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Brosé, frosé, all day: The definitive history of rosé’s rise to cultural dominance

As we say goodbye to summer, we explain why the drink in your wine glass is probably pink.

Brosé, frosé, all day: The definitive history of rosé’s rise to cultural dominance
[Photo: Kaboompics .com/Pexels]

By the time I arrive at the chandelier room, Rosé Mansion creators Morgan First and Tyler Balliet have already led me through a tunnel of giant-size purple “grapes,” into a wine blending lab and past a towering coupe-glass fountain. First grabs onto the room’s smaller, higher chandelier, swinging like Sia, while Balliet takes a seat between the crystal beads on the chandelier’s larger, lower twin. Both are dressed for the Instagram photo-op that the room aspires to be: First in a chambray shirt with pink flamingos, Balliet in sherbet pink jeans and teal Converse. It’s 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. By the end of the week, Rosé Mansion, which opened on New York’s Fifth Avenue in July, will have ushered 5,000 visitors through this space, each paying $45 for the privilege.

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From his crystal perch, Balliet, who previously ran a wine event company with First, launches into a brief history of rosé winemaking in the U.S., post-Sutter Home white zinfandel. “Rosé is not a trend,” he says. “It’s an entirely new product category.” Rosé Mansion embraces that idea by showcasing the wine in all its forms—at the downstairs bar where tours end, there are over 100 rosés from around the world on offer, including canned and sparkling options.

Online, there are even more possibilities: rosé gummy bears, rosé pool floats, “frosé” popsicles. Search #roseallday (or #roséallday) on Instagram, and over 600,000 posts appear. Rosé, especially among younger demographics, has become a cultural phenomenon. It’s also one of the only fast-growing product categories within the world of alcoholic beverages. In 2017, the most recent year that data is available, rosé sales were up 53% in the U.S., according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, wine sales overall increased by 4%, and beer sales by just 1.2%.

Some of the reasons for rosé’s rise should be obvious to anyone who has ever purchased a bottle: Rosé is simultaneously aspirational—nicknamed the “Gatorade of the Hamptons”—and affordable, with high-quality bottles available for as little as $10 or $15. It’s also accessible; instead of having to decode grape varietals and alcohol percentages, consumers can simply focus on the question of dry versus sweet, using rosé’s color as a guide.

But the reason you probably brought a bottle of rosé to the last barbecue you attended is more complex, involving winery economics, restaurant advocacy, bottling innovation, and celebrity endorsement. Here, we trace the history of rosé and its breakout moments. Pour yourself a glass and come along for the ride.

“Symbolic of good times”

Winemakers have been producing rosé since Greek and Roman times. In its earliest form, rosé was a combination of red and white grapes, crushed underfoot and left to ferment in large, ceramic containers. Modern-day Provence, in France, first established its reputation as a leading producer of rosé as early as the sixth century BC, exporting bottles around the Mediterranean.

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French consumers rediscovered rosé in the 1930s, when France first introduced mandatory vacation days. Families would travel to Provence or the Loire Valley, both major rosé-producing regions, and return home having learned to associate the wine with celebration and leisure.

Xavier Barlier, who today serves as senior VP of marketing and communication for Champagne Louis Roederer, the company that owns brands including Cristal, recalls spending holidays on an island off the coast of Brittany with his family in the ’60s. “You’d buy a half a gallon or a gallon of rosé, it was very cheap. No one expected to drink a grand cru or a first growth of Bordeaux,” he says. “It was a local, casual, very much symbolic of good times, to be paired with summer food.”

Around the same time, in the ’50s and ’60s, the Cannes Film Festival began to attract Hollywood stars and media moguls. As the global glamour-set descended on the French Riviera, they too discovered rosé, returning to California and New York with an appreciation for Provence’s pink wine.

