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Wine and the Feminine Esthetic


I didn’t know Shirley Sarvis, even though she was a legendary resident of San Francisco, and despite the fact that I own some of her books, including “American Wines and Wine Cooking,” which she co-wrote (with the great Bob Thompson) in 1973. She died last week, at the age of 77.

Shirley was from the Old School of culinary writing, one that included M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child. In her day and age, women wrote about cooking for other women, usually in the pages of women’s magazines. Shirley’s roster included Better Homes and Gardens, Sunset Magazine and Woman’s Day.

These were periodicals that appealed to suburban housewives who by and large stayed home all day while the Man of the House dutifully commuted to his job, there to work hard to bring home the bacon, so that the wife could decorate the house in the manner prescribed by the magazines (white wicker patio chairs, lovely floral arrangements, bright colors in the California style, with a pretty garden). The Missus also mastered the arts of preparing beef bourguignon and fondue, but never barbecue: that was the Man’s task.

Wine? It barely showed up at all. The Man might like an occasional martini, a la Mad Men, or a beer. The Missus didn’t drink, or, if she did, it was discretely. Although California was riddled with winemaking, from L.A. up through the North Coast and in the Central Valley, the suburbs hardly embraced it in the 1950s. Scan the pages of the women’s magazines and you’ll see scant mention of the grape or wine.

Shirley, however, made an important transition in 1973 with the publication of “American Wines and Wine Cooking.” She was the “cooking” part to Bob Thompson’s “wine” part, meaning she still remained true to her traditional gender role. But the fact that a woman’s name appeared as co-author of a book at least partly about American wine represented an important cultural shift. It meant that wine was no longer the exclusive province of the Man, as it always had been, but that women could bring their own esthetic to it.

What was that esthetic? It’s always been less fussy than the Man’s. The Man invented precise wine-and-food pairings, the classification systems as supposedly precise as entries in an accounting ledger, the rules of aging and cellaring, the puffery, the snobbery, the show-offiness and, yes, the 100-point system. Women just wanted something good to drink with food that was lovingly prepared and delicious.

Julia Child embodied this same esthetic. She could hold her own with wine snobs, especially with French wine, but she chose to emphasize a different approach, one that was more egalitarian, that could laugh at pretentiousness. It’s easy to poke fun at people with wine knowledge if you’re a total ignoramus who knows nothing about wine, its history, production and culture. What’s more interesting is when people who know a great deal about wine relax and refuse to take it that seriously. They know that there are more important things in life, that wine is there to help us slow down and get in touch with our souls. I think of this as the feminine esthetic toward wine, and we see it around us today, in the careers of women as varied as Leslie Sbrocco, Jancis Robinson and Jo Diaz.


Here’s to the women of wine!

  1. I don’t think Jancis Robinson embodies what you’re describing at all. Not in the least. While her experience and knowledge is certainly worthy of great respect, she embodies the old British men’s club approach to wine, despite the fact she’s a woman

  2. Totally agree with dr here. Tremendous knowledge but without gender if you were just to read her work. Just my female two cents…

  3. this is a well-written and eloquent homage and I am thankful that you often take the time to dedicate your blog to individuals like Shirley. I feel pieces like this further solidify your dedication to the industry and those who serve it. Cheers, Steve.

  4. I think I learned more about wine and food from Shirley Sarvis in one session than from any other source.

    The sunject was salmon, and she proved to my satisfaction that wine and food pairings were in the eye of the beholder. With a simply grilled piece of salmon, we tried everything from Chablis to Sauterne with a stop at Pinot Noir in the middle.

    To my palate, some combinations were preferred to others, but the feeling among the wine and food pros in the room was far from universal.

    The ultimate takeaway was that there may be some combinations that are generally preferred but there are many that work.

    Now, I will agree that, as would have Shirley, that not every food item is as inviting of a wide variety of choices as salmon, but she also proved that a high acid choice will produce one set of sensations and a rich Sauternes a totally different but not necessarily less pleasant set of sensations.

    I would not say, however, that Shirley was a cook for women. She was an instructor in wine and food whose main message was that the old school choices were too narrow and that it was possible to like one wine with your salmon one night and a very different one on the next.

