WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- Sommeliers -- restaurant wine masters -- in the nation's capital wishing to avoid a gaffe should log onto lesliesbrocco.com and study the photos of Leslie Sbrocco closely. Because when she walks into their restaurants with her husband -- as she may well do at the end of this month when she gives the keynote speech at the Washington International Wine and Food Festival, they should recognize her and know it is she who must be presented with the wine list and the first splash of wine to taste.
A wine writer for almost the last 10 years, Ms. Sbrocco is rarely spontaneously offered either, she says. There is still an underlying assumption by wine waiters that men, who in her experience drink more beer and spirits than wine, know more about wine than women.
Yet according to a study for the Wine Market Council conducted by Merrill Research and Associates, by the year 2000 women represented 62 percent of those who drink wine at least once a week and 64 percent of those who drink it at least once every two or three months -- a figure well up from the 55 percent "core" and "marginal" wine drinkers of 1994.
Women also represent 70 percent of wine buyers. This is less surprising, considering that women carry out most of the consumer shopping in any household and that wine is sold in supermarkets in most states. What is unexpected, given the tempting price and cult following for the Charles Shaw label's "Two Buck Chuck" sell-out bottles, is that they are not cheap buyers. More than 60 percent are buying at the high end, regularly paying $15 or more a bottle for general drinking. Men, on the other hand, tend to save their splurging for special occasion, collector-price wines.
"Women are far more adventurous with wine," says Sbrocco. "Men care more about ratings. They will buy a wine they've seen well graded in a wine publication. If it isn't in stock, they are less likely to buy another suggestion in case they don't love it. But if a wine seller tells a woman, I don't have it at the moment, but offers other suggestions, a woman will listen."
Sbrocco knows her wine. She's the author of the recently published "Wine for Women" (Wm. Morrow, $24.95), a book she wrote while producing wine columns for "Wine Today." Speaking at wine seminars, she has found that while men usually approach her with technical questions, women want to know what wine best to pair with a particular dish they want to cook.
Bruce Barrett, sommelier at Palm Springs' "Le Valluris" and winner of the California Restaurant Writer's Association Sommelier of the Year award for 2000 and 2001, has said he believes women have become more educated about wine through the Food Network channel, cooking demonstrations at their favorite chefs' restaurants and by having salaries that allow them to experience fine wines with fine food.
It is certainly a subject that isn't as readily acquired as it is in Europe, where wine has an automatic place at every main meal. "We don't have the cult of wine in this country," Sbrocco says. "I would really like people to think of wine as part of a table and not something to get hung up about."
Exposure is vital. Her 9-year-old daughter, who with her 2-year-old brother traveled extensively with Sbrocco on her trips to wine regions for the book, at one point expressed an interest in becoming a wine maker herself.
Sbrocco grew up with greater exposure to wine than most Americans. Her father was an airline pilot with whom the family traveled extensively and who enjoyed drinking wine.
She started to take the subject seriously when she moved to the San Francisco Bay area after college to work at a television station. She began to take any wine class she could find, joined several tasting groups, and read everything on wine she could lay her hands on. She even took part in the local grape harvest. She and her husband, who is happy to let her do the wine buying, even make their own wine year by year. "We're 'garagists,'" she says with a laugh, using the mildly deprecatory French word for those who prepare wine and beer in the garage or barn.
There are even health benefits to wine, she points out. "The whole point of the book and what I do is to make wine more approachable and fun."
Only shoe buying competes with her enthusiasm for buying wine.