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!