No Way! It’s Time to Rethink Rosé

Emily Saladino No Way! It’s Time to Rethink Rosé

6 minute Read

It’s probably not a provocation to say that you like rosé. Who doesn’t! Valued at $207 million, the pink wine category is popular and ubiquitous, the Gigi Hadid of beverages.

The centuries-old style began its crossover to the American mainstream four to eight years ago, depending on your geographic region and propensity for early adoption. We, the rosé-drinking collective, have been exalting its food-pairing potential, accessibility, and affordability ever since.

In keeping with Keynesian macroeconomics, however, our bottomless thirst has wrought massive supply. Nielsen data shows that rosé swelled 53 percent from 2016 to 2017, and is “growing at a rate unheard of in other categories.”

“Nobody is making less rosé for 2018, and many suppliers are making more,” W.R. Tish wrote in April. That same month Chateau d’Esclans introduced The Palm, a sibling to its Provencal powerhouse Whispering Angel rosé. Gérard Bertrand recently collaborated with Jon Bon Jovi on a new Languedoc rosé, Diving Into Hampton Water. And supermarket staples Cavit and Kendall-Jackson brought their first pink wines to market this year.

At this point we have absolutely hit peak rosé.

“The question is, where do we go from here?” asks Ryan Arnold, sommelier and winemaker for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago. “We’ve summited Everest,” he says, but adds that the breathless enthusiasm and exponential growth that is buoying the rosé category “is not sustainable.”

Whether or not you think rosé has jumped the shark, and it absolutely has, is irrelevant. What’s important now is reevaluating how pink wine is marketed, sold, and even enjoyed in the coming years. We need to start positioning it as a wine. We also need to start permitting wine to be fun.

The sheer expanse of the rosé landscape makes quality control a major issue. When VinePair hosted an industry panel to taste hundreds of rosés in advance of our annual rosé ranking, we found that many beautifully packaged new bottles were not just middling, but borderline undrinkable at cellar temperature.

Granted, we drank these wines chilled to approximately 55 degrees in our office conference room, while most rosé fans prefer theirs served ice-cold and swimming pool-adjacent.

It’s also very possible that we are buzzkills.

If so we’re not alone. “One out of every 36 bottles of wine Americans drank in 2017 was a rosé,” Bloomberg’s Elin McCoy writes. “We show no signs of giving it up. Naturally, winemakers from every corner of the globe want to cash in… You probably don’t need me to tell you that a lot of these new wines aren’t worth drinking.”

No Way! It's Time to Rethink Rose

It’s no mystery why there are so many rosés on the market. Green is green, no matter what color is in the bottle.

But why are there so many bad rosés on the market? And what might that mean for the future of pink wine in the United States?

“It’s easy to make rosé, so it’s become a cash cow for a lot of people who don’t have the expertise,” Mattie Jackson Selecman, a sommelier and owner of Salt & Vine in Nashville, Tenn., says. Producers who make “serious” Pinot Noir or Sangiovese might be tempted to “throw a little on the side and bottle it up, turn it pink, and make cash,” she says.

“Demand is such that practically every winery in California is obliged to make one, whether or not they have the grapes, the proper site or the aptitude,” Patrick Comiskey writes in a searing piece in the Los Angeles Times.

“Does this matter? Not at all,” Comiskey writes. “Nobody cares what it tastes like. People just want something cold and pretty and Instagrammable in their glass.”

Wine gets its color from contact with juiced skins. Unlike its darker-hued brethren, rosé spends just two or three days macerating and doesn’t require months of expensive barrel-aging. This makes rosé quick and cost-efficient for winemakers to produce, particularly if they’re after a Provencal-esque salmon color.

The pale-pink rosés that dominate the American market are “definitely, hands-down easier to make than other wines,” Arnold says. “It’s less laborious and, from a time perspective, you’re hitting the market just four or five months after the wine has been bottled.”

Additionally, these wines tend to have relatively low ABVs. At around 11.5 percent, they have to pay fewer state taxes than other, boozier bottles, Arnold says.

Consumers also tend to approach rosé differently than other wines. Most of us classify wine by variety, declaring our preference for Sauvignon Blanc over Pinot Grigio, or Pinot Noir over Merlot.

