Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Sonoma Rosé on the Rise

Rosés from California
Illustration by Anne Bentley

The rosé craze shows no signs of slowing down, as producers across the globe continue to ramp up production to meet wine lovers’ thirst for the popular pink wine. California, in particular, has helped lead the charge for high-quality rosé in the U.S.

Winemaker Justin Seidenfeld of Rodney Strong Vineyards (and Top 40 Under 40 Tastemaker) sat down with Napa and Sonoma contributing editor Virginie Boone to talk about the explosive popularity of Sonoma rosé. From discussing the 2018 vintage and why it produced such standout bottlings to exploring what the future holds for the style, we’re thinking pink this week on the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.

The Wine Enthusiast Podcast

Virginie Boone: I’m here with Justin Seidenfeld, the director of winemaking at Rodney Strong Vineyards. And we’re here to talk about rosé because, partly because, Justin is the man behind kind of this supersonic success story with rosé, which is the Rodney Strong rosé of Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. Now, Justin, before I get to my question, I just sort of want to set the scene that in 2016, you launched the first vintage of the rosé at 2,000 cases. 2017, it went to 17,000 cases. And with the current vintage, the 2018, you’re now at 30,000 cases, still at a $25 price point. How do you keep the quality up?

Justin Seidenfeld: Our response is that we’re using great grapes. I make this as an intentional rosé, so I went back to the same exact vineyards that I started with, and instead of using, you know, a couple of rows to hit that initial case count in 2016, I’m just using more of the same exact sites.

VB: Right, and my understanding is you keep it stainless-steel fermented, to sort of capture the acidity which the vintages that I’ve tasted, you know, succeeds very well. What, uh…Did you kind of think about that when you were first designing this wine?

JS: Yeah so, the stainless steel is really there to keep everything fresh and bright. The acidity comes from the time I pick it, so I pick these grapes between 20 and 21 brix, which is sort of right in the middle of where you would pick sparkling and where you would, you know, a little bit later where you would pick grapes for, you know, a standard still wine. And so, we get really bright acidities, and at that point in time we also have a whole lot of something called esters, which is where the really beautiful fruits and floral components come from. And so, by keeping it all in stainless steel and fermenting it at 45 °F, we can keep all of those very volatile qualities intact, so they don’t blow off at high temperatures.

VB: So when did you first discover rosé as something to drink — and then as you came up in your winemaking career, something to make?

JS: So, I’ve drank rosé forever. The very first winery I worked for was Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol, and I was able to make rosé going all the way back to 2005 where I made a Pinot rosé for them as well as a rosé out of Sangiovese. And so, I did a lot of research during that time where I was learning about Domaines Ott, which is my favorite, and several other producers in Provence. And that’s really where I modelled my philosophy from. And at the end of the day, when I started designing a wine, if you want to call it, that I designed a wine I want to drink myself.

VB: Right, right. And I mean you must, even, you know, with your experience, be sort of surprised at the amount of popularity that rosé has had over the last couple of years. I mean it just seems to not be stopping anytime soon, and I do think, at least in California from what I see and taste, it seems because there are more producers making these intentional roses.

JS: Absolutely. The popularity just blows my mind. You know when I sit back and think about it, it doesn’t overly surprise me, because white Zin grew in popularity at the same pace. It just was made differently, and then it died out, because people started taking wine a little bit more seriously, I think. I think it’s just a wine that was waiting to come back. I think rosé’s been in people’s minds for as long as I can remember, and it’s just now people are finding the right ways to make it:  from the right varietals in the right places, and so it’s reemerging for all those great reasons. And so, the hope, my hope, would be that we don’t forget that as winemakers and wine companies, and we continue to make it in the quality that we have been over the last, say, five years, which is I think why people have liked it so much.

VB: Now, at the beginning of the year, I remember seeing some Nielsen numbers on wine consumption and it looked like rosé was still at double-digit growth kind of across all price points. And that to me defied a little bit of some other trends we were seeing across wine consumption. Do you think it’s partly that rosés tend to intersect with the $12-20 sweet spot, and that price is just attractive to people?

JS: I would say yes to that question, but I think it’s also still growing because I think a lot of consumers are slow to adapt. Even though “rosé all day” has been in our face all day long, but that’s our world, I still think in large portions of the country where a lot of this growth is taking place, it’s finally starting to take hold.

