Wander down any major supermarket's wine aisle, and you'll spot them: bottle after bottle of cheerfully labeled wines, bedecked with high heels, miniskirts, and insipid names like "Happy Bitch." Wines with illustrations ripped straight from a middle school Trapper Keeper and winemakers' notes that read like Sex and the City fanfic. This weirdly specific niche of gender-targeted wine is meant to be the stuff of girls' nights in; of buzzed book clubs and Bachelorette marathons. Oh, and they aren't that cheap—usually ringing up at $10–$15 a bottle.
I've never spent more than $20 on a bottle of wine, and I have no problems with "Two-Buck Chuck." But even as a self-described wine plebe, I couldn't help but feel a little morbidly curious about whether anything of substance was behind these sassy Curlz-embellished labels. Wine is, after all, a multi-billion-dollar industry in the US, and women make up a sizable (and continuously growing) majority of that consumption—estimated by some to be as high as 59 percent. In short, more women are buying wine than ever before.
Surely amidst the products targeting we wine-swilling ladies (not to mention all our cash), there must be something decently drinkable in this lot. Could a wine called "Party Girl Pink" actually be … good?
I didn't know the answer. But I was willing to set aside my feminism, my cynicism, and a tiny bit of my own self-respect to find out.
I ventured to the wine section of my local supermarket and reached for five of the most lady-pandering bottles I could stomach. I also sought the help of a sommelier to act as my oenophilic seeing eye dog: Perrine Prieur, a certified sommelier and Burgundy native who was born and raised in the wine world. Perrine grew up in a winemaking family, studied wine at Dijon's Le Castel, and worked as sommelier at London's Michelin-starred Le Gavroche. She has serious cred—as well as an award-winning shop. She also has a somewhat rare perspective: that of a female expert in a historically male-dominated industry.
With all of this in mind, I invited Perrine to spend an hour or so exploring the world of women-targeted wine in the form of a blind tasting, with one pre-selected "good wine" (a 2013 pinot noir from Willamette Valley) thrown into the mix as a ringer. Here's what we found.
Butterfly Kiss Moscato ($11.99)
Manufacturer's Notes: "Light, sweet and oh so delicious. Floral and fruity with just a touch of bubbles. Moscato + your favorite ladies = perfection."
Sommelier's Notes: "Oxidized," "not clean," with "no acidity" and a "chemical aftertaste." "Yeah, it's pretty much just like drinking apple juice," Perrine tells me. "There is no acidity, no back palate." While there is a bit of an aftertaste, she describes it as "chemical." She guesses that the grape is a botched riesling. When we reveal that the wine is actually a moscato, she's crestfallen, and tells me that she would not support this kind of wine because it is not representative of what the grape is supposed to taste like. "I would only drink this if I were 16 years old," she says, adding "... but only because it's sweet, and has alcohol."
My notes: Old strawberry Chapstick. Probably a Bonne Bell knock-off.
Middle Sister "Drama Queen" Pinot Grigio ($11.29)
Manufacturer's Notes: "A stunning Pinot Grigio, in perfect taste for any social event, from fashion shows to fundraisers...or on that rare occasion we're dining in."
Sommelier's Notes: "Absent of flavor," "soapy," with an "unnatural acidity" and "really bad chemical tastes." You know how some people say you can confuse a drug-sniffing dog by dousing your stash in cat piss? Well, they're wrong, but for the sake of this analogy, that's pretty much what the decidedly undramatic "Drama Queen" did to Perrine's highly trained palate. After taking a cautious sip, she tells me that this tastes like a wine with lots of unnatural and, in her words, "uninvited" acidity added to it, probably because the grape itself is terrible. Mediocre winemakers, she explains, will often ferment a huge batch of grape juice and add acetic acid to make it taste like something.
My notes: Hangover burps, with a hint of Bath & Body Works' Juniper Breeze. If this wine could talk, it would probably speak with vocal fry.
Party Girl Pink Rosé ($12.99)
Manufacturer's Notes: "A pink, refreshing, semisweet Rosé laced with flavors of strawberries and cream, is designed to deliver an explosion of fun, laughter and perfume in a glass."
