Pretty in pink is a common theme. As are images of stilettos, vamp red lips, long limbs and sexy cocktail parties. In a bid to corner the chick wine market while at the same time helping women overcome their supposed fear of buying wine, wineries around the globe are tarting up their labels with a wink towards debaucherous girls’ nights out – rebranding or creating new blends with names such as Strut, Bitch and Pink.
“I’m always skeptical of marketing-driven wines,” says Natalie MacLean, an Ottawa wine writer who also publishes the popular e-newsletter nataliemaclean.com. “Authentic wine has its roots in the ground, not in a focus group.” But with more than a million wine producers worldwide she adds, “I understand a winery’s need to stand out on crowded liquor store shelves.”
MacLean says that the job of a wine label – be it fluffy squirrel or a castle in the middle distance – is to get us to try the wine. Then it’s up to the consumer to decide whether the wine delivers beyond the label. And in terms of this new breed of grrrl friendly vino, she finds that while some of these wines are complete plonk, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the price-quality of a few, such as Strut and Girls’ Night Out.”
Is she insulted by the branding? “No. It’s alcoholic grape juice, for goodness sakes. I call my glass of wine at 5 p.m. ‘Mommy’s Little Helper’ – now there’s a name for a focus group to test.”
Like MacLean, Courtney Henderson, restaurant manager and sommelier at the AGO’s Frank restaurant, is intrigued by how wines are marketed these days. “I understand what these brands are trying to achieve,” she says, “and as a sommelier, my goal is to make wine approachable and fun and I love when producers try to accomplish this as well. But who are these labels really appealing to?” she wonders. “Are they reaching out to an appropriate demographic? More importantly, is it dumbing down women’s knowledge of the topic?”
Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday we were happily chug-a-lugging Farnese, Yellowtail and Fuzion? It felt good – as a nation we were finally bypassing beer and enjoying affordable, drinkable wines. Sales were on the upswing. Recognizing an opportunity, Calgary sommelier Erin Rosar put together her Wine in the Kitchen kits, which launched this year – a pink hatbox that includes all the elements for a educational at-home wine party, including a DVD walkthrough of the wine tasting experience. The kits proved so popular that Rosar, through her company WG Wines, just released her latest DVD, Bubbles 101.
Even porn stars are getting in on the hot, sweet action. Upon the debut of XXX-performer Savanna Samson’s Sogno Uno, with a label depicting Samson in back-arched glory, the inimitable Robert Parker gave the 2006 release a score of 90-91 out of 100. (A score of 90 to 95 denotes “an outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character.”) But Samson had an ace in the hole – a winemaker, Roberto Ciipresso, who had previously worked for the late Pope John Paul II. The porn star could now add her wine accolades to the mantle, alongside the porn industry’s highest award for “best all-girl sex scene.” (Admittedly, Samson’s wine is likely geared towards men. And lesbians.)
As a sommelier at the Platinum Club in the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Lorie O’Sullivan says that one of her roles as a female sommelier is to educate consumers, particularly women, about wine. “It’s a rare treat when I have a female guest ask me about wine and how to pick a good one,” she concedes, seeing as she works at one of the most male-dominated venues in the country. O’Sullivan thinks that some women who spot these new girly bottles labelled with a grape variety they know and like and priced between the magic $10-$15 mark feel confident in their purchase. “I recently had the opportunity to taste a few of these wines,” O’Sullivan says, “in particular, the 2007 Little Black Dress Merlot from California really surprised me. The wine has some structure to it: The nose had notes of cocoa and plums and the wine was smooth on the finish.” So would she buy it again? “Probably not,” she admits, “but if marketing this way to women encourages them to buy wine and leaves them with a thirst to learn more – then perhaps it’s not a bad thing.”
Maybe so. Still, I can’t help but think there’s a double standard going on here. After all, why aren’t there any vintages being called Big Guy or Fat Bastard? Oh wait. Never mind.