Even so, rosé remained a wine without prestige. Some winemakers produced bottles using the saignée method, so dubbed from the French word for “to bleed.” The process involves capturing the excess juice created when making a more concentrated red wine and gives winemakers a chance to profit from a byproduct that they would otherwise pour down the drain. Others followed a more traditional direct-press approach, but did not aspire to compete with France’s fabled red and white AOCs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée).

Domaines Ott was one of the early exceptions. Founded by agronomy engineering graduate Marcel Ott in the early 20th century, Domaines Ott was committed from the start to the idea of making a more elegant rosé. Ott sold his wine in a bottle designed to evoke rosé’s Roman-era history and introduced the wine to tastemakers by winning placement on menus at establishments like the stylish Hotel Martinez in Cannes.

Years later, by chance of fate, one of Marcel Ott’s descendants happened to become a regular patron at the restaurant where Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert first apprenticed as a teenager. As a result of their acquaintance, Ripert came to love rosé, and Domaines Ott in particular. Long before rosé became fashionable, he placed Domaines Ott on the wine list at Le Bernardin.

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“Eric Ripert is a huge fan of Domaines Ott,” says Le Bernardin master sommelier Aldo Sohm. A decade ago, the restaurant could easily secure allocations of Domaines Ott and other top rosés. Now, the process is far more competitive. Ripert and Sohm have also used rosé to make their three-star Michelin restaurant more approachable. On Instagram this past May, they posted a series of “#beattheripper” videos, in which Sohm challenges Ripert to a blind tasting. With the rosé flight, Ripert succeeds in naming Domaines Ott without hesitation (he also beats Sohm in a champagne sabering competition).

“The young millennial getting into wine likes this type of wine, because it’s young and playful and doesn’t take itself too seriously,” says Sohm, who this summer has been pouring a large-format wine each evening at Aldo Sohm Bar, next door to Le Bernardin, providing a showcase for rosé. “But they can be of quality, too. Some of them actually can age a little bit.”

Restaurants lay the foundation

With restaurants like Le Bernardin leading the way, rosé began to show its first signs of gathering steam in select U.S. markets in the mid-2000s–New York, the Hamptons, Miami, and Beverly Hills. Wine-by-the-glass programs in restaurants had by then become ubiquitous, thanks to the pioneering efforts of a few wine directors in San Francisco and New York. Most such programs focused on red and white wines, with perhaps a sparkling option. But the format created a vehicle for introducing consumers to new styles and varietals, encouraging experimentation.

“A lot of times Americans discover wines in restaurants,” says Euromonitor research analyst Alexander Esposito. “When organic first became a thing, most Americans discovered those [wines] in restaurants. Getting into restaurants is a first step, whether it be a new brand of rosé or a completely new type of wine.”

In 2004, Champagne Louis Roederer acquired a majority stake in Domaines Ott, quickly using its distribution channels to spread Ott’s rosé from six states to 50. Other notable producers, famous for their whites or their reds, began to experiment with rosé production, as well. Momentum continued to build as rosé’s core market broadened from fine restaurants to the summer party scene. By 2006, the New York Times Styles section was calling rosé “the summer drink to be seen with” at hotspots like Ditch Plains and the Spotted Pig.

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Amy Racine, wine director at John Fraser Restaurant Associates, first introduced customers to rosé six or seven years ago by incorporating it into a wine pairing. “To break up the monotony, I would throw in something to make it more exciting,” she says. “If you blow [customers’] minds, they talk to people about it.”

As rosé has taken off, she has seen an overall shift in customers’ tastes. “It’s definitely a nod to where the American palette is right now,” she says. “When I was first starting [in the industry], I was talking to somebody who said, ‘It’s weird that I can’t sell Riesling, but you walk down the street and people are drinking Frappuccinos and Coca-Colas.’ Now people are drinking sparkling water. The palette is moving toward being drier.”

