Beer, Wine, and Gender Preferences

To revise the old cliche, women are from Vinotopia, men are from Beervana. So say the trends in consumption, where when offered beer, wine, liquor, half of women prefer wine and 58% of men prefer beer (the remainder divided evenly between beer and liquor in both cases). So it is no surprise that wineries are trying to appeal to men, as OPB reported this morning:

Ted Farthing is the executive director of the Oregon Wine Board. He says wine and beer and liquor are all competing against each other, for our limited beverage budgets. Now, winemakers across Oregon, and the country, say one way they have decided to fight is to target the men, especially young men, in bars and breweries....

In order to market to men, Napa Valley winemaker Bennett Lane bought a NASCAR racing team – and just sponsored a minor-league NASCAR race. Other winemakers have crafted labels meant to appeal to men -- like Kung Fu Girl, Red Truck, or Maximus.

In another (less insane) strategy, wineries are trying to appeal to younger men, and turn them into wine drinkers before beer can snare them. But, as the article points out, it's tough for wineries to appeal to young people when a bottle of their pinot regularly sells for $20. Even that expensive bottle of Black Butte XXI looks reasonable by comparison. The biggest problem, of course, is that to get male wine drinkers, you have to vault the barrier of gender norms.

Cultural Signals
This is a fascinating topic because it gets at something far deeper than the liquid in a glass. The social cues these beverages deliver are so ingrained that to appeal across genders, industries are going to have to re-program American culture.

Wine is the drink of the cultural and intellectual elite. Gallery openings are marked by wine and cheese. When you go to a nice restaurant, you're offered a wine list, perhaps with a menu written in French. Beer, on the other hand, is packed in a cooler, drunk on the tailgate. Even the countries of origin say something about these stereotypes. Beer halls and taverns, meeting places of the British Isles and Germany, are rugged, working-class places. Smoky, windowless, elbow-to-elbow. But from Italy and France, those sophisticated, artistic wine countries, we get airy cafes and sidewalk wine bars.

From this, it's easy to sort the genders. Even the glassware seems to divide them--the voluptuous, delicately-stemmed wine glass on the one hand and the blocky pint glass or tin can on the other. They seem calculated to designate sex-appropriate drinking.

Decoupling Gender
Yet these are stereotypes; they are cultural. In France and Italy men do not fear a glass of wine. And here in Oregon, women do not avoid a pint of ale. The gender-specific roles are not innate, they're assigned. The way you begin to break down the associations is to break down the stereotype. Portlanders are fortunate to live in a city with light, attractive pubs and breweries, which send no particular gender cues. We have begun to decouple the beverage and stereotype. And Rome, where real men drink vino, never had the stereotype to begin with.

I'm particularly skeptical of the Nascar gambit because it doesn't transcend stereotypes, it flips them. Are macho gearheads going to switch to wine because it's named "Red Truck?" Unlikely. Seems like it would be far better to dissociate gender from wine altogether. For decades, wine has been sold to women using particular feminine cues. It hardly follows that it can be sold to men just by sending the opposite cues. Rather, the wine industry is going to have to stop sending all gender cues.

I wish the wine industry well. I like wine, and I love our local pinots. And this is the point: it is possible to enjoy both wine and beer. I feel the same way about beer--I want it to quit being pitched as a manly-man drink so women can feel welcome to join the boys at the bar. It is nice to imagine a future when neither beverage sends any cues at all and we all enjoy the local bounty.