Rosé, on the other hand, stands alone. “It is its own brand name, which can be positive and negative,” Jackson Selecman says. With the exception of Whispering Angel and, to lesser degrees, Domaines Ott and Wolffer Estate, rosé fans are not loyal to a particular label, grape variety, or geographic origin.

Instead we use that one, four-letter word to signify our wine preferences and, to a certain degree, persona. “I’ll have the rosé,” we say, or, “Hey, we’re having a party. Can you bring the rosé?”

In a way, rosé’s ubiquity resembles that of Champagne, Jackson Selecman says. “When you ask someone who says they love bubbles about their favorite producers, they just say, ‘Oh, Champagne! I love Champagne,’” she says.

Unlike Champagne, however, rosé is generally affordable. Good bottles are available for $11 and great ones are in the $20 to $40 range. Entry-level Champagne, on the other hand, starts at $40.

“Rosé is not a diverse category on a wine list right now,” Arnold says. “I’ll have a 200-bottle list with a plethora of bubbles, white, and red wines. But I’ll have two or three rosés. I don’t see it as a category in the same way. I don’t see the NoMad having a rosé section with 30 bottles on its menu.”

(The NoMad currently lists seven rosés on its digital wine list. The 99-page PDF has 37 bottles of Chardonnay alone.)

“I think there’s a place for everything,” counters Alex Zink, beverage director and co-owner of the Dabney, an award-winning restaurant in Washington, D.C.

This spring Zink hosted a blind rosé tasting with his staff. He brown-bagged the 10 rosés the Dabney sells alongside 10 popular pink wines, including a Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw iteration and an iconic Tavel.

“We were sitting on our patio, it was sunny, and there was no food,” Zink says. “What people seemed to contextually enjoy the least were some of the more serious rosés on our list.”

Those same drinkers might enjoy something more thoughtful in a different setting, with food or over the course of a long meal, Zink says. “Whereas if you’re sitting on a patio and drinking quickly and in volume, a different style is going to appeal to you more,” he says.

Context is crucial. Most of us don’t order rosé when we want to contemplate tannic structure or harvesting technique. We just want something bright, refreshing, and, to borrow a word from Arnold, “zippy.”

We want to drink pink wine same way we want to be beautiful, effortlessly thin, and maybe French. We want the idea of rosé.

No Way! We Need to Rethink Rose

“It’s not even considered a wine, really,” Arnold says. “It’s all about style. It’s crisp, light, refreshing, and you chill it so it’s really cold. That’s the stereotypical rosé. That’s what everyone wants when they ask you to put ‘rosé’ on their table.”

This is understandably disconcerting for winemakers, sommeliers, and people who have devoted their lives to the study and appreciation of wine. Arnold ventures to guess that most people buying rosé are not serious, lifelong wine drinkers.

And a pink storm could put the entire category at risk. When a lot of unsophisticated and indistinct product floods the market at a low price point, it can dilute consumer impressions of an entire category. Consider the uphill battle faced by Australian winemakers, or the fact that most Americans still balk at the price of quality coffee.

But it also presents an opportunity. If, as Arnold suggests, the consumers driving the pink surge are not typically wine drinkers, rosé could be a gateway for those who usually order cocktails at bars and restaurants.

Previous generations of drinkers tended toward monogamy, pledging lifelong allegiance to, say, Dewar’s on the rocks and nothing else. Modern drinkers are promiscuous, enjoying wine, beer, and cocktails in tandem. This has resulted a wealth of pearl-clutching headlines — “Millennials Ditching Beer for Wine, Report Says” and “Beer More Popular Than Wine in 48 States” — that pessimistically miss the point.

Just because someone is drinking cheap rosé today doesn’t mean they might not appreciate a more thoughtfully made bottle with dinner tonight, or a Brunello this winter. It is absolutely possible to convince someone whose personal brand is millennial pink that there are wines beyond rosé.

The rosé-themed Instagram playlands and exhaustive pink product innovations are, to me, the beverage equivalent of condescension. So is the onset of poorly made bottles in photogenic packaging.

Approaching rosé fans as prospective wine drinkers, instead of faddish sheep, could change everything. If they like the zesty fruitiness of Provencal-style rosé, perhaps they’ll enjoy a chilled Gamay, or the acidity of Sauvignon Blanc or Albariño.

“You know what’s really funny about those really inexpensive rosés that you serve ice cold?” Zink says. “They just taste like white wine. At the end of the day, you don’t know that you’re drinking rosé.”

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