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Sonoma County wineries find that everything is coming up rosé

It started as an experiment in 2008.

Erik Miller, the owner and winemaker of Kokomo Winery in Healdsburg, was weighing what to do with a small crop of grenache grapes from its Pauline Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley.

Why not, Miller thought, pick it early and just make a rosé? What did he have to lose?

That first vintage had a very light-pink hue, reminding consumers of the dry signature style of Provence instead of the homogenized sugary versions that were all too commonplace on the U.S. supermarket shelves in the 1970s.

“We had such a response to it,” Miller said. “We had a very light color. ... the color itself let people know we were very serious.”

Almost a decade later, about 9 percent of Kokomo’s production is now devoted to rosé, and the winery even has a separate wine club devoted to the style. What Kokomo experienced has now proved true across the entire U.S. wine marketplace: Rosé is on the rise.

The style had the strongest growth of any category in the entire American wine sector from 2016 to 2017, according to The Nielsen Co., an information service provider. Over the past 52 weeks, rosé sales are up 64 percent in retail outlets and now represent almost 3 percent of the wine market.

“Its growth is just way out in front of everybody else,” said Danny Brager, Nielsen’s senior vice president of beverage alcohol, during the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in January. “It’s really the current big thing. I think it could be for a couple more years.”

Rosé is a style of winemaking, not reliant on specific varietal of red grape. The winemaker allows the skin and juice to soak together for a couple of days - a process called maceration - to obtain the pink color. The skins then are discarded, and the juice is fermented. All major wine countries produce the style, though France still remains the dominant player in the U.S. with 51 percent of the overall sales dollars in 2017, according to Nielsen.

The wine is primarily consumed during the summer, given it’s typically served chilled and comes in at a lower alcohol level than other red wines.

It also can be made as a sparkling wine. In 2017, sparkling rosé had its highest sales of the year during in the week of Fourth of July, Nielsen reported.

Rosé had its heyday beginning in the 1970s under the white zinfandel craze spearheaded by Sutter Home Winery in St. Helena. A stuck fermentation allowed a sweeter wine with hints of strawberry and melon.

The brand was the country’s most popular premium wine in the 1980s before losing its luster among consumers.

Not surprisingly, the industry initially feared the recent sales spike could be more cyclical than long term. The consternation was fueled by stories over the craze for the frozen slushee version, frosé, which conjured up images of college happy-hour specials rather than more sedate wine-and-food pairing that could serve as an entry point into other styles and varietals.

But such fears have proved unfounded, vintners said.

Since 2016, the selection of rosé has increased from 30 to 100 bottles at Bottle Barn, said Barry Herbst, wine buyer for the Santa Rosa store.

The notable change, he said, is consumers now realize rosé is not the sweet drink of their parents, but one that has a whole range of taste - from savory to fruity to dry.

“The biggest thing is that we got people out of the perception that it is going to be sweet,” Herbst said. “That’s the biggest thing that took permanent in people’s consciousness.”

That acceptance became evident last year when bigger wineries such as Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Windsor and Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg came out with their own rosés, he said.

Wineries have embraced the style, especially as production is helpful from a cash flow standpoint. The vast majority of wineries don’t age their rosé, so it can be out in wine shops and supermarkets by late winter the following year.

“The accountants love it,” Herbst said.

At Ferrari-Carano, the rosé program also started as an experiment, said Cheryl McMillan, the winery’s marketing communications director.

Owner Don Carano, in the middle of the 2016 harvest, noted to winemaker Sarah Quider that there were extra sangiovese grapes that could be used for such a program. His wife, Rhonda, had some ideas on color of the wine.

The winery, one of the largest vineyard owners in Sonoma County, only made a few hundred cases of the dry rosé wine with a balanced acidity.

“It flew out the door,” McMillan said. “We sold it no time.”

The winery increased production to 3,000 cases for the 2017 vintage, which also is one of the first to carry a logo from the Sonoma County Winegrowers identifying it as wine made with sustainably grown grapes. Warm-weather states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona have been key markets for the wine for Ferrari-Carano.

“It’s been a successful program,” McMillan said.

Millennials have been one key driver of the growth because they are attracted by the typically lower price point, McMillan said. Ferrari-Carano retails its bottles at $14.

However, the price of rosé wine has risen with the growth. According to Nielsen, the average price has gone from $6 a bottle in 2014 to $10 a bottle.

The color also plays a factor in its popularity, as rosé has been a big hit on social media with younger consumers sharing their pictures, when they are at the beach, at lunch or on vacation.

“Blame it on Instagram,” McMillan said. “It’s all over social media because it’s a pretty pink color.”

As the rosé popularity continues, the style also has expanded into other drinks such as cider and beer. The wine also is being increasingly purchased outside summer months. Fall, winter and spring now account for 56 percent of its sales during the year, according to Nielsen.

“People are doing rosé year-round,” Miller said.

He said it pairs well with ethnic foods, especially Thai, as well as barbecue. Some foodies contend the rosé is the perfect wine for the turkey at Thanksgiving.

Locally, the roots for rosé can be traced at least back to the 1950s when Pedroncelli Winery in Geyserville was making what it called its “vin rosé” from zinfandel grapes, said Julie Pedroncelli St. John, vice president for marketing at the family-owned winery. In fact, the winery produced 10,000 cases of the style in 1970.

She called it a “bridge wine” that can bring in more consumers to other varietals. “That’s what I like about rosé. It really shows the essence of the grape,” St. John said.

Pedroncelli Winery also has experienced an increase in demand for its zinfandel rosé. It has boosted production from 2,000 cases in 2016 to 2,800 cases in 2017, she said. The winery sells its rosé for $17 a bottle and typically has it on the shelves by March, so it can compete with European rivals that flood the Eastern U.S. stores at the same time.

“You are buying something that is not necessarily up that echelon,” St. John said of its price. “It’s made to be consumed now.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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