A Very Brief History of Rosé

Joseph Jewell Rosé of Pinot Noir Picture

A Very Brief History of Rosé

Long before the favored mantras of  “yes way rosé,” today’s favorite pink drink was popular around the known world at the time, i.e. the Mediterranean basin. And although I see your wheels turning to quickly assume that our friends in the land of berets and baguettes invented the beverage, you would be mistaken. The production and consumption of rosé dates back to the Pheonicians, circa 1550 B.C. – 300 B.C. and the Ancient Greeks, circa 600 B.C. It’s just taken us this long to associate catchy hashtags with the drink.The rosé of long ago wasn’t like the picture perfect poolside salmon pink libations we love today. The ancients actually made rosé in a manner that today many wine people might scoff at–  by watering it down. Ice cubes weren’t available, for obvious reasons, so the ancients diluted their still red wines with drinking water.The reasoning behind this was twofold…

First, water way back when wasn’t the healthiest source of hydration as it is known today. If you’ve ever been to the American South in the summer, you’ll notice that any standing water is a cesspool for bacteria and mosquitos. The same principle applied back then. Water = death. However, when water is combined with red wine which contains alcohol, common bacterias responsible for causing dysentry, or other ailments, didn’t stand a chance. Hence, the healthiest way to hydrate was… with rosé. In fact, fast forward to the age of the Roman Empire, it was mandated early on in the empire’s history that military men be rationed one liter of wine per day along with another beverage called posca- vinegar blended with water and herbs. During war times, which was frequent for the Romans, a soldier’s wine rations increased to three liters per day. I don’t know about you, but that is more than enough to render me dysfunctional, diluted wine or not. Speaking of dysfunctional…

The second reason the ancients diluted their wine was the widely held belief that consuming undiluted wine had the ability to turn one mad. “The Spartan King Cleomenes I, who was driven to insanity and eventually committed suicide in a prison cell, even claimed that drinking undiluted wine led to his downfall,” writes Victoria James in her book Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé. If we reflect on the nights when we may have opened one too many bottles of wine, we can certainly empathize with King Cleomenes I’s plight.

While we’ve debunked the diluted wine belief and refined our rosé consumption since the late Spartan king, how did America’s pinkest pastime come to conquer the New World?

Glad you asked! The well traveled Pheonicians brought grapes to the area of Massalia, today known as The French Riviera, or Marseille, in the South of France. In fashion, wine production continued in Massalia as it did in the region known as the Fertile Crescent. Over centuries, the South of France became synonymous with the world’s favorite pink libation. While America’s forefathers surely delighted in a glass or two of rosé throughout their travels in Europe, there’s no mention of the wine being exported to the early colonies. Their focus at the time was Madeira, a sweet fortified wine from the namesake island off the coast of Portugal, and Claret red wines from Bordeaux. It wasn’t until 1938, many years later, that the famed Domaine Ott of Provence began exporting, en masse, bottled rosé to the United States.

The French craze continued in the United States with the rise of the francophile, popularized by celebrity chefs such as Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. In her unforgettable, delightful whimsy, Child is noted for stating, “Rosé can be served with anything.”

Rosé production in the United States wasn’t popularized till the mid-1970’s when winemaker Bob Trinchero was trying to make a more concentrated style of his Zinfandel from Amador County. He bled the run off juice from his tank of Zinfandel to create a light pink juice that was to be fermented separately. As the story goes, his fermentation of this saignéed juice became stuck and was therefore unable to completely go dry. The final product that was bottled is the famed Sutter Home White Zinfandel that Americans know so well.

With American ingenuity ever present in the early days of the pioneering wine industry, experimentation with the pink drink continued. However, it wasn’t until the early 1990’s that dry rosé of Pinot Noir, now the most popular domestic rosé in Sonoma County, if not California, was created. Etude Winery winemaker, Tony Soter created a dry rosé of Pinot Noir, that both winemakers and the wider market began to take notice of. Until that time period, “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,” recounts famed sommelier Rajat Parr who worked the floor as a sommelier in San Francisco’s RN74 at the time. Inspired by Soter’s dry rosé of Pinot noir, soon care went into producing well-made, high quality rosé wine.

Fast forward to today, rosé in all varieties and styles are being made, even Frosé! In 2018, 18.2 million cases of rosé were sold across the country. With annual sales growing at double digit rates, there doesn’t seem to be a slowing down of people’s love of the pink drink. And who can blame them? Rosé is delicious, versatile for food pairings (as Juila Child so aptly pointed out), and is accessible to the masses. It really just comes down to your personal style of rosé. The 2019 Joseph Jewell Rosé of Pinot Noir is full of bright, zesty acidity, with flavors of watermelon and strawberry, hints of grapefruit, and finishes with an elegant minerality. It’s the perfect anytime sipper.