VB: Would you say that in some of these markets people weren’t really drinking rosé at all? Or are they suddenly kind of open to California rosé, where they were drinking maybe versions from Europe?

JS: I would say that the previous statement, where they really weren’t drinking rosé at all. And now that they are opening up to it, they’re actually more comfortable drinking a domestic rosé than something from France. They’re not as…not everybody, so this is a generalization, so hopefully I don’t offend anybody, but I just think that most things kind of start on the coasts and then work their way to the middle of the United States. And so, I think the comfort level with walking into a store and just finding some random Provence rosé to try isn’t as high as buying a rosé from a brand that they recognize.

VB: Right. Well that makes sense. But I would also add, at least from my experience that in California so many producers took a little while to make a sizable amount of rosé. So maybe they were making something because it was fun, and they had some great grapes that were devoted to it, and they really only had it in their tasting room or maybe for wine club members. And so, I’m thinking that, you know, until recently a lot of the rosés that I’ve always enjoyed were really hard for other people to find. Would you say that that’s what you’re finding as well?

JS:  Absolutely. I would say that, I mean, even, you know, to be quite frank, we started with a 2016 as our first national release, but the first rosé that I made for the winery was a couple of years prior at 100 cases, 150 cases. And we sold it all out in, you know, five weekends. It’s almost the start of our rejuvenation and opening us up as a brand to a whole new customer set.

VB: Yeah, well it’s a little bit of a calling card, too, an invitation to sort of try maybe a winery’s wine at a decent price point before you kind of get into their higher-end bottlings, or things that need a little bit more age on them. So, given that you almost got fired over rosé, and you make a lot of very serious wines at Rodney Strong as well, I mean how do you feel as a serious winemaker making rosé? And, you know, especially given that it’s sort of the first wine out of every vintage for you.

JS: Yeah, I love it. I consider our rosé to be a serious rosé but yet fun. So, we’re using the best quality Pinot we can get, and I make it in a similar fashion to, you know, my favorite winery for rosé which is Domaines Ott, you know, and their rosés are $80, $70 a bottle. So, we actually attacked a little bit of the higher price point segment, you know, I think ours retails for $25. Like everything we’ve seen in the world of wine lately, you know, people are looking for better quality wines. People that started with rosé at that, you know, maybe $8–12 or $10–15 price point are now looking for maybe $20-25 rosé and, you know, we’re primed and ready for that.

VB: So how much do you think people pay attention to variety when they buy and enjoy rosé?

JS: I think for us it matters. You know we actually have, and I think the AVA matters too, we’ve, in a way, surveyed the people that come to our tasting room, as well as talk to people in the marketplace, especially the gatekeepers or the buyers at the different stores. But the fact that it’s Pinot Noir and its Russian River Valley are really large selling points for us, in particular. I think…’Place matters’ used to be our slogan, and I think as people are moving up the spectrum to higher price-point rosé, they’re looking for things that differentiate the wine from others, so place and varietal are very important.

VB: Yeah. You know certainly in Russian River, the predominant grape for rosé is going to be Pinot Noir, but we do have here and there some people playing with Syrah and Grenache, and even Zinfandel and some Cabernet, and you know, there’s some different things that you see. But, you know, when you’re kind of tasting locally, or keeping an eye on, on what other wineries are doing, which rosés stand out to you? What have you liked?

JS: I would say there’s a couple. Inman Family makes one that I really like [that] it’s a little smaller production. It’s a Pinot Noir rosé, you know, made in a similar fashion to what I do. I like Porter Creek’s rosé quite a bit; Rued and Unti both make good rosés. So, all of those, they’re a little smaller, but they’re all random varietals. I like to see the variation of what rosé can be. So, I kind of seek out not just Pinot Noir rosés, but rosés made from Rhône varietals as well as, you know, I think one of those wineries makes a wine out of Carignan, a rosé out of Carignan. So, they’re all  really done exceptionally well.

VB: Well and Inman Family, who has made a rosé from Pinot Noir for a long time one of the pioneers for sure. It’s interesting that now they’ve released a few single-vineyard designate rosés and even some block designates I think in some cases. What do you make of that? Is that kind of the next step for rosé?

