How America Learned to Love Rosé
The happy accident that led to the rise of pink wine.
The following is excerpted from Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé, a new book by sommelier Victoria James—out today from Harper Design.
Rosé is kind of fashionable now in the United States. It wasn’t forty or
thirty years ago, but I would always have rosé around.—Jacques Pepin
George West of El Pinal Winery in Lodi, California, made what is documented as the first White Zinfandel in 1869. The viticultural commissioner at the time found the wine impressive and began to advocate Zinfandel’s use outside of red wine. For over a century, this pink wine gained little traction.
It’s the 1970s in California, and a winery called Sutter Home is famous for its dark and intense Amador County Zinfandel. One day, the winemaker, Bob Trinchero, decides he wants to make this wine even more concentrated and inkier. But how does he do that with just grapes? He comes up with the idea of pressing the grapes as he normally would, but capturing the first bit of juice that comes out and separating it. This “free-run juice” is light in color, since it hasn’t had a lot of contact with the grape skins. Now the remaining grapes are ready to be pressed and make a wine of extreme intensity. Without that watery pink juice lightening up the batch, his Zinfandel became much more powerful.
So what did he do with this light-pink free-run juice? Sure, he could have thrown it away, but Trinchero, ever the admirer of French rosés, fermented and barrel-aged the liquid. Since there was so little of it, there was no point in shipping it off to customers. Instead, it was relegated to the winery tasting room for the first year.
I wasn’t alive at that time, so I am not sure what the wine tasted like, but it was probably the most “French-style” (i.e., mineral-driven, dry, low alcohol) rosé Sutter Home ever produced. Trinchero even gave his first experiment the nickname of Oeil de Perdrix which in French translates to “eye of the partridge.” This term dates back to the Middle Ages in the Champagne region of France. Wines with a pink color were called this as a reference to the pale pink color of the eye of a partridge struggling in death’s grip. Such a grave name for a marvelous wine! The United States government wasn’t having Trinchero’s pet name, and they insisted that a description of the wine be printed in English on the label. As a result, in very small print, “a white zinfandel wine” was included on the bottle.
In 1975, everything changed. The story the winery tells is that a “stuck fermentation” occurred. In essence, the sugar could not fully convert to alcohol. As a result, the wine produced was slightly sweet. Instead of trying to fix the problem or relegate the product to the tasting room only, they decided to take their chances. They opened the floodgates and released (slightly sweet) Sutter Home White Zinfandel. Americans absolutely loved it. After all, this idea came from how the beloved Mateus and Lancers were made. Now, though, White Zinfandel could support local farmers.
White Zinfandel spread like wildfire. In the 1980s, it was one of America’s most popular wine brands. Eventually, people like my Grandmother Willie were buying bottles in bulk. In the 1990s, the world of rosé and the world of fine wine were completely separate. Sommeliers would never serve a bottle of White Zinfandel because serious wine drinkers would never ask for it. Rajat Parr, previously the Wine Director for Michael Mina restaurants, was a sommelier at that time in San Francisco.
“No one cared about it, no one thought about it, no one drank it.
At the time, there wasn’t rosé made for the purpose of being rosé.
A winemaker maybe had some leftover grapes or something that
didn’t ripen and that was what the rosé was. No one was going out
and saying, ‘I am going to make great rosé.’”
Relegated to cafés and cheap restaurants, the wine lay dormant for almost fifteen years. “From 1996 to 2009 I didn’t serve a single rosé. Never ever. It wasn’t until we opened RN74 in San Francisco that we started to serve rosé,” Parr adds. Now, he is the winemaker/partner at Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi in Santa Barbara. At Sandhi, they have made high-quality and delicious still and sparkling Pinot Noir rosés. Something Parr would never have been able to do twenty years ago.
Reprinted with permission from Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé by Victoria James and illustrated by Lyle Railsback, Harper Design 2017.