The Old White Men of Wine

Not ALL the old white males in wine are a problem. But the problem seems to come entirely from the old white males of wine.

Editor’s note: what follows is my English translation of a Dec. 2nd blog post by French journalist, publisher, and events organizer Antonin Iommi-Amunategui. (He’s also a co-founder of the Syndicat de Défense des Vins Naturels.) In the post, which first appeared on his site No Wine Is Innocent, Iommi-Amunategui catalogs the hateful responses of many of French wine journalism’s elder figures when questioned by a female journalist and wine merchant, Sandrine Goeyvaerts, about a misogynistic cartoon that recently ran in the pages of En Magnum, a mainstream French wine magazine published by Michel Bettane & Thierry Desseauve. - Aaron Ayscough

Quick Facts:

  • The 21st isssue of Bettane & Desseauve’s En Magnum magazine, released on the 27th November, contained a crude, misogynistic cartoon by cartoonist Régis Franc that depicts a female wine agent offering sexual favors to a male wine merchant in exchange for orders.

  • In the cartoon, the female agent represents a company called “Vins Fins Poulet-Rautiz,” leading many to believe the figure is inspired by Paris natural wine agent Fleur Godart, whose real-life wine company is called Vins et Volailles.

  • Belgian journalist and wine merchant Sandrine Goeyverts questioned Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve about the cartoon. In response, she received menacing text messages from En Magnum editor-in-chief Nicolas de Rouyn, soon accompanied by a wider pile-on of insults, threats, and denigration from senior players in French and Belgian wine journalism, including Michel Bettane himself.

  • The Bettane & Desseauve group boasts 6,400,000 readers in its press kit. En Magnum’s advertisers include Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Laurent-Perrier, Lanson, and La Chablisienne, none of whom have yet responded to Iommi-Amunategui’s efforts to reach them for comment on En Magnum’s decision to publish and defend the cartoon.

  • My own thoughts on the issue - and why it was worth sharing with an English audience - here.

The Problem with the Old White Men of Wine

By Antonin Iommi-Amunategui

Advance warning: not all the old white males in wine are a problem (at 46, I’m not far from being one myself). But the problem seems to come entirely from the old white males of wine. Certainly, behind this deliberately provocative title, there is a reality which, while obviously not limited to the wine industry alone, manifests itself violently within it. 

In France, a caste made up of men, all white, all aged between 50 and 70, all wine professionals and wine critics, all decked out with a good old sentiment of superiority, create in the wine world what we’ll have to call, excuse my French, a shitty atmosphere. This when not simply letting loose with denigration, insults, harassment and threats, notably with regard to women.

The End of Reactionary Reign

There is at least one reason for this. Indeed, their reign, which for some has endured for two or three decades, is about to end; a new generation is asserting itself, younger, more feminized, more progressive, which directly threatens the old hierarchy to which the members of this caste nevertheless cling like cold sores on a nasty lip. This change is irresistible, but of course they won’t fall from their small summit, real or imagined, without a struggle (it may remind one of a certain president from across the Atlantic); and having basically no solid, legitimate argument to do this, they now rely, almost systematically, upon denigration, insult, even harassment and threats.

They have no choice. Everything else escapes them: the world of wine has passed them by. They missed the mark, almost all the marks: that of natural wine, that of the feminization of wine, that of the internet and its horizontality (which imposes a minimum of benevolence [in professional interactions]), etc. This future, now very present - they despise it, they abhor it. In truth, they are completely overwhelmed, rendered has-been in all senses, and to preserve a semblance of dignity in this world that resembles them less and less, they’ve chosen indignation, spewing their contempt - their hatred, often - at anything not like them, publicly uttering insults and personal attacks, joyfully denigrating their targets, occasionally making veiled threats. It is high time to openly denounce this behavior. That’s what we are going to do today, in light of a recent event.

“En Magnum”: The Final Straw

The publication in the latest issue of the wine magazine En Magnum of a degrading, sexist caricature, bereft of the least conceivable nuance or humor, featuring a young female wine agent offering sexual favors to a wine merchant in exchange for a large volume of wine purchases, has rightfully caused an uproar. 

On the front line was the author, journalist and wine merchant Sandrine Goeyvaerts, who promptly approached the publishers of En Magnum, Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve (who also author guides and promote trade tastings), to ask them for explanations for this appalling editorial choice. None came, except a few grumblings about freedom of expression. (The guys are within inches of assuming the mantle of Charlie Hebdo. They dared to appropriate the iconic black “Je suis” square, replacing “Charlie” with “Régis Franc,” the name of their cartoonist). Nor of course did they offer the slightest excuse, or even a semblance of reflection. Insults and threats, however, quickly spouted forth.