Adoption happened in fits and starts in other parts of the country, as well. Dustin Wilson, a master sommelier featured in the documentary Somm, was working in Colorado around the same time as Racine was orchestrating her pairings. His first association with rosé was the boxed white zinfandel his mother used to keep in the refrigerator. But when some of his favorite producers started producing rosé, he was intrigued. “It was something that we wanted to try out. When we did, and we liked the wines, we would buy more of it,” he says. At first, ordering a case of top-quality rosé was easy. But by 2010 or so, he says, he started having to reserve the best bottles in December and January. “If we didn’t pre-order, there was a good chance that we wouldn’t get them.”

In New York, as in Colorado, it was rosés from respected producers that turned the tides of sommelier opinion. Victoria James, author of a book about rosé and the wine director at Korean steakhouse Cote, recalls the summer that “almost every sommelier was pouring this Triennes rosé by the glass—’Look at these industry influencers making this rosé.'” Triennes, co-led by Jacques Seysses, founder of Burgundy’s famed Domaine Dujac, lies east of Aix-en-Provence, in the heart of rosé territory. “It started to blow up,” she says.

Merchandizing “rosé season”

The first signs that rosé was morphing into a blockbuster category outside of the restaurant scene appeared around 2012, when some Hamptons wine shops began limiting customers to four bottles apiece. The following year, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt introduced Miraval, a rosé produced on their estate in France. Miraval, with its distinctive bottle shape and elegant floral label, became an instant hit on Instagram. Then, in August 2014, Page Six infamously declared that rosé was “running dangerously low” in the Hamptons.

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“People were up in arms—first world problems,” recalls Sarah Billstein, who that same summer created a rosé-focused Instagram account as “kind of a joke.” At the time, she was living in New York and working in finance. “We were going to the Hamptons every weekend, and people kept saying, ‘It’s rosé season.'” After setting up her Instagram, she also printed a T-shirt that said #roséseason. “I wore it out in Montauk on 4th of July weekend, and everyone asked me where I got the shirt.” She started selling T-shirts to friends, while watching her Instagram following steadily grow.

The following summer, Instagram comic Josh Ostrovsky, who goes by the stage name Fat Jewish, launched White Girl Rosé, the first explicitly ironic wine in the category. “The world needed a rosé for this Summer that is cage-free, gluten-free, conflict-free, low-carb, grass-fed and fair-trade, so myself and @babewalker created one,” he wrote by way of announcement. “IF YOU HATE ROSÉ YOU HATE YOURSELF.” By poking fun at rosé and its pretty pink lifestyle, Ostrovsky helped normalize the wine for men, as well. “Make way for brosé,” GQ declared.

Ostrovsky liked one of Billstein’s posts, and her account “blew up overnight,” she says (she now has 33,500 followers). Before long, she was negotiating sponsorships with wine brands eager for inclusion on her Instagram and selling rosé-themed T-shirts, baby onesies, and beach towels on her website. “I had a whole mom group in Marin County, California, buy the same outfits,” she says. Most of her shoppers are women under 40.

Billstein has also been selling Rosé Season Boozy Pops, a product that piggybacks on recent two rosé trends: frosé, which started taking Pinterest by storm in 2016, and novel packaging, which started gaining traction in 2017. Her boozy pops have become popular Hamptons housewarming gifts, she says.

American winemakers get in the game

Before boozy pops, Hamptons guests were likely to show up with the Summer in a Bottle Rosé from Wölffer Estate, a local winery. The bottle design is picnic- and party-ready, with boldly colored flowers and butterflies wrapping around the sides, inspired by class English botanicals. Wölffer developed the distinctive look after Joey Wölffer, daughter of founder Christian Wölffer, decided to get involved in the winery’s operations following her father’s death in 2009. “We were willing to take some risks and bring a new edge to it,” she says.

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When Wölffer first started producing rosé in 1992, the estate bottled 82 cases. Last year, Wölffer sold 70,000 cases, a 20% increase over 2016. The estate now produces four rosés, including Summer in a Bottle, and a rosé cider, which comes in cans and 355mL glass bottles.

