It’s the end of the year and I should be bringing glad tidings and happy wishes for the Solstice. I should try to scrounge up some of the good that happened in 2020, to end on a positive note. First, I’m afraid, I have to get something off of my chest.
When asked how being a woman affected my career (or lack of one), I used to quip that being short was worse. I now see I wasn’t being funny; I was being obtuse and I’ve been actively mulling this over while writing this memoir of mine. One of my chapters is about how in 1990 I was given an assignment for Connoisseur magazine. The topic was Long Island wine, it was my first real break, and my first real money for a piece. $2 a word!
In the course of reportage, I found myself at dinner at the winery and home of the couple who begat the Long Island winemaking dream. Of course, they were to have a starring role in the piece. While his wife was putting the finishing touches on dinner downstairs, I pretended not to notice the pass he made at me in the library. Shortly after, tucking into the salmon, he told me I looked like Woody Allen. Then he followed that up with, “Are you Jewish?” Later, I discovered, he’d told my editor, “That girl knows nothing about wine.”
My rejection of him may have been the reason that I never wrote for the magazine again. It took 30 years for me to understand what happened. Recent events over in France helped crystalize it for me. Let’s call it L’Affaire Magnum and let me give you the overview.
Natural wine denier Michel Bettane (thought of as the Robert Parker Jr. of France) has, with Thierry Desseauve, built an international empire which includes a high-circulation magazine (En Magnum), France’s annual wine guide, and numerous events and roadshows, both in France and in Asia. His magazine recently ran a controversial cartoon. To be clear, the problem wasn’t with the cartoon. The problem, and it’s a big one, is the harassment that followed.
To roughly translate the cartoon in question, a pert-nippled wine agent suggests she’ll go down (or whatever) on the wine buyer in exchange for a big fat wine order. Please note that sex is more usually forced, demanded or hinted at by buyers in power from their female salesperson. The cartoon is a reversal of that more typical scenario and fits squarely in the realm of male fantasy. (More on this coming.)
Part of the name of the company in the cartoon is “Poulet.” Fleur Godart is a prominent natural wine distributor in France. Her company is called Vins Vivants et Volailles. About her? Maybe yes, maybe no. Complicating the matter is that in real life the cartoonist has a winery with a name closely related to a female chicken. However, both Poulet and Volailles are terms for fowl, and foul it is indeed.
The French male establishment defended the cartoon as a freedom of speech issue, as if they were the heirs to Charlie Hebdo. That could have and should have been the basis for a discussion—but any such discussion was shut down before it began. When Belgian writer Sandrine Goeyvaerts questioned the motivation behind the cartoon on Facebook she was hit with threats and insults by Nicolas de Rouyn, En Magnum’s editor-in-chief. When Ophélie Neiman from Le Monde questioned the cartoon, it was Bettane himself who sent her messages, informing her that she was nothing and she would “pay.” Other women were called “insignificant,” and worse. The attacks were played out in texts on Instagram and on Facebook. You can read Aaron Ayscough’s translation “of Antonin Iommi-Amunategui’s The Old White Men of Wine” and get an excellent blow-by-blow. Legal avenues for cyberbullying are being explored. At least one lawyer, the one most closely associated with natural wines, Eric Morain, believes it’s a case.
I’m familiar with Bettane’s men-are-afraid-of-the-women responses. In a 2016 essay in The World of Fine Wine—a magazine for which I also write—Bettane doled out a few hundred words attacking me, presumably over my snarky 2015 Instagram post about his disparaging assault on natural wine. I had once referred to him as Trumpian, which he took offense over, but you can judge for yourself. Here is a choice sentence from that piece entitled, “Democracy and Ecology,” And here we see the world through her eyes—conveyed through insults that only serve to reflect the workings of a tormented and manipulative mind.
Just as I didn’t recognize the Long Island man’s behavior as misogyny, I didn’t see Bettane’s defamation for what it was. It was only in light of the L’Affaire Magnum that I saw the pattern of tried-and-true insults and tropes to keep women in their place. Denigrate. Devalue. “She’s crazy.” What’s worse is that when I complained to the editor who published the piece, he thanked me for being “gracious, mature, and sensible.” In other words, “thanks for shutting up.”
The French En Magnum news hit shortly after the United States Court of Master Sommelier story, which documented how those in power preyed on young women. It was a lot to take in. People were angry. Social media lit up. I saw a tweet to the effect of the same battle, nothing ever changes.
I don’t agree. There is change but progress is so painfully slow we cannot see the gains without charting them out. I have no doubt that the battle against all “isms” will go on for centuries. There will always be haters of anyone considered the ‘other.’ But with each year some cultures come closer to some sort of ideal where humans are judged on their merit, no matter what gender or race. In the ideal world, when Bettane quarrels with me or the French women, he would simply challenge us on our ideas instead of waving around coded words such as insane, hysterical, or whatever they used to keep us in our places in centuries past. And in an ideal world, damn, how to get people, like that winemaker and his ilk, to know they cannot make a pass and then employ sabotage when their target won’t play ball? That systemic sexism and entitlement is more difficult to expose and eradicate.
While they won’t be completely dismantled for some time, the expiration date has passed on the old guard like Bettane in France and for the Court everywhere, they are part of an outdated and rotten structure. For myself, I remain stunned and, yes, embarrassed. How is it that only now I am understanding my history in context? Is it because now it’s a little safer to talk out loud or is it that—like a sponge—I soaked in the harassment and now I’m at maximum hydration and ready to call the process of degradation what it is. If I were just starting out at the beginning of my career, would I see it? Would I take it as I did with embarrassment, self-doubt and powerlessness? I’ll never know, but by writing some stories down, I hope I can change it for the future.
I'm hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. With this messiah thing going on, I'm trying to swell the ranks of those who crave the differences in each vintage, celebrate nuance and desire wines that make them think, laugh, and feel. Welcome.