Insults, Threats, and Political Rants

For starters, the editor-in-chief of the magazine in question, Nicolas de Rouyn, long-time chief henchman of the Bettane and Desseauve duo, felt authorized to send threatening text messages to Sandrine Goeyvaerts, calmly concluding his salvo with this one: "If you’re looking for a fight, I have no shortage of resources."

Short of arguments, he then insulted various people. (This author is a "jackal distilling shit," the women who react are "outrage merchants," and those who dare to emit criticisms necessarily come from an “ultra-left neo-fascisphere.”) The same vaguely politicized notes sounded from his boss Michel Bettane, who bluntly accuses the "sorry fellows" who would dare to question the legitimacy of this caricature of being motivated by "fascist apprenticeship" or "fascisizing shame.” This semantic obsession with fascism is, incidentally, interesting, when one considers that the editor-in-chief of En Magnum doesn’t hide his sympathy for far-right ideas. It should also be noted that in response to a former journalist who’d published in his magazine who dared to criticize the famous caricature, de Rouyn replied that he’s happy to have known "to get rid of people who are missing the point."

To Ophélie Neiman, a journalist at Le Monde well-known in the field and whose professionalism is regularly praised, but who also esteemed herself capable of questioning the untouchable caricature (which she considers a sexist failure), it was the boss himself, Michel Bettane, who this time rattled off a few text messages, also threatening. Some choice tidbits :

"You are just an upstart"

"But you will bear the consequences".

Dizzying! But fairly routine coming from Michel Bettane, who likes to distribute the points, especially the bad ones, from his imaginary throne.

What’s more, to immediately cut short this drama of the "drinker’s left-o-sphere," to use the expression of another En Magnum employee, it will suffice to note that the Federation des Cavistes Indépendents (FCI), a non-profit association that includes hundreds of wine merchants in France and whose political neutrality is obvious, spontaneously published a long text to denounce in turn this caricature, of which here is a brief extract:

"No, this is not how women involved in the sale of wines and spirits behave! This cartoon seems to reflect more a cartoonist's fantasy than an everyday reality! "

We contacted five of the biggest advertisers of En Magnum magazine - Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Laurent-Perrier, Lanson, La Chablisienne - to find out their point of view with regard to the presence of such a caricature alongside their marks in the pages of an otherwise wholly conventional magazine. We will update this article if their answers reach us someday. 

Good Old Toxic Solidarity

These sorts of events also tend to awaken the caste I mentioned at the beginning of this article. All or almost all of them, like one man, indeed came to defend this caricature and, by extension, their clan:

  • with explanations, sometimes cautious, but wobbly at best ("You have to know what the cartoonist's intention was," is what journalist Pierre Guigui basically asks, as if the intention would change anything about the reception);

  • or by calling, according to an eternal masculinist rhetoric, to better prioritize the fights ("the johnny-come-lately feminists and those who do business by sexualizing wine would do better to defend in some other way the cause that concerns them," continues Pierre Guigui);

  • with the usual contempt ("Let the jerks scream and don’t change anything," prescribed the wine critic Eric Boschmann); 

  • with relativization (The oenologist André Furster compared the caricature on his blog to various wine labels of a more or less sexual nature, and even to evenings "lubricated with natural wine," thus ingenuously confusing sexuality and sexism, or, more absurd still, proposing that a possible manifestation of sexism in one place could excuse / justify another elsewhere);

  • with victimization (The grandiose journalist Gilles Durand Daguin, who goes by the pseudonym of Coureur Devin, who found himself moved by this "era when the least feminist-hysteric chokes upon seeing a drawing of a breast under a dress," who feels that therefore it’s necessary "that we [men] cease being harassed and attacked by agitated, vengeful, surly women," and that "the drawing, if it is sexist, is more particularly so towards the men" - please, no more, the glass of male tears overflows...);

  • or even brutal impulses much more graphic ("the Tweetbunal of market-women, I assfuck it dry," belches blogger Vincent Pousson, who also wishes "to put it in perspective, because there’s no shortage of women who act like whores in the ‘mondovino’"; he further specifies, if it wasn’t quite clear: "Big blonde whores who prostitute themselves in the street to sell fine wines - there are hundreds of them in the world, at least.").

Harassment in its Legal Definition

In terms of insults and denigration, to her alone, Sandrine Goeyvaerts found herself subject to the following qualifiers: "psychotic," "psychologically unstable," "hustler," "whore." Not to mention the attacks on her capacities as a “pseudo-wine merchant” (she is celebrating ten years in the profession these days), on her work as a journalist, or on her physique. Add the threats and you have full-blown harassment.

