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Drinking While Female

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For a while I have puzzled over the phenomenon Frank Bruni describes in his Times piece on gender roles in the dining room, and not for lack of something better to do with my time. No doubt, female diners feeling slighted when being attended to by besuited waiters ranks low on the feminist list of wrongs to right, and justly so. In this light, Bruni's "men are from Steakhouse, women are from Soft Lighting" take on things feels a bit pat. But its when the drinks order hits the table that things get interesting.

Alcohol as its served in bars and ordered at restaurants has a distinctly defined gender, to go along with all the other fusty traditions that have sprung up to govern when, how and why one consumes it. Some alcohol dictums are simple and charming: champagne is for celebrating, port is for contemplative evenings, rose is for picnics.

But the rules relating to gender simply close off whole provinces of beer, wine and spirits drinking to women. In general, the darker, bitterer and more expensive the drink is, the more likely men are assigned to drink it, while women are regulated beverages that are light, fruity, or insipid. Women sip chardonnay at lunch with their friends while tie-wearing bankers drink cult Napa cabernet with their steaks.

If you don't think that's true, ask your female friends - the ones whose taste have evolved beyond the appletini - if they can think of instances where the wine list was placed in their date's hands at the restaurant when he knows nothing about it, or waiters who hand the gentleman the beer while the lady gets the cosmopolitan she didn't order.

In terms of wine, there is a mass of women who are still seated at the kiddie table. As a woman who reads wine lists as if they were Danielle Steel novels, I rankle at Bruni's observation that more men than women seek restaurants with deep and serious wine programs, though I don't doubt the truth of it. Men are certainly more likely to order up a bottle of Screaming Eagle at a client dinner, while a woman might to flapping her hands and cede the list to her companions.

If the wage gap can be partially explained by the fact that men are more likely to ask for more money in salary negotiations, perhaps the wine gap is similar: getting over feeling inadequate about wine means becoming comfortable with asking questions, demanding thoughtful answers and above all drinking well. Wine marketers and wine educators are clambering over themselves to help us to do this, some with more success than others.

Certainly Berenger's wine for chicks, White Lie Chardonnay, can only be an insult. The wine is billed as if women's palates require bland, de-alcoholized wine or worse, that their femininity compels them to steal away to the boudoir to down a bottle of the stuff before covering up the evidence with mouthwash and a spritz of White Diamond. What's next, Boldface Lie Shiraz, marketed to men who falsify their tax returns or blatantly cheat at poker? Would men stand for that? Should women?

In conrast, Leslie Sbrocco's book "Wine for Women" should be noted for getting directly to the point. It's intended to teach the basics about wine to the ladies in the hope that they get a little more confidence in the bottle shop. Sbrocco is a respected educator and journalist, and her book must prove useful to women who enjoy her approach, which draws a parallel between wine varietals and elements of a woman's wardrobe - chardonnay as a basic black dress, for example.

Yet If you cover up the "for women" in the title and squint your eyes to blur the raging fuchsia cover you'd just have a nice primer on wine, useful to men and women alike. So why commit the sin of reinforcing the gender gap, when all a wine student needs is a mixed case and a copy of the Oxford Companion to Wine to thump when she needs to look up "Spatburgunder"?

Ladies, step up! Knowing a little something about wine does make drinking it more appealing. Then, when your date tries to order Chablis with his steak next time you're out to dine, you can snap up the list and school him on the fine points.

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