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The Making of a Rosé-Colored Craze

Not long ago, rosé was synonymous with sweet, low-budget blush wine. But over the past decade, pink wine's unprecedented rise has established it not only as serious—even cult—wine, but as an aspirational lifestyle brand unto itself. Zachary Sussman on how rosé happened.

rose colored glasses illustration james carpenter

The passage is brief and easy to miss, but in his classic 1988 memoir, Adventures on the Wine Route, American importer Kermit Lynch recalls a time when one of France’s most iconic rosé wines almost ceased to exist.

During one of Lynch’s visits to the renowned Domaine Tempier in Provence, winemaker Jean-Marie Peynaud broke the unsettling news that he wanted to switch his entire production to reds. After all, he argued, “a rosé can never be a great wine.”

Fortunately, the importer was able to convince his client of the wine’s symbolic if not financial value (“There’s a place for a pretty wine like that”) and rescue it from extinction. Fast-forward to the present day, and the bottle enjoys special appreciation as one of the archetypal expressions of its kind: a Platonic ideal of pink wine, so to speak, indelibly linked to summer in the South of France.

Over recent years, however, as top restaurants and retailers face increased competition to secure their desired amounts, the wine’s “place” within the market—to use Lynch’s word—has expanded in ways he never could have imagined.

“I sell out of Tempier rosé before it even arrives,” says Kristen Murphy of New Jersey-based retail giant Wine Library, whose allocations have steadily shrunk from seven cases of the 2007 vintage to just two of the 2012. “I can’t even put it on the website. It reminds me of Pappy van Winkle just before it got ridiculously crazy.”

Odd as it might sound to hear a bottle of rosé, of all things, mentioned in the same breath as that notoriously rare brand of bourbon, Tempier remains a benchmark example of the category, with decades of history and name recognition working in its favor. It would be simple, then, to view Tempier’s cult status as an isolated case, if it weren’t for the fact that rosé sales across the nation continue to climb. According to Nielson’s data, they’re up an astonishing 25.4% in dollars sold over the past year alone.

So how, one might ask, did rosé get here?

Wine trends typically either function within the ranks of a small industry elite or achieve mainstream success among everyday drinkers. And while there’s always some element of exchange at play, rarely do the trade and the general public embrace the same thing simultaneously.

Its curiously abbreviated shelf life, in fact, speaks volumes about what rosé means in the popular imagination.

But in the case of rosé, we’re witnessing what appears to be two different markets operating at once, both opposing and reinforcing one another: on the one hand, there’s rosé the latest allocated cult wine; on the other, rosé the breezy, aspirational summer brand.

On the trade side, it isn’t just exclusive bottles like Tempier that have become more difficult to find. As customers continue to enter top retailers, bars and restaurants asking for rosé, this new demand necessarily generates increased competition among buyers. “Getting what you want is becoming more troublesome, especially for the smaller producers,” Murphy explains. “It becomes a big question of ‘What should we buy?’ and ‘Will we get enough?’”

These pressures are being felt at the production and distribution levels as well. Jeremy Sells, Director of Operations at Rosenthal Wine Merchant, reports having substantially boosted the company’s rosé purchases over the past several years. “It truly surprised us and our producers,” he says. “In the past, rosé was just a side project, but now producers are specifically converting vines for that purpose. It’s become a much more prominent part of the business.”

Circumstances such as these would have been impossible to imagine even a decade ago, and this reversal appears all the more impressive in light of just how far rosé has had to come.

For a generation whose first exposure to pink wine arrived in the form of sweet bulk brands like Lancers and Mateus—not exactly the most credible stylistic ambassadors— followed by the white zinfandel craze of the ’80s, the stereotypes surrounding rosé remained deeply entrenched. “During the ’90s, it was a battle to convince people to drink rosé,” recalls industry veteran Michael Wheeler, who worked for such top New York distributors as Skurnik and Winebow at the time. “Back then, everyone unanimously thought rosé was sweet.”

It remains tricky, however, to pinpoint exactly how the transition took place. It’s not as if some “big bang” moment launched rosé’s career the way Sideways did for pinot noir. During its early stages, at least, the progression occurred much more slowly.

For consumers, rather than any single cause-and-effect explanation, the rosé boom might best be ascribed to something like a “trickle-down” effect. To a disproportionate degree, consumer taste doesn’t directly drive wine sales. Instead, it’s the professional middle-people—the dedicated sommeliers, journalists, importers and retailers—who act as tastemakers, championing new wines and introducing trends to the public.

To that end, rosé’s evolution parallels that of another formerly overlooked wine, which also contended with the stigma of sweetness: riesling. Thanks to nationwide campaigns like “The Summer of Riesling,” organized by Paul Grieco of Hearth and Terroir fame, drinkers eventually got the memo and have started revising their assumptions. “Just as the notion that all riesling is Blue Nun has been dropped, the stigma is being dropped for rosé,” explains Michael Madrigale, the head sommelier at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud in New York City. “All of these preconceived notions from the Baby Boomer generation are falling by the wayside.”

In some respect, then, the rosé story is one of redemption, confirming the evolution of America’s ever more curious, open-minded drinking culture. On the other hand, as tempting as it may be to view the situation in this light, rosé’s rise to popularity has massively surpassed that of riesling, despite the trade’s far more vocal evangelism for the latter. Something else, it seems, must be responsible for driving the craze to such extreme heights.

However it might have happened, somewhere along the way rosé became oddly, improbably hip. Consider, for instance, the 2006 trend piece that ran in the New York Times “Fashion & Style” section (notably, not “Dining & Wine”) with the catchy headline, “The Summer Drink to be Seen With.” Outdated as much of it might seem today, there remains something disquietingly relevant about the way the article references Domaines Ott—the stylishly-packaged Southern French rosé brand owned by the Louis Roederer group—as the latest obsession of “club-hopping hipsters and tastemakers” for whom “dropping the name of a Provençal rosé… can be code for having recently frolicked in St.-Tropez or Cap d’Antibes.”

From here, it doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to arrive at the hype surrounding Chateau Miraval, the celebrity-backed effort from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, which sold out within hours after release. Nor does it come as any surprise that a rare bottle of California rosé just fetched an unprecedented $42,000 at auction. All of this raises lingering suspicions that part of rosé’s allure, at least to certain image-conscious drinkers, might lie in its emerging status as a kind of glamorous lifestyle brand.

Far from being viewed as déclassé, it has been transformed into something akin to the next Sancerre: a ubiquitous warm-weather libation we drink to feel like we’re living inside some ideal “Pink”-stagrammed version of summer. It serves to bring a bit of Cannes (or even the Hamptons) to our backyards, living rooms and cramped urban fire escapes.

Until suddenly, come October, it stops being fashionable. Its curiously abbreviated shelf life, in fact, speaks volumes about what rosé means in the popular imagination. If no other wine goes in and out of vogue so seasonally, it’s because rosé has become more than just a wine: it operates as a cultural symbol in the same manner as champagne, only the “special occasion” lasts all summer long.

The irony here is all too clear. After decades of championing it to an indifferent public, the trade now faces a massive backlash of popularity that has seriously redefined the landscape. Having unfolded over many years, the situation has now reached critical mass, and many fear that it will only prove more challenging in the future to keep the top bottles on the shelf. One thing, however, remains certain: there will be no shortage of drinkers ready to gulp it all down.