On Fridays and Saturdays from June through August, Wölffer becomes a favorite gathering place for Hamptons merrymakers, with live music playing as the sun sets. “It’s come one, come all,” Wölffer says. “For the Hamptons, it’s a very low-key thing.”

“Celebrities are sitting on the grass, getting a wet butt,” adds Roman Roth, Wölffer’s longtime winemaker.

Nearby, on Long Island’s North Fork, Macari Wines has been producing a rosé since 1998. For over a decade, Macari sold the majority of its rosé bottles out of its tasting room. Then, to build the brand’s profile, second-generation co-owner and sommelier Gabriella Macari started courting top-tier restaurants. For four years she knocked on doors, dropping off samples and saying hello. Finally, three years ago, Eleven Madison Park decided to feature Macari’s rosé out of magnum at their Manhattan flagship and Hamptons pop-up. “It’s finally showing, the years of hard work,” she says.

The prominent endorsement has yielded results: “We’ve seen a tremendous increase just in sales. This year we’re sold out in our wholesale markets, and we have only a couple of cases left at the winery.”

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For every winery like Wölffer or Macari that has been quietly producing rosé for decades, there are a dozen upstarts vying for placement on liquor store shelves, including offerings from Drew Barrymore, John Legend, Jon Bon Jovi, and Young Thug (“The girls love it,” Thug told Vogue. “I’m a rockstar, so it’s kind of important.”) Part of that explosion in brands and labels can be attributed to improvements in winemaking technology. Thanks to education and improved tools, any winemaker with a chemistry degree can test and measure his or her way to a product of at least decent quality. But rosé’s attractive economics have also played a key role.

“It’s a quick turn,” says Tom Montgomery, a winemaker on the faculty at Fresno State, home to one of California’s top viticulture and enology programs. “Instead of investing a lot in red wine, you can have rosés out in six months. Not only that, you can make really good ones in a short period of time.” A winery hopping on the pinot noir trend following the 2004 film Sideways, on the other hand, would require at least seven or eight years to see a return on its investment.

There is still an art and a science to the process, Montgomery says: “They’re kind of difficult to make at harvest—getting the right sugar levels is challenging.” But these days, one of the biggest challenges is simply finding an available supply of the right grape varietals. “That’s what we’re doing today, actually,” he says, on speakerphone while driving through California’s Central Valley. “We’re going to look at a grenache vineyard. We’re out hunting for rosé.”

Technically, rosé can be made from nearly any grape. But grenache is often one of the more favored options because of its light ruby color and fruity aromas. “Grenache has a perfect rosé fruit profile,” Montgomery says. “Remember that tutti-frutti bubble gum smell? Very tropical, strawberry, watermelon. The one we produce smells just like strawberry cream and watermelon.”

Next week, Montgomery says, he’s going to be canning rosé. Eventually, the cans will be for sale at Fresno State football games. “This is what the kids want, give it to them,” he says. “It’s almost like we’ve been in this industry that can be a little stoic at times. It’s really not our place to define consumer preferences. It’s our job to roll with it.”

Breaking free of the 750ml bottle

Canned wine is still a teeny-tiny portion of the overall market: 0.2%, according to Nielsen. But the category grew nearly 60% last summer, along with tetra-pack wine (19%) and premium boxed wine (16%). Rosé Mansion creator Tyler Balliet predicts that the upward trend will only continue as canning technology becomes more accessible.

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“It’s the beer industry that figured out how to put high-quality products in cans; wine is a little different because of the acidity,” he says. “All the cans have a sprayed-in lining, and you need to match the acidity of the wine to the lining. Unless you’re doing a couple million can run, the smaller producers need to basically make wine that matches the linings that exist. But that’s going to change, and it’s going to change rapidly. You’re going to see wine at concerts, you’re going to see wine at ballparks.”