Sommelier's Notes: "Smells like wine that's not well made," "not fresh," with "notes of petroleum." Upon seeing the pink wine flowing into her glass, Perrine's eyes light up. "Ooh, a rosé! I'm a big fan of rosé," she says, gesturing to an entire shelf of the stuff behind her. She takes a sniff. "But this doesn't taste like one I would drink." One cursory sip in, she's ready to move on. "Disgusting. I would never drink this, not even for fun. It's… bad."
My notes: Like licking a Yankee candle.
Skinnygirl California White Blend ($14.48)
Manufacturer's Notes: "Crisp and balanced, our Skinnygirl® California White Blend is sure to please. With its rich notes of honey, orange peel, and tropical fruits, this California beauty strikes the perfect balance between fruity and floral, and it's a low-calorie white wine to boot."
Sommelier's Notes: "Just wine with added sweetness. It's boring." "I have no idea," Perrine says, taking a sip and studying her glass. "It doesn't taste like anything. It's just… something sweet. There is nothing in this wine."
My personal notes: Ann Veal, immortalized in wine form. ("Her?")
Skinnygirl Cocktails was created by Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel, who's since sold the company and is now working on ruining pot for everyone. The brand offers a collection of wines, in addition to cocktails that might actually give you cancer. Nothing so exciting could be said for the California White blend we tried, though. It's also kind of misleading: Skinnygirl boasts having a mere 100 calories per five-ounce pour, but that's actually not that impressive.
Mommy's Time Out Delicious Red ($15.29)
Manufacturer's Notes: "This easy to drink red wine has a wonderful mouthfeel, silky texture and a pleasant aroma."
Sommelier's Notes: "Overripe," "sweaty," "like a bad tank that hasn't been cleaned, that they're just throwing shit into." "This smells like bad wine," Perrine says. "Their grapes aren't clean or fresh." We discuss the possibility of mold inside the tank. When I tell Perrine that I shelled out $15 for it, her jaw drops. "I'm sorry, $15 for this? It's just funky and musty and sweaty." Not to mention the whole mess around this wine-as-reward concept they're shilling.
My personal notes: The whole premise of this wine is a little disturbing. I had held out hope for this one: maybe, just maybe, among the cloyingly sweet white blends, this red would turn out to be earthy, rich, and deep. I was wrong.
In conclusion: If there's a girly wine out there that actually tastes like, well, wine ... we haven't found it. And it isn't about price-point. Perrine herself was able to show me a couple bottles in her shop that were less expensive—and better—than all of these. "Smell this," she says, offering me a glass from her stock. "Everything is aligned and in balance," she says. "It doesn't die two seconds after you put it in your mouth."
The five female-targeted wines we tried were all bad in their own special way, whether they were bland or overpowered with synthetic sweetness or acidity. Not to mention the fact that none of them were passable representations of the varietals listed on their labels. Perrine tells me. "I was not able to [tell what grapes were used in] any of these wines, because they are not true to what the grape is supposed to taste like."
But each had been trussed up with enough curlicues and childish doodles that it was no longer about the quality of the wine at all. Marketers are grasping for dated concepts of femininity—all things pink, sweet, and flirty. I suggest to Perrine that these vapid products do a disservice to modern women; she replies that it's detrimental to the industry. "I would not pay more than $5 for these, but they're selling it for more, and people are buying it." A lot of people.
Middle Sister parent company Canopy Management shipped its millionth case in 2013, while Forbes estimated that Beam Global Spirits' 2011 acquisition of Skinnygirl could have clocked in at $100 million. Granted, these wines aren't anywhere close to taking over the behemoth American wine industry—but the fact that they've made Scrooge McDuck levels of cash by trussing up a fundamentally flawed product in patronizing marketing is a damn shame.
Perhaps even more universally lamentable than the Mad Men-era marketing of these wines, though, is the lack of soul or substance in the bottles. "Wine is alive. Wine has a story," Perrine says.
Sadly, the only story we found in these wines read more like a bottled-up version of the Bic for Her.
This story previously appeared on MUNCHIES in February, 2015.