JS: I think it probably is. Although I, you know, my first time having those was in a tasting at the Austin Food and Wine Festival. I attended a seminar that Kathleen Inman gave where she showed three single-vineyard rosés as well as her blend and just her Russian River rosé, and you could distinctly see the difference in color but also taste the difference for the single vineyard. However, for my personal opinion, I felt that the blend of the three vineyards, which was her standard, kind of flushed it all out and was my favorite of the four different roses we tried. Rosé’s a fun wine, it’s meant to be enjoyed and drank quickly, so I don’t think if you went to a restaurant you would find a lot. You wouldn’t have the opportunity to find a lot of single vineyard roses on our list. I just don’t think it’s necessary, per se.

VB: Right. And, you know, that’s expensive grapes, expensive land, and rosés…You know despite the $80 price point that you mentioned, like most rosés are just not gonna be able to get that high in price. So, we’ve got like real world economics in the mix as well. Speaking of that, just on the other end of the spectrum, what do you think about rosé in cans?

JS: You know I think cans are cool. I think that ultimately rosés in cans could be quite popular. You know my issue with cans right now is I feel the wines are being made to a specific price point. You know what we’ve found is you know a 375 ml can, which seems to be the most popular volume, has like a max price point of about $6–7. And in a lot of ways that…

VB: Right, that’s half a bottle…

JS: That limits what you can do. So, I think as cans mature. I hope that canned wine isn’t a fad, and it actually grows nicely, and it becomes a viable way to drink wine, because it just opens wine up to more people and more environments. Which is why I like it. You can take it to the beach, you could take it to a picnic more easily than you can a glass bottle. A lot of places prohibit glass, you know, in that environment.

So, in my opinion, the more we can make wine accessible to our consumer, the better. And I think over time you’ll see cans going up into $10, $12 price points for a 375 ml can. As people get more comfortable with drinking wine out of that can, that package style, and you’ll see not just really good quality rosés, but you’ll see a lot more options in that world. But I think we’re still a few years away from that happening, based off of what I’ve seen in the stores, and you’re seeing more and more well-established producers putting out wine and cans like Bonterra. They just released their first wine in cans and so I think it’s just a matter of time before, you know, pretty much everybody does.

VB: Right, and it will increase the quality if there is more competition, I would imagine.

JS: Correct. I mean there are several rosés in cans that you find when you read the package. It’s, you know, mostly white wine that they put in a little bit of red wine to make it rosé, and then they carbonate it to make it have the illusion of freshness. So that’s, to me — while, yes, it’s technically rosé because it looks that way — that’s a manufactured wine that they’re trying to achieve a goal based off of price point and they’re not putting in good-quality wine. And so until we really get to that point — which I still think is just a matter of time; a couple years — you know, I will be buying my rosé in a bottle, hopefully with a screw cap.

VB: Right. That keeps it pretty simple as well. My last question for you then is what is your favorite way to enjoy rosé?

JS: As long as my wife’s there, I’m happy. So, if I can drink rosé with her, whether it be a dinner, or, you know, we go, we live in Windsor right next to the winery, and so we go to the Thursday night live concerts. So, you know, drinking rosé outside with friends. It’s refreshing in the hot sun, and it’s great. So, to me, that’s the best way to drink rosé, and really all wine. You know, my goal in life as a winemaker is just really to make people happy. You know if you’re happy drinking rosé, then you’re good in my book. Drinking rosé keeps rosé being made, and so I say, rosé all day!

VB: Well I do too. So, thank you so much for joining us on this conversation. And if people haven’t discovered your rosé yet I’m sure they will. The 2018 rosé of Pinot Noir Estate Russian River Valley is out now and I hope not sold out?

JS: Not sold out yet, but we’re, we’re actually selling it even faster than we anticipated, which is a positive. But that’s the goal with rosé, you know, every rosé producer just wants to sell it out. So, the faster we sell it out, the better.

VB: Okay. All right. Well thank you so much Justin.

JS: Thanks, Virginie. I appreciate it.

VB: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Wine Enthusiast podcast. We talked about a lot of different styles of rosé, and ways to make rosé, all waiting to be enjoyed by you. To recap three recently reviewed gems across a range of rosé stylistic expressions that are worth picking up now, try; at 94 points, the Inman Family 2018 Endless Crush OGV Estate rosé of Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. It costs $38 dollars. There’s also the Rodney Strong 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir, also from Russian River Valley, at 92 points that retails for $25. And lastly, at 90 points, a Quivