Right off the bat I want everyone to realize that despite the successful invasion by Disney, McDonald's and Coke, cultural differences still remain between the French and us. This week I witnessed an example. Because of my work schedule, my 8- and 11-year-old kids attend school in Provence four months a year. The other day they came home practicing a song that their classes were learning for a school concert. The song's message is this: I have some good tobacco in my tobacco pouch, but you don't get any because it's only for my good friends. So there!
Politically correct here is not politically correct there, so if during this story I appear to be at any given moment a tad sexist, blame it on the French. France, where even the word for wine, vin, is masculine.
Anyway, the last time I had to hire someone to run my office in Burgundy, it occurred to me that I have always (three times) hired a woman, and my automatic inclination was to do so again. Uh-oh. Don't forget my Berkeley roots, where it comes with the territory to be sensitive to infringements on constitutional rights, illegal wars, racism and sexism. Was I in the process of making a blatantly gender-based decision? I had some soul- searching to do. Why did I prefer keeping a woman in that, uh, position? Was I being...sexist?
The slot to be filled was an executive one requiring diverse, hard-to-find skills, including fluency in French and English, management of a small team of employees and office and computer skills. And, finally, remember De Gaulle's famous question, "How do you govern a country that has 265 cheeses?" Well, this job requires keeping more than 100 different, incredibly different, winemakers happy. It involves almost daily battling with truckers and steamship lines to ensure that our selections are protected from damaging temperature fluctuations en route and that they arrive on time. It also calls for dealing with American distributors, who show up to sample the wines at the source. But, most important, and this is the part where I really get choosy, the job includes traveling the wine route with me when I am tasting and buying, which adds up to about three months of togetherness per year.
Why a woman? I bared my soul to myself and discovered that I wanted to hire a woman again because men can be macho, and they can be macho in two ways that are relevant to my wine business.
The first way is a very French version of macho. Most winemakers in France are men, and believe me, they act differently when a woman is present. (As a matter of fact, a mere three decades ago it was still rare to see a woman permitted in the cellars!) So let's say I have to tell a winemaker that his wine is not good enough this year so I won't import it or that the price is too high so I won't pay it. Either could lead to unpleasantness, n'est-ce pas? Uncomfortable situations do arise, but with a woman by my side I find that there are still smiles all around, however forced, that there is still a show of politesse instead of hardheaded macho contentiousness and there is a handshake on parting instead of a bottle broken over my head. Self-preservation enters into my choice.
So you tell me: is choosing a woman because of the way she might influence a Frenchman's behavior sexist or the sign of a master tactician, a pragmatic businessman playing to his opponent's weakness?
Second, I prefer to hire a woman because I like the way women taste. Taste wine, of course. I am not saying they possess better palates than men. That would be sexist. I am saying that I, me, Kermit Lynch personally, without drawing any universal conclusions, like better the way women tend to taste. Which brings up the question, Why? Why make such a ridiculous generalization based on gender? I fear it may be the dread macho raising its ugly head again.
You have to admit that fewer women than men are macho, although that could be changing. And most men in their machoness approach wine tasting with cartfuls of excess baggage that get in their way. Cultural? Genetic? I don't care. Men seem to believe that they are wine experts just because they are men. When they stick their nose into a glass of wine they think it would be unmanly to say something wrong or stupid. So they get uptight. It is difficult to taste properly when you are uptight. Fear constricts the flow of blood to the taste buds.
As I have witnessed so many times, a woman tends to stick her nose in a glass and say the first thing that pops into her head, fearlessly, and it is amazing how often such spontaneous responses are appropriate and interesting. Women approach wine with their noses wide open, and the directness of an un-self-conscious reaction can be refreshing.
One more thing. Almost all American males think a wine has to be big to be good, while to most women a wine's size has nothing to do with quality. Here is the naked truth: the size or body of a wine is important only insofar as it relates to the dish it accompanies. You wouldn't select a light wine with dinosaur stew and you wouldn't want a big clunker with oysters, for example.
Choosing a wine is not like a caveman choosing a club, but a lot of men cannot get past that stage of development. Men seem to like to flex their palates, and I have nightmares about traveling with an assistant who thinks lighter wines are for sissies.
Such gender differences, however, are not restricted to the wine world. The other day I took my kids to a baseball clinic. Yes, a baseball clinic here in France! We walked up to an assortment of 10 or 12 bats. My daughter asked me which bat would be best for her. Meanwhile, my son, the boy, the male, went directly to the biggest, longest, heaviest bat and pulled it out, even though he could barely swing it.
The arrival of women in the cellars changed wine tasting in France in one regrettable respect. I entered the métier right on the cusp of the change, so I remember Before Women and After. In 1974, for example, I saw the young wife of a California vintner run red-faced out of the Romanée-Conti cellars, all in tears because the cellar master had been drawing some interesting parallels between the perfumes of his wines and various scents he attributed to a woman's anatomy. Apparently she couldn't take it and fled. What a vocabulary he had, old man Noblet!
Before, when the cellar was a man's world, wine was humanized, sexualized. A soft, plump, luscious wine might be compared to some movie star's breasts or a powerful, tannic red to something in a man's pants. And whose breasts were chosen revealed something about the character (or shape) of the wine, I assure you. The most meaningful explanation I have ever heard concerning the French concept of goût de terroir was in a delicious parable so pornographic that even after a season of Bill and Monica I am prohibited from offering even a little taste of it here.
Once the female invasion occurred, the winemakers clammed up, and today that colorful manner of describing a wine's character has almost disappeared. Now you hear nothing but cherry this and berry that, costarring acid, tannin and oak. How dull. And how utterly meaningless. Think about it. Do you really care whether a wine tastes like boysenberries, raspberries, blackberries, black currants or black cherries? Does 50 percent versus 100 percent new oak turn you on? In the old days, not so long ago, you might leave a wine tasting with new perceptions about life, nature, human nature and human sexuality. After all, there is, or can be, more to wine than meets the palate.
Kermit Lynch is a national importer of French wines and the author of Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France (North Point Press).