And these are just a few of the most explicit examples. Numerous other men sneered alongside them, "pulled out the popcorn,” liked, shared, fed the denigrating machine, thus validating the oppressive system in place that strives to crush any challenge, especially female, to this dying old order of white males.

One-way Freedom of Expression

Let's give some context, for a moment, to fully appreciate the extent of the problem: to criticisms legitimately formulated against a cartoon published in an otherwise very preppy magazine - a cartoon considered sexist and degrading, in particular by very many women - our caste of old white males responded immediately and almost systematically with contempt, denigration, insults, harassment, even threats.

As for the only vague argument they managed to produce in their defense, namely the freedom of expression to which they seem so very attached, it obviously only works in one way (their way, of course). None among them even considered the fact that hundreds if not thousands of people found this caricature to be both very bad, devoid of the slightest suggestion of humor (which is indispensable for a caricature worthy of the name; it is also, incidentally, one of the principles for the validation of cartoons at Charlie Hebdo), and deeply degrading - for that, they don’t care. Their small caste locks arms, regardless of the context, the facts, the reality. For them, in fact, in a perfect inversion of reality, "the dog pack" is the others.

The problem, as we’ll have understood, is no longer just the caricature itself (which is certainly very bad and painfully misogynistic, and maybe or maybe not inspired by a real agent - some have recognized the Parisian agent Fleur Godart - but which is in any case perfectly legal). No, the problem is obviously, and especially, the reactions - contempt, denigration, insults, threats - of all these men vis-à-vis people, women foremost, whose only fault is to have issued criticisms of the quality and legitimacy of such a caricature. It was these peoples’ right; the caste not only does not recognize it, but it attacks them in return.

We will also appreciate the irony there is in seeing our little caste, standing on its rooster’s talons, overplaying indignation, draping itself in its inalienable right to freedom of expression - even as the caste members brush that inalienable right aside with all their might as soon as it, quite rightly, is turned against them. 

An Industry More Permissive Than The Average

In 2020, in the only-too-welcome era of #MeToo, in the majority of other professions, such a boys' club would probably have long been subject to questioning. Their behavior, based on contempt, insults, threats and public denigration, in particular towards women, would have cost them all or part of their (more or less) elevated position in the local hierarchy. But this profession - even whiter, more masculine and more privileged than the average - is closed in on itself, quite sealed-off in the end, and consequently probably more permissive.

The "Me Too" of Wine: Will It Happen Soon?

What to do then? Well, for starters, what we are doing here, namely to reveal and publicly denounce these behaviors, which are at best problematic, at worst intolerable, and which have moreover persisted, for some of the individuals cited, for years, with complete impunity, returning regularly to our screens like waves of nauseating drool.

This time, however, a formal complaint was almost filed. It needed little more. Alas, after internal discussions within the En Magnum team regarding the proportions the affair was taking, our little caste made every effort to erase the majority of the messages of insults and denigration it had sown on the internet before a bailiff could make first-hand copies, which are essential to initiate legal proceedings [in France]. Copies and screenshots made by individuals or even journalists will in theory not be sufficient. A shame. But these great defenders of freedom of expression seem at least to have understood that their words, in this instance, weren’t covered by this famous freedom, but were indeed rather liable to prosecution. That’s something. 

"Pack Harassment"

And if this were to happen again, with bailiffs at the ready this time, what would those who were found guilty risk? Eric Morain, a well-known (and feared) lawyer in the wine industry, mentions in particular, concerning the damage imposed upon Sandrine Goeyvaerts, a crime of pack harassment (article 222-32-2-2 of the penal code), which merits 2 years of imprisonment and a fine of 30,000 euros. Keep that warm in the back of your mind, fellas. (And yes, "the pack" is you).

This lamentable sequence of events will therefore perhaps have at least one or two correct, necessary consequences. The first is to clean up the atmosphere in the wine world, suddenly liberated from this toxic caste that disappeared into cowardly silence, like one man, at the precise moment when potential legal consequences loomed. The other is to illustrate solidarity among sisterhoods and allied guys; a gender-mixed outcry against these new hysterics.

And whatever, that's enough. It's over. Basta. From now on, we have our eyes on you, Old White Men of Wine, and we’ll tolerate no more of this. 

Antonin Iommi-Amunategui

See also: Scandal In Translation: Why Misogyny In the French Wine World is Relevant Outside the French Wine World.

For more vital reporting in French from Antonin Iommi-Amunategui, check out his excellent website, No Wine Is Innocent.

For more English translations, vigneron interviews, profiles, restaurant tips, commentary, and so forth, check out the Not Drinking Poison newsletter.