We saw it coming.
Even before COVID-19 arrived, and before many European imported wines were hit with a 25 percent tariff, the outlook for rosé was, well, less rosey. Clouds were forming over the sunset beach party that had been raging for the past decade.
As early as autumn of 2019, the “Yes way, rosé!” era appeared to be coming to a close. There were bottles of 2018 rosés still sitting on store and warehouse shelves. The market was flooded with cheap commodity brands. Meanwhile, Gen Z was reaching for cans of hard seltzer or feeling sober-curious.
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By January 2020, Nielsen analysts were predicting that off-premise rosé sales growth would slow to the single digits, putting it on par with other wine categories.
And then came the coronavirus.
Provence, regional king of the category, is reeling from the fallout. Consider, for example, Château Minuty, where nearly 30 percent of estate wines are bottled in oversized formats, including 3- and 6-liter. “The inability to sit outside at restaurants… the closures of beaches, the social distancing that makes getting together at hotel pools impossible, all these limitations [are hurting] rosé sales,” says Alex Michas, chief operating officer of New York’s Vintus, Minuty’s exclusive U.S. importer.
“Our overall promotion strategy will shift,” adds Michas. “We are working to bring the essence of Saint-Tropez and the owners, the Matton family, to their consumers through different e-commerce partnership opportunities, Instagram, and other social media channels in place of activations at beach clubs, patios, rooftops and waterfront settings.”
Rosatos aren’t faring any better. Even though Italy escaped October’s draconian 25 percent tariffs on European wines, “the wine market has been stuck,” reports Damiano Sorato, sales director for eastern regions at the import firm Ethica Wines. “The main ambassadors for us were the sommeliers and the boutique wine shops. Now consumers are just buying brands they recognize, he says, adding that his spring’s slow rosé sales are a big concern” for all the importers. “Even the French importers still have a lot of 2018 in their warehouses.”
Yet rosé season is upon us, and opportunities remain. SevenFifty Daily spoke with importers, wholesalers, retailers, and producers to understand how they are adapting to keep pink wine relevant and the trends that will shape the 2020 rosé season.
The Rosé Message Shifts
The pool party is over. Festive summer outdoor concerts and sporting events canceled. And pink canned wines that previously competed to out-cute one another are now pivoting to a more serious tone.
Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), for example, had been poised to roll out a new product in a can, 14 Hands “Unicorn” Columbia Valley Rosé Bubbles, in early March with a splashy “win your Unicorn trip” consumer sweepstakes winner to be announced on April 9, National Unicorn Day.
“We shifted messaging to one that celebrates small victories and moments of joy,” comments SMWE communications manager Rebekah Zale. The new campaign advises consumers to “start a gratitude practice,” and meditate or write in their journals while sipping the canned pink wine.
Others are hopeful that the shift away from “party quaffer” will foster a greater focus on quality and terroir, often absent from the rosé discussion, believes Kashy Khaledi, owner of Ashes & Diamonds in Napa Valley. He modeled his rosé of Cabernet Franc after examples from Loire Valley’s Chinon region. “Producers such as Charles Joguet and Olga Raffault were benchmarks for the style we wanted to make, and we found a single vineyard of old-vine Cabernet Franc in Carneros that fit the bill,” he explains.
Other serious California producers are exploring the terroir-expressing potential of single-vineyard rosé, as well. Sonoma’s Gehricke Wines produced their inaugural 2019 rosé from a small cool-climate site in Los Carneros planted to Pinot Noir. The style is Provence, says owner August Sebastiani, but the profile is pure “cool climate Sonoma terroir.”
A Pink Wine Glut and Discount Pressure
Los Angeles-based rosé entrepreneur Tawnya Falkner produces a combined total of 28,000 cases of still and sparkling rosé under the Très Chic and Le Grand Courtâge labels, which she founded seven years ago. While she has pushed back against the pressure to discount in the past, she says this spring has been a completely different animal and she has had no choice but to slash prices.
“We are seeing a price contraction across the board because of this glut of French and domestic wines,” Falkner laments. “[Retailers] are looking for at least 40 if not 50 percent gross margins… [they want] less expensive products that they can make a huge margin on.”
European prices are plummeting across the board, reports Jeff Miller, managing director of the west coast importer and wholesaler Grape Expectations. “Just a few weeks ago, I was paying €7.60 to €9 a bottle for Sancerre rosé. This morning I got an email from a very good winery offering Sancerre rosé at €4.50 per bottle. Even with the tariff, that could easily retail for under $20 [in the U.S.]. People are scrambling, because the window [for exporting during peak rosé season] is closing.”
“It does seem like people are trading down with rosé this season,” confirms Stacey Gibson, partner at the Portland, Oregon retail store Park Avenue Wines. “Our average bottle price overall is usually $25-$30 and in the last weeks it is much closer to $18-$22.”
“I’m going to a lot of restaurant friends and giving them a particular price, cutting our margin drastically to support the restaurants and also the rosé producers,” confides Sorato of Ethica Wines. Sorato is treating his Italian rosato sales this season like a marketing expense rather than an income stream: “At least people will be tasting the wine and recognizing the reputation.”
Bottling Stateside to Avoid Tariffs
The new buzzword among importers is “flexitanks.” Made from polyethylene, with ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) used as a barrier material, these massive, air-tight wine-transport bladders fit neatly into refrigerated shipping containers, and allow producers to bottle rosé on U.S. soils which enables them to avoid the 25 percent tariff. Florida Caribbean Distillers was among the first to take advantage of this loophole for rosé and now imports “truckloads” of bulk wine from France and bottles the value-priced “Le Roséy” at its bottling facility in Auburndale, Florida.
