There has long been a perception that American women prefer to sip delicate white wines, but growing evidence suggests many really lust after the lingering taste of a muscular, robust red. A recent study of women wine drinkers in the New York area showed that 57 percent prefer red, and industry sources said they believe women now choose red wine as often as men.

"I was really surprised because there has always been the perception that women preferred white," said Marlene Rossman of the New York marketing firm Rossman, Graham Associates, who conducted the study. "And they said they chose red for the taste, not for health reasons," she added. Rossman is president of the New York chapter of Women for WineSense, an educational group, and the author of "Multicultural Marketing: Selling to a Diverse America."

About 165 women ranging in age from 21 to 60 were polled between September and October. Most had middle to high incomes, with 27 percent earning more than $100,000 and 63 percent making $40,000 to $99,000. In other findings, 30 percent said they preferred white and 9 percent said blush wines. Only 5 percent said their choices were influenced by ratings by wine experts; the majority follow recommendations from friends and associates.

Rapidly Rising Red Wine Sales
Although Rossman's study was small, some industry experts said the results made sense, particularly in light of the rapidly rising sales of red wine in the United States. For example, the San Francisco -based Wine Institute reports that while Chardonnay is still the best selling varietal in the United States, sales of California red wines have grown threefold over the last seven years.

It said AC Nielsen WineScan of Fremont, California, which tracks U.S. wine purchases at supermarkets, found that the most popular wines in order of 1998 sales were Chardonnay, White Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. While Chardonnay remained on top, Nielsen said the fastest growing varietal was Merlot. The trend appears to be bringing Americans back to the 1960s, when they were consuming 83 percent red wines.

Kevin Zraly writes in "Windows of the World Complete Wine Course" that Americans started drinking more white wine in the 1970s. One reason was that women became the primary wine buyers and studies showed they preferred the lighter taste of whites. Health concerns also played a role as white wine was then seen as having less calories than red. While Zraly points out that this is not the case, he says lighter wines do compliment lighter foods and this was a time when Americans began reducing their intake of red meat. As part of the health trend, businessmen also started to switch from martinis to white wine, he writes, adding that white wine spritzers can look like a cocktail.

Americans Like It Cold
He says the "refrigerator consciousness of Americans" also favored whites. "Americans like to drink everything cold and often prefer their drinks with ice. Statistics show that as recently as 1998 a majority of women still preferred white. For example, in a survey by NFO Research Inc. of Toledo, Ohio, that year, 45.3 percent of women said they drank white wine and 59 percent said they drank blush. Only 30 percent of women said they drank red wine in 1998, compared to 69.5 percent of men.

John Gillespie of the Wine Marketing Council said a study by his group in 1997 had similar results. It is sponsoring new research with results expected in the spring, he said, adding: "I bet it will change because we are going in that direction. Other industry experts agreed. Judd Wallenbrock, vice president of Global Brand Development at Robert Mondavi in California's Napa Valley, said data being collected does not really show that wine preference is based on gender - with one exception, white zinfandel. The data suggests that many of the consumers who buy zinfandel are older, often divorced women, but he said this does not explain why the wine would appeal to this demographic group.

One thing the industry does know for sure is that red is on the rise across the board. "Red wine is on an increase in a major way globally," said Wallenbrock, adding that he believes the trend is fueled by what is known as the "French paradox" - the low incidence of heart disease in France even though people there eat far more animal fat and smoke more cigarettes than Americans or others. Some experts believe consumption of red wine by the French reduces cholesterol. As a result, Wallenbrock said, "There has been a bit of a conversion by Americans from thinking that all alcohol is bad to (thinking) that red wine is good. It's sort of a subliminal thing but it's on everyone's mind."

No Gender Difference On Wine?
Andrea Immer, corporate director for beverage programs at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, who is one of nine women in the world with the title of Master Sommelier, agreed that the red wine trend continues to get a boost from the French paradox. Immer, the beverage director at New York's Windows on the World and the Rainbow Room before joining Starwood last year, said she did not think there was a difference in wine preference between men and women. "I don't really think it's a gender thing," she said.

Bill Boywid, manager of Buster's, a large liquor store in Memphis, Tennessee, said he did not see a difference in preferences between men and women. "Women are the majority of our shoppers and they buy it all. Merlot is very popular. Gary Fisch, co-owner of Shoppers of Madison and Shoppers of Livingston, New Jersey gourmet food and wine stores, said the majority of wine buyers in his store on weekdays are women and they are also definitely buying red wines. He said he thought much of the change had to do with the emphasis on pairing food with wine. "In the last couple of years, women have become much more discerning and they now buy wine as part of the meal, not as a cocktail." For example, in the summer women buy wines to go with outdoor cookouts at their homes. "They are drinking big Cabernets," Fisch said. "When they ask what to serve with salmon, when I suggest Pinot Noir, they jump at it." He said the big difference between male and female buying habits is that men care about how the experts rate wines. "But women come in looking for a good glass of wine."

Copyright Reuters Limited 2000