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25 Jul 2019 | Randy Kemner

California's Bumpy (and Successful) Road to Authentic Rose

Despite our loathsome Southern California traffic and occasionally unbreatheable air, Long Beach is a great place to live.  The pace here is a bit slower than the rest of LA County, and our microclimate is about as cushy is there is in the entire world.  It's a diverse place now, despite its still lingering image as "Iowa-By-The-Sea."  It's really a collection of communities, as different from one another as the people who inhabit them.

Long Beach has always been a little slow to go whole hog on food fads and gimicky wines, and its residents are notorious bargain hunters, even in the toniest of circles.  It is not an uncommon sight to see cases of grocery store bulk wine loaded into the trunks of BMWs because it is good enough.

Because we all have to visit grocery stores, if not for our adult beverages, then for sustenance and paper towels.  I've noticed more pink wine than ever stacked strategically throughout the store, particularly next to the vegetables.  A lot of these newfound rosés come from California and have fun-sounding names, like PINK.  And a lot of them are wines we'd never stock in The Wine Country because they don't do what good rosé should do.

From our company's founding at the end of 1995, I've been touting rosé wine as a wonderful complement to our Southern California lifestyle:  outdoor, sunny and grill-worthy.

But not just any rosé would do.  From my years distributing Kermit Lynch French imports, I learned that the kinds of rosés I wanted to drink had to have one driving character:  they had to be refreshing.

For the most part, it meant rosés had to be French, because the Provençale style did "fresh" the best.

The Wine Country takes pride in spearheading rosé awareness in southern California, long before it was fashionable.  I take personal pride in knowing that we have changed the way Long Beach and the surrounding communities drink wine, particularly shining the light on wines like rosé that complement our outdoor lifestyle.  Refreshing rosés were part of our opening set nearly a quarter century ago, and each year they became a bigger and bigger part of our business.  We've learned who does rosé well, and we've curated those producers for years and years.

In the beginning, each of our buyers contributed rosés from around the world, some better than others, many that met my standards, but quite a few that simply fell short.  We also noticed that nearly 90% of our rosé sales came from the south of France.  The beacon for summer rosé, of course, is the Côte de Provence, so about a decade ago I asked Samantha Dugan, our French wine manager to be in charge of our entire rosé program, no matter if wines came from northern France, Germany, Spain or California.  Knowing what works, and what doesn't, Samantha has fine-tuned our rosé program so that customers return again and again, confident that the pink wines in this store deliver what many other stores' rosés cannot.

California's Struggle with Bad Rosé

In my long memory, California has always made rosé wine.  In the 50s and 60s and 70s, it usually came in big jugs with names like "Vin Rosé" and "Grenache Rosé".  Being the master marketers they've always been, Gallo came up with "Pink Chablis", Weibel had "Crackling Rosé", and two of the leading imports were Mateus and Lancer's, two semi-sweet rosés from Portugal.  Too many of them had an orange cast to them, indicating the Grenache sat on a liquor store's hot shelves way too long.

These wines had two things in common:  they were all a bit sweet, and they laid on the tongue like a flabby goo.  If you drank a lot of any of them, you were sure to get a headache.  It's no wonder there were so few wine drinkers in America.

The poor image of white Zinfandel in the 1980s didn't help the pink wine cause, either. 

True, there were classic rosés served in fine restaurants, both from France:  Tavel and Rosé d'Anjou, but they were food wines, not the light, fresh-tasting rosés that are now produced from Cotes de Provence, Bandol, Cassis and Sancerre. 

Boutique Rosés Strike Out Initially

To make good rosé, in almost all instances grapes must be dedicated to making rosé, then picked at a lesser ripeness than grapes destined for red wine.  That insures the wine's refreshing character when it finally reaches your table.

Some very worthy wineries were making rosé another way, by bleeding off the liquid from their just crushed red wines in order to get a darker color for their reds.  This saignée method would produce a pink wine, alright, but if the red wine had a high sugar level to make a potent red wine, the rosé possessed the same sugar, which converted to a high-alcohol end-result.

If a winemaker had access to the right tools, he or she could place high-alcohol rosé into a device that could remove its alcohol, then put back a lesser amount.  If the wine was flabby because it was picked so ripe, it could be "fixed" by adding acid.  They became very popular tasting room wines because they were a lighter alternative to tannic red wines, but in the competitive environment of a wine store, they performed very differently.

Unfortunately, very few rosés produced this way reached the "refreshing" threshold we've always demanded for our rosés.  For too many years, the California wines we'd offered were the last to sell.  Long after our rosés from France, Spain and Germany were gone, we eventually had to red-tag the stragglers, most of which came from California.

California Changes Course

Fortunately, there were those producers who were not trying to make rosé from their red wine waste products, but loved the genre enough to grow grapes specifically to make rosé, then execute their winemaking to produce some pretty authentic wines. 

When Eric Mohseni was making wine at Zaca Mesa, he insisted on dedicating some of his Grenache just to make rosé.  Perhaps his earlier tenure working at The Wine Country provided the experience and exposure to enough refreshing rosés that did what rosé was supposed to do.

Others followed, so that now we can say there are quite a few very accomplished rosés currently being produced in California.

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