easy to swallow” in a review.

This risqué trend has also gone beyond France. South African winemaker Craig Hawkins recently released a bottling of his El Bandito line featuring a full-length photo of a voluptuous, tattooed naked woman seen from behind. And while in Austria, recently, Alice Feiring spotted a label featuring a naked woman seen through a keyhole, and wondered if men would ever get sexualized on labels by female winemakers.

Using sex to sell alcohol isn’t exactly a new idea, but the natural winemakers seem to do it in a rather more in-your-face way. “And it isn’t equal opportunity, it is sexist,” pointed out Alice Feiring, when asked about this provocative trend in labeling. “Why not put a cock on a label? If we’re going to do it, let’s go all out.”

Male and female representations don’t seem to have an equal footing, indeed. Cory Cartwright, of Sélection Massale, who imports Piège à Filles, said he had much more trouble with getting authorization from the TTB for another wine, a cartoony-labeled Frantz Saumon bubbly called La Petite Gaule du Matin, an expression for a man’s morning erection. Shouldn’t the idea of getting a girl drunk and into bed, the implicit sense of Piège à Filles, cause more raised eyebrows?

Boys will be boys?

Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, wine director at New York City’s Rouge Tomate and a champion for natural wine, feels generally unimpressed by the trend. “The humor is pretty much borderline and a bit like a contest to know who’s got the biggest one,” says Lepeltier. “There is a sort of punk, anarchist ethos behind it in some cases, but it goes overboard.”

Rebellious, middle-finger-in-the-air humor has proliferated in the natural wine world, tying in with the general outlook that presides over the growing wine community. Natural winemakers often position themselves in a counter-cultural way, against global brands, big agriculture and the homogenization of taste. Many of them reject the strict rules of the European appellation systems, which dictate things like choice of grape varieties and even the way the wines should taste. It’s a way to claim their freedom of expression that, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes its way into pun-rich and provocative labels of all kinds, like Fabien Jouve’s “You Fuck My Wine,” which he named—in English, with a Taxi Driver reference in mind—in direct rebellion to strict, often odd, AOC rules. The wine is made from a traditional grape—jurançon noir—of his home region of Cahors, which is now forbidden in appellation wines despite its long presence in the area.

However, using labels to make a political statement about AOC rules is one thing, showing a young woman masturbating on a label is a different ball game altogether. Instead of a gesture of liberation, it appears instead to be a clinging to the bawdy, macho side of traditional wine culture—and French culture in general. Lepeltier agrees that in some cases, there is a clear dose of chauvinism: “A guy like Andrea Calek says that one of the main reasons he started making wine was to get drunk and get laid.”

For Feiring, whatever its direction, and whether the humor is sexual or not, the trend reflects a “sophomoric, very immature” mindset in a wine community that “parties really hard” and tends to show a sense of one-upmanship. One example of this comes from the Voirons brewery, in Savoie, who made a beer called J’en Ai (“I got some”). The label shows a drawing of a guy, seen neck to thighs, reaching into his underwear—a playful jab at Ganevat’s J’en Veux.

Questionable choices in labeling, of course, are not an exclusive domain of the natural wine world, even when it comes to sexual or gender issues. In the US, wine and spirits giant Beam successfully retails a wine and cocktails brand called “Skinnygirl,” while several wine labels feature the word “Bitch,” by itself or with preceding adjectives like “Royal,” “Sassy” or “Happy.”

There is a striking difference in reactions, however. While the aforementioned natural wines seem to get a free pass, the wines slapped with a Bitch label are universally shunned within the wine trade. The New York Times dismissed them as “rude” in an article on new trends in wine labeling. Similarly, the Skinnygirl brand has been attacked by numerous writers and bloggers as adding to the pressure women feel about their appearance. One blogger even went as far as calling it, “Terrorism on Women’s Body Image.”

So why the free pass? Guilhaume Gérard of Sélection Massale, who imports Piège à Filles in the United States, explains that there are cultural differences at work: “In Europe, sex stopped being taboo a long time ago. Red light districts are everywhere, access to porn and attitudes towards sex are very different from the United States.”

Getting the Inside Joke

Cory Cartwright, the other half of Sélection Massale, also thinks that it has to do with a sense of community. “Piège à Filles was a name suggested as a joke, and it stuck. It is a small production wine, made by a winemaker who is part of a small group of winemakers who all know each other, and a lot of the people who sell the wine know the winemaker as well. That gives it some leeway.”

Cartwright and Lepeltier, as well as Lee Campbell—the wine director at Reynard in Brooklyn—all point out that the duo behind Piège à Filles are two extremely nice guys, and that coming from them, the expression couldn’t be seen as anything but a sophomoric joke. “Most of these wines are made in tiny amounts, so the natural wine people are mostly talking to themselves,” adds Alice Feiring. “It allows you to say ‘Oh, that guy is such a jerk, but he makes really good wine’.”

In context these jokes can certainly become more acceptable. “I hate the Bitch wines, personally,” says Campbell, “but girls offer them to each other as gifts, at bachelorette parties and such, and they all seem to think it’s funny.” Jo Pithon, of Domaine Pithon-Paillé, who makes the Grololo, also points out that his wine was used in California at a charity event for breast cancer research: in that context, celebrating breasts on a label does take on a whole other meaning.

The ambiguity remains, however. “With all the cleverness you see in wine labels, it would be so easy to come up with something else,” says Campbell. “That’s what’s weird to me.” While the winemakers and the importers and sommeliers all seem to smile at the crude party joke aspect of these labels they sell, it’s interesting to note that they tend to get more uneasy when asked about their meaning. Shedding the straight-laced, buttoned-up trappings of the wine world is, in and of itself, an excellent idea—if it promotes enjoyment. Maybe less so if it generates embarrassment.

Québec City-based journalist, translator and blogger Rémy Charest has been writing about food and wine for over 15 years, for a variety of Canadian and American publications, in both French and English. Among other things, he is the main writer and editorial consultant for Québec wine magazine Cellier, a regular columnist of Radio-Canada's food radio show Bien dans son assiette, a principal critic for and a judge at national and international wine competitions.