    That kind of teaching was decidedly not about how to cook but about how to enjoy wine with food. In that, she was a revolutionary and deserved to be celebrated for her vision.

  5. dr, I understand what you’re saying. I guess I meant in terms of her approachability and informality, which are so different from, say, Hugh Johnson or Michael Broadbent.

  6. The “feminine aesthetic” is a myth as dangerous as the feminine mystique. There is a long tradition in formal criticism to group like ideologies, aesthetics, and praxis: fine. But associating an approach primarily with gender is fraught, partly because exceptions are more common than the supposed rule, but mostly because an explanation from gender, tempting as it seems, often glosses over other, more nuanced drivers, deeper structures—ones we need to probe further to understand fully.

  7. Marlene Rossman says:

    Meg, well said!

  8. Joslyn Baker says:

    Meg Houston Maker says it best: generalizing anything primarily by gender is dangerous.

  9. Thanks for your piece on Shirley Sarvis and the feminine aesthetic. I, too, never met Shirley. Any woman who’s carved a path for other women… the likes of Shirley, Leslie Sbrocco, and Jancis Robinson, is very special.

    Your mention of me in this delightful group… I’m beyond honored to be included.

    If it weren’t for women who know who they are and what they want… beyond barefoot and pregnant, we’d still be light years away from doing our own thing and getting respect.

    As for Jancis… she’s the real deal. I once ran into her at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, and she was as down to earth as anyone can be… Perhaps people have to experience her live and in person… for me, up close and personally.

    I love my feminine aesthetic, by the way… Just as I love my husband’s masculine one…

  10. Sasha Smith says:

    Ay yay yay. First of all, in some cases, what is called female aesthetics is simply “how women need to act so as to prove their bona fides and yet not seem threatening or humorless.” Also, the things you associate with us ladies — “just wanted something good to drink” not caring about such things as aging and cellaring (which are, you know, actually important!), etc. — are associated with less money, lower status and less prestigious wines. So…no thanks. (FYI, we’re also really nurturing, which is why we’re so darn good such highly regarded and remunerative fields such as child care and tending to the elderly!) The wine world is divided into people who are assholes about how much they know, and people who wear their erudition lightly. There are girls and boys in both camps.

  11. Leslie Sbrocco says:

    thanks steve. an honor to be mentioned alongside jancis and jo. my approach to wine has always been serious, i just don’t take myself too seriously. the moment wine is not fun, challenging, or an adventure is when i stop drinking.

  12. Thank you, Steve, for this thoughtful post. I am fascinated, as always, by the conversation happening around it elsewhere too, most specifically via Jo Diaz’s also quite thoughtful blog post reflecting on the gender question triggered here.

    I take Meg Maker’s point seriously, and in general agree that as tempting as it is to reduce to gender there are usually other drivers in play that deserve even closer attention. In this case, however, I believe her comment misses a central element of Steve’s honoring of Shirley Sarvis’s good work.

    Gender is always historical, and as such carries historical relevance and change over time. The distinction that Steve describes here initially about Shirley places her at a point in history in which gender was more definitive of her work simply because gender to large degree constrained what work (and voice) was an option for her. In that sense, she is part of a feminine aesthetic because our own history includes such gender distinctions and their associated (even if projected) values.

    Where Steve closes, projecting a feminine aesthetic to the current world of wine, may be more problematic. That is, many of us want to maintain the lack of constraint that those before us fought for. But I value the overall appreciation and honor Steve shows for his subject here. And, even if I don’t want to attach his final point to women specifically, I also appreciate where he closes –the idea of doing serious work without taking ourselves seriously. Steve gives three lovely examples of that here in Leslie, Jancis, and Jo. I wonder if Eric Asimov, Kermit Lynch’s writing, and even Gerald Asher might be included as people doing serious work on wine with an accessibility and ease to their voice.

    Thank you Jo, Meg, and Steve for inspiring such a thoughtful discussion!

  13. How disappointing to see an otherwise thoughtful and affectionate piece fall into lame stereotypes like ‘feminine esthetic’.


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