Cans aren’t the only packaging format being used to telegraph youth and fun. Master sommelier Wilson, who now runs a retailer called Verve Wines, has become a fan of a screw-top, 40-ounce rosé from Loire Valley winemaker Julien Braud. “He’s super passionate about natural wine,” Wilson says of Braud. “For him, [the format] was very much a nostalgia thing: He used to drink lots of 40s when he was younger. He decided to bottle it that way because he thought it was quirky and fun.”

What’s more, customers are buying, Wilson says. “Kim Kardashian or someone posted it on her Instagram last year, and it just went insane.” (In fact, it was Khloé). “So that sells really well.”

Restaurants are also finding ways to encourage experimentation using approachable formats. In Chicago, Gibsons Restaurant Group beverage director Lawrence Kobesky created the concept of a rosé wine cart, which he wheels around Lux Bar and Quartino. The carts feature five or six wines, along with postcard descriptions of each one. “I like to make things simple and fun and easy with wine,” he says. “When people come to the restaurant, I want them drinking, not reading [a list] forever. People can visually see the bottles as well, which is important with rosé.”

The science of sweet

During rosé’s early popularity, there seemed to be just one acceptable color and flavor profile: Provence’s signature style, delicate pink, dry and refreshing. But that is finally changing.

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“This summer in particular I’ve felt like people are really excited about some of these deeper hued rosés that you could mistake it for a red wine or a light pinot in terms of color,” says Kristin Tice Studeman, who runs a pop-up dinner series called the Rosé Project in New York City and the Hamptons. At a recent dinner at chef Marc Murphy’s Landmarc restaurant in TriBeCa, she closed the meal with a rosé made by Joe Campanale, a New York restaurateur. “He has one from Abruzzo that’s super funky, not for everyone by any means. It was so cool because at the end of the dinner, I had so many people come up to me and say, I never like rosés like this, but it was so good that I’m running out to buy some.”

Many sommeliers and winemakers are hopeful that rosé becomes a year-round affair, thanks in part to darker, richer offerings—many of which are as dry as lighter varietals. Others, like Balliet, would like to see the industry destigmatize the idea of “sweet.”

“For some reason in the 1990s, Napa Valley basically said, if you don’t like dry red wine, you’re stupid,” he says. “That’s when the country started shifting to cocktails. Ladies, drink a cosmo, because the wine industry was giving everybody the finger.” A century ago, he says, you could go to a steakhouse and order a glass of Sauterne with your T-bone. “Now, that’s in the dessert wine section. If you ask for that, your server is going to laugh at you. And then your server is going to get off their shift, go to Shake Shack, get a burger and a Coke, and that’s not weird.”

Montgomery tends to agree. “Science tells us that our brains are hardwired for sugar,” he says. “So we used to think, sugar is something evil, and it can be in excess, of course. But at the same time, we’re finding out the people that like sweet actually have a broader sense of taste and smell. The very thing that we used to condemn in wine—if you didn’t like big tannic wines, there was something wrong with you—now we’re finding out that the natural course of our cravings drives us to something that has sugar.”

There are signs of that inclination all around, if not yet in wine glasses. Some bartenders are now serving sweet-leaning cocktails made with rosé. Smitten Ice Cream, in California, makes a rosé ice cream. Sugarfina, the sweet shop, makes “Rosé All Day” gummy bears (for a while, 18,000 people were on the waitlist to order).

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Last week, I had all this on my mind when I stopped by my local wine store in Brooklyn to pick up a bottle for a rooftop barbecue. I told the manager I was looking for a rosé (to pair with hot dogs–though I didn’t offer that detail), and he asked whether I was open to looking beyond Provence to other regions. He had a rosé from New York’s Finger Lakes, a Basque rosé, and an Italian rosé from Piedmont. I bought the Piedmont wine, which ended up being a delightful segue to early fall, its richer pink a perfect match for the sun setting over the Hudson.

But would I have been just as happy with any of the other bottles—or a can, or a tetra-pack, or a sparkling rosé? With that sunset view, probably.

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About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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