Higher-end producers are leveraging this opportunity, too. For Provence’s iconic Commanderie de Peyrassol, bottling stateside has enabled the winery to avoid tariffs and maintain pricing, and also allowed the wines to get to market quicker. “Having our full range of wines available even a few weeks earlier than usual let us extend our selling season and beat our competitors to market,” says Jeremy Sells, director of Rosenthal Wine Merchant that imports Peyrassol.
While some importers would prefer to stay mum on the subject of large-scale bulk importing—certain French appellations don’t allow it—others point out that it’s far more sustainable than shipping heavy glass across the ocean, and should be standard practice regardless of the tariff situation. With a typical capacity of 25,000 liters, flexitanks hold nearly three times the wine per container that would be shipped in bulky, fragile bottles.
For Paul Chevalier, global director of marketing for Château D’Esclans and a vice president at Shaw-Ross International Importers, the anti-oxidative format of the refrigerated flexitank is ideal for rosés like The Palm by Whispering Angel which is being bottled on U.S. shores for the first time this year. “With young, fresh-style wines, [bulk shipping] adds another three to six months of shelf life to the product, in my opinion,” Chevalier believes.
Goodbye Magnums, Hello Bag-in-Box and Growlers
Large-format rosés—in magnum, jeroboam, and methuselah—thrive in restaurants, but don’t translate well to retail, particularly in the era of social distancing.
Bag-in-box rosés are a better fit for the home, and the current somber, belt-tightening zeitgeist. Yet the format no longer signals lower quality. Boutique importers—such as Jenny & François, with its “From the Tank” Vin de Pays du Pont du Gard rosé—are finding that the time is right for quaffable bag-in-box rosés from France.
“Our bag-in-box sales are three times what they usually are,” reports Melissa Saunders, owner and CEO of the New York importer Communal Brands, whose bag-in-box rosé is called Hérisson by Domaine Rochebin. “This thrills me because it’s something I have believed in for a while now: Putting better-quality wine in a more environmentally-friendly format.”
Boxed wines conveniently avoid the new import tariff, as well. “Naturally, if you do the math, the larger formats will definitely be selling at a better rate,” comments Lorena Ascencios, wine buyer at Astor Wines in New York. In early May, Astor was sold out online of the “VRAC” IGP Mediterranée bag-in-box rosé, a bulk wine modeled after the better “house wines” found in French bistros and brasseries.
Village Wine Imports, an importer and wholesaler based in the Bronx, is having an unusually strong year with the VRAC, says founder Michael Petrillo. The line gets its name from en vrac, the French term for purchasing wine by the jug direct from wineries. To keep up with increasing demand this spring, Village Wine Imports has rolled out a 3-liter pouch in addition to its bag-in-box, and is adding a 250-milliliter single-serving mini pouch in June.
Domestic wineries are also experiencing increased demand for higher-end bag-in-box rosé. Michael Cook, sales director at Lieb Cellars and Bridge Lane on the North Fork of Long Island, offers his Bridge Lane rosé in a 3-liter box and has seen a “big spike” in demand this season. He also reports suddenly receiving wholesale orders from states that never purchased boxed rosé in prior years. “With folks making fewer stops at the wine shop, or now ordering deliveries, the value proposition is starting to shine,” Cook observes.
Meanwhile, domestic producers, retailers, and wine bars-turned-shops are also seeing growth in refillable growler sales, in states—such as Washington, Texas, and Oregon—where this is legal. (Added bonus: Because growlers don’t hit store shelves, TTB labeling regulations are more lax.)
Portland, Oregon’s SE Wine Collective is filling growlers with a rosé that’s a blend of juice from its seven on-site producers for contact-free curbside pickup. In nearby North Plains, Oregon, Abbey Creek winemaker and proprietor Bertony Faustin reports that “75 percent of what we are selling now is in refillable bottles,” and credits curbside refills of his “#Oooowee” rosé with keeping his business afloat. Faustin’s 1-liter growlers are $25 per fill, after a $5 initial investment in the glass vessel. “I don’t know if it’s some sort of subliminal thing,” Faustin comments, “but maybe customers feel like they are going back in time, to the days of the milkman.”
More Barrel-Fermented, Barrel-Aged Rosés to Weather All Seasons
While the overwhelming majority of rosé is meant to be consumed fresh and released six months after harvest, there has long been a very small European contingent of high-end rosés made very differently and meant to age for years, if not decades, including Provence’s Clos Cibonne, López de Heredia from Rioja, Valentini from Abruzzo, and more. Chateau D’Esclans joined the fray more recently with its ultraluxe “Garrus” and “Les Clans” bottlings. But now, barrel-finished rosé meant for bottling aging is becoming more common.
Artisanal domestic producers have been delving into this style of winemaking for the past few years, and the trend looks to be growing. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Raptor Ridge winemaker Shannon Gustafson ages sorting-table spill-off juice—one of those practices many wineries dabble in but few talk about—in neutral French oak barrels to make a “Barrel-Fermented Rosé” ($28) crafted to attract a more discerning year-round rosé consumer.
In Walla Walla, Washington, winemaker Fiona Mak makes seasonally inspired bottlings for her Smak label, which is devoted entirely to rosé. “Our tagline is ‘Rosé All Year,’” Mak says, adding that she changes her tasting room décor depending on the season. After this challenging spring, Mak may not be able to make the most of her “summer” tasting room setup—complete with a “beach”—but she’s ready for fall and winter, with a fireplace that she installs for the cold months. At which time she’ll be able to offer them a barrel-fermented and barrel-aged Syrah-based rosé ($18). “It’s a fireplace, cozy, cabin-style wine, that really goes well with Thanksgiving meals,” says Mak.
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Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of The Four Top, a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One. She is currently working on a fifth book, Sparkling Wine Anytime (Abrams), to be published in Fall 2020.