Spirits: The Grape Gap

How do you sell wine to both guys and dolls?

Men and women have different ways of shopping — for shoes, for cars, even for wine. For years, restaurants have concentrated on selling the big-name wines preferred by their male customers, but now more women are reaching for the wine list, and sommeliers are making an effort to reach female consumers. Anne Hood, sommelier for Harry’s Restaurants in Delaware, took a nontraditional approach when designing the list for Harry’s Seafood Grill on Wilmington’s riverfront, focusing more on what wines taste like than on their pedigrees. “I think I am unconsciously marketing to a more female customer base,” she says of user-friendly headings like “Fish-Lovin’ Reds” and “Great Whites That Don’t Bite.”

Stereotypes abound about how gender influences tastes in wine, conjuring clichéd images of the preening male collector or the lightweight housewife. However, until recently, meaningful information on how gender affects wine choice has been hard to come by beyond basic physiological differences — alcohol affects women more strongly than men; female senses of taste and smell are, on average, more acute.

Fascinating gender revelations emerged last year when a major study by Constellation Wines identified six types of premium wine shoppers. The largest female contingent was in a group dubbed “overwhelmed” — those who find wine shopping confusing. Meantime, almost one in three men fell into the “image seekers,” those who are concerned about what their wine choices say about them. Apparently, feeling insecure about wine knowledge is universal.

Restaurants are adapting to this concern, as more and more wine lists switch from the traditional format, in which wines are categorized by grape or region and listed by price, to a more progressive format that groups them by style and flavor and in order of weight and intensity. Progressive lists are great for exploring: Find one familiar wine, and its neighbors will be those closest in flavor. Move up the list for lighter, or down for fuller­bodied alternatives.

National players like the Ritz-Carlton on Broad Street and Fleming’s Steakhouse, coming soon to Radnor, use this system with great success. Local restaurants that emphasize wine, like Ansill in Queen Village, Tria off Rittenhouse Square and Nectar in Berwyn, are offering variations of this unintimidating wine list, and it’s proving popular with both sexes.

Marnie Old discusses wines, beers and spirits at marnieold.com. She may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.