Do Women Really Want Wine That’s Sweet, Pink and Silly?

Do Women Really Want Wine That’s Sweet, Pink and Silly?
Illustration: Joe Waldron

MAD HOUSEWIFE, Mommy’s Time Out, Sweet Bitch, Little Black Dress, Middle Sister, Sexy Wine Bomb, Hello Kitty and White Girl Rosé. Those are all names of actual wines specifically designed to appeal to female wine drinkers. Most of them don’t list a particular place of origin, grape or even vintage on their labels. They’re clearly produced on the presumption that women prefer silly and/or whimsical names over wines that reward education and thought.

Prior to reporting this story, I’d never purchased a wine named Mommy’s Time Out let alone one labeled Sweet Bitch, but clearly these wines have their fans. According to Jacqueline Peiffer, director of sales and marketing at Joseph Victori Wines, in New York, sales of Sweet Bitch wines are booming and the company continues to add extensions to the brand. There are almost a dozen different versions of Sweet Bitch to date—red, white, rosé and sparkling—with a total of some 100,000 cases produced each year.

It was a different story back in 2007, when the company launched the very first Sweet Bitch wines (a Merlot and a Chardonnay) to little interest from retailers. Today the wines are sold all over the country and, Ms. Peiffer said, the initial resistance to the name has pretty much disappeared. “Nothing seems to be offensive any more,” she observed.

Sales of the Middle Sister wines are also strong, according to the brand’s creator, Terry Wheatley, a California-based wine marketing executive. The Middle Sister name “evokes powerful emotions” in women said Ms. Wheatley, who further noted that the wines are particularly popular at “baby showers and bunco parties.”

While the production of Middle Sister is down from its peak of 300,000 cases a few years ago (it’s under 200,000 cases today), the company has added new wines in recent years. There are now 10 different Middle Sister wines, some of them with particularly strong regional followings. For example, the Middle Sister Surfer Chick Sauvignon Blanc sells well on both coasts, Ms. Wheatley said, and is particularly “big” on the Jersey shore.

The Middle Sister Surfer Chick Sauvignon was one of 14 “wines for women” I purchased for my tasting, at prices that ranged from $8 to $16 a bottle. I invited six female friends whose wine knowledge ranged from slight to substantial to taste and talk. They were quite curious; none of them had ever purchased such wines before.

“This is like a Bad Sweater Party!” declared Holly when she saw the lineup of bottles, most with loud, garish labels. “These are not subtle wines,” Gabrielle agreed, while Kathy observed that the label of Sweet Bitch Sparkling Rosé Moscato, with its pair of heavily lashed eyes, looked like “the cover of a book you’d buy at the airport.” The label of Mommy’s Time Out, featuring a woman holding a glass of wine in a chair bearing a Do Not Disturb sign, said Holly, made it look like “a wine you’d drink in your closet at home.”

The Hello Kitty label was notable for actually naming a grape (Pinot Nero), a place (Pavia, Italy) and a vintage (2016). Most of the wines were generic red, white or rosé with no indication of a region or grape. The labels of the two vintages of Mommy’s Time Out (both $8) indicated different blends. The 2017 MTO was a blend of Trebbiano and Pinot Grigio while the 2016 was Garganega and Pinot Grigio.

Our group deemed the former the better wine of the two simply because it was fairly light and refreshing, while the latter was lifeless and flat. Julie said she’d buy the 2017 to give to a friend “as a gag gift.”

The Sweet Bitch label, with its pair of heavily lashed eyes, looked like ‘the cover of a book you’d buy at the airport.’

While packaging was clearly top priority for the producers of these bottles, we were focused on whether the wines actually tasted good. Some, like the thin, slightly bitter Hello Kitty, were tolerable, but more often than not, the wines weren’t very good. The three worst included the 2016 Sexy Wine Bomb, a California red blend that was truly a (sweet, sticky) bomb, and the 2015 Dirt Diva Paso Robles Red, which turned out to be aptly titled as well. The Skinnygirl California White boasted just 100 calories a serving on its label, but the total for us was actually zero since none of us wanted to swallow the wine.

Among the wines we liked the most was the Sweet Bitch Moscato Rosé Bubbly, which Lori compared favorably to Brachetto, the lightly sparkling red from Piedmont, Italy. It had nice acidity, we all agreed. The Babe Rosé With Bubbles in a can ($16 for a four-pack) was also a fun drink—juicy, off-dry, with very big bubbles. “And you can carry it in your purse,” said Laurie, who did just that with an unopened can.

I later learned from Babe’s co-creator Josh Ostrovsky, aka “The Fat Jew” of Instagram fame, that Babe isn’t specifically oriented to women, even though it certainly seemed so to us. “Babe is a non-gendered word among millennials,” said Mr. Ostrovsky, who developed the brand with input from his millions of Instagram followers. The Babe line also includes a Babe Grigio With Bubbles, and Mr. Ostrovsky and his partners in the Swish Beverages company created White Girl Rosé, too. The Babe Rosé With Bubbles, a blend of white (Pinot Grigio) and red (Primitivo) grapes, has been a big hit, particularly with 21-35 year olds, said Mr. Ostrovksy. He defined that age span as “the 15-year window when you are having fun drinking.”

Were my friends and I simply too old to enjoy this kind of drinking, or were we rightly outraged by so much lousy wine, not to mention the sexist pandering? I called Phyllis Thompson, a lecturer on women, gender and sexuality at Harvard University, in search of a larger context for our questions.

Prof. Thompson, a discerning wine drinker, described the branding of the wines we’d been tasting as “pretty clearly condescending,” but she also found “deep historical reasons” behind their creation. “Wine has been a man’s domain for a very long time, and the expense and prestige of wine have helped to make it a very male-dominated world,” she said

But why are such wines so popular right now, when women are so socially engaged, so “woke”? Prof. Thompson saw it as part of a “predictable cycle,” that when women assert themselves, a backlash inevitably follows. In other words, candy-colored wines with silly names and pink labels are a way of putting women wine drinkers (back) in their place.

Jonathan Bennett, the Maryland-based executive vice president of merchandising and supply for Total Wine & More stores believes that the “kitschy, flashy” wines I’d been tasting will soon be shunned in favor of more authentic examples. Total Wine customers (who skew more female than male) are increasingly looking for “wines with a real stories that are from a place,” he said. I hope he’s right and wine producers will realize that presuming intelligence and engagement on the part of female wine drinkers isn’t just smart but profitable too.

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