Marthélize Tredoux: On the problem of the epithet that is “female”

By , 1 December 2016



Top female winemaker. Or top winemaker?

Top female winemaker. Or top winemaker?

Because the year hasn’t been filled with enough insanity, I’d like to up the ante by poking what might turn out to be a little hornet’s nest (depending on how frisky you all are feeling). This week, Vinepair published a piece by Vicki Denig “Why I Hate Female Sommeliers And So Should You”. Uh oh. Gender issues. Red flags everywhere, right? Pity I’m colour blind when it comes to those things.

Her piece in a nutshell: she notes that it seems to be an ab fab time to be a woman in wine. She points out a number of prominent articles celebrating the success of female winemakers and female sommeliers at the top of their game. She then declares that while she should be delighted by this, she isn’t. She hates it. She continues to discuss her reasons for finding such distaste in the practice of qualifying occupations such as winemakers and sommeliers with the word “female”. You can read her piece here.

Before I continue, I feel I should clarify that I am no rabid feminist. I am going to do my level best to navigate my way through this piece without getting sucked into the dirty morass that gender politics has become (especially the special brand of crazy that’s visible on social media). I’m writing this because the piece resonated with me and I think there’s something that needs to be poked with a big, gender-neutral stick.

Reading her article conflicted me in a way I haven’t felt since Game of Thrones went off-script.

My first instinct is wholehearted, almost feverish agreement. This bizarre (absurd, even?) practice of qualifying the gender of an individual excelling at their career only ever happens if said individual is a woman. When last did you hear someone gush about the top male [insert occupation here]? Can. We. Please. Just. Not?

But towards the end of her piece, she zeroes in on the issue of women in power positions, which is where I start tip-toeing. It’s not that I disagree with her, it’s just that I’m not entirely convinced there’s much use in discussing those issues (she says in a piece written to discuss said issue), simply because without actionable conclusions, it’s all academic.

My take on her sentiment is that – in short – she’s irked that the success of women is celebrated as a bit of a condescending pat on the back. A bit of “oh look how well you’ve done despite being burdened with ovaries”. The real problem, she says, is when women make a push to the very top, suggesting that while the glass ceiling has been lifted, it is still there and that “celebrating” female-[insert role here] merely emphasizes how far we still need to go before we really reach a recognizable form of equality.

The discord hit me hard when I started thinking about what I want to write on this topic. Truth be told, I am so sick of the guise of good ol’ “Girl Power” (Really. What are we? Spice Girls?). Without for a millisecond discounting or disrespecting the bona fide networks of supportive women in all business and social spheres (the local Women in Wine Exchange an example), I need to take a minute to rail – nay, rage! – against the synthetic, sycophantic and saccharine veneer that all too often gets smeared across the idea of the advancement of women. Unintended or not, these efforts are all too regularly marred by a smack of “good for you, sweetheart”.

As an example, consider what is meant with celebrating “top female winemakers”: are they top winemakers who happen to be women; or are they merely the best compared to other female winemakers? Yes, yes. Of course everyone will righteously point out it’s OBVIOUSLY the former and not the latter. Then riddle me this: why must we then specify that it’s a woman? Can she not just be celebrated as A top winemaker? Oh, no. No. There must be a little “you go, girl” added.

Where am I going with this? This is a plea for help. Help me understand why this is still something we have to wade through in 2016, especially in my beloved world of wine?

Is winemaking is a job more suited to those of the male persuasion? What about sommeliers? Wine sales? Winery management? Is the root cause deeper than we think, with girls at school level still being intimidated by or discouraged from pursuing science or business?

Or am I mad, having accidentally turned into a foam-at-the-mouth feminist without noticing, and is this issue simply a figment of my third-wave feminist imagination?

You tell me.

[Note: I am preparing myself for some mansplaining, if the comments really kick off. I am equally prepared to put a frilly pink foot up the derrière of anyone who feels the need to point out women in strong leadership roles in our industry, like Wendy Applebaum, Siobhan Thompson etc. as if I’m entirely unaware of their existence.]

  • Marthélize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won the Veritas Young Wine Writers Competition in 2013.


2 comment(s)

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    Vicki Denig | 1 December 2016

    Hi Alan,

    There was no celebration of any winemaker, male or female, whatsoever in my piece. That wasn’t the point at all. The point of the piece was to shed light on the fact that in this industry in particular, still in 2016, we refer to these seasoned professionals as “female” winemakers or “female” sommeliers, and what adding that “female” word before their title does to the value of their career, which in my opinion, belittles it, due to the fact that the emphasis is now put on the word “female” and not their profession.

    That being said, Viviana Navarete is an amazing winemaker, and I’d celebrate her wines regardless of whether she were a female or not. Leyda rules.


    Alan | 1 December 2016

    You’re 100% correct. I’m a keen male reader of text (meaning I’m pretty keen… for a man) and I was immediately confused as to whether that article was celebrating the best wine maker who was a woman, or whether they were celebrating the top wine-maker… who happened to be a woman.

    If this confusion is created by someone who makes a living writing words, chances are it reflects a genuine bias.

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