I was surprised to read that 53 percent of wine drinkers in the United States are women, according to the Wine Market Council. And last year, women matched men as "core drinkers," those who drink wine at least once a week.
That trend might accelerate if women heed the results of a recent survey of 20,000 women over 13 years by Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. The poll showed that women who regularly drink a moderate amount of alcohol, particularly red wine, are less likely to have long-term weight gain than nondrinkers.
Nevertheless, when a man and a woman sit down to dinner in a restaurant, it's usually the guy who grabs or is handed the wine list and chooses the bottle.
"In our more up-scale dining restaurants, eight times out of ten, it is the gentlemen at the table still making the decisions," said Virginia Philip, sommelier at the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla.
Philip, 42, is one of only 13 women certified as a Master Sommelier out of 130 worldwide. She oversees a cellar of 28,000 bottles and 1,600 selections at the resort's L'Escalier fine dining room and eight other restaurants, with prices ranging from $35 to $15,000.
"If women are drinking with other women, obviously they choose the wine," Philip said. "European women tend to be more comfortable ordering wine when men are present at the table."
Once, men were always automatically handed the wine list everywhere, she said.
"Unless someone knows who I am, the list is passed to the man, who then hands it back to me," she said. "We have worked very diligently in our restaurants over the last five to eight years to not allow that to happen and to offer the list to the table. Still, if the host is the woman at the table, nine times out of 10 she passes it to the man. I am convinced women do this to not 'bruise the ego' of the gentlemen they are dining with."
Despite her renown -- the American Sommelier Association declared her the Best Sommelier in the World in 2002 -- she said her fellow male Master Sommeliers pounce on the list.
"I sit back and allow them to make their selections, within reason," she said. "I may order a glass of something else just to get what I really want or to put my two cents in. If I want to see that list, I have to ask for it."
Philip said she finds that women have an idea of what they "think" they want to drink when they come into the restaurants. She sees her role as one of guidance and education. Usually that means starting with lighter white or sparkling wines, then moving to pinot noir, tempranillo and malbec as the next most likely stepping stones, she said.
"In our Seafood Bar and our Asian restaurant Echo, white wines are generally a done deal," Philip said. "White wines such as torrontes, riesling and soave as alternatives to pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc are varietals women generally do like and are more likely to order than men.
"By far, it's the men who are ordering the big, expensive, red cult wines out of California," Philip said.
In that stratosphere, L'Escalier sells wines like ZD Abacus M/V for $950, Colgin Tychson Hill Vineyard 2005 for $1,000, and Harlan Estate 2004 at $1,525.
At Corton, in New York's Tribeca, management has devised a system that seeks to avoid embarrassment.
"When the guests sit down, the captain will place the cocktail and wine list right on the table and see who reaches for it," sommelier Ame Brewster said. "We give them a few minutes to look at it, then I'll go up to the person going through the pages."
While Brewster says she has never had a woman who will be hosting the dinner call in advance to ask the list to be handed to her, some have phoned to ask for a specific wine to be chilled or opened upon arrival.
"Over the eight years I've been involved with wine service I've noticed more people have discussions among themselves about the wine," said Brewster. "I find that women are more open about discussing the possible wines with me."
The assumption that women tend to order a "nice dry chardonnay" by the glass has changed, Brewster said. "Women order seasonally. In winter they tend to go for red and in warm months for whites."
Corton offers chef-partner Paul Liebrandt's eight-course, $145 tasting menu, with a $120 option of matching wines, a choice where she sees no real difference between men and women. But when it comes to ordering big, expensive bottles from a list famous for its selection of rare burgundies, males tend to be the show-offs.
"Even there, though, women are moving up in price," she said. "I'd say with those kinds of wines we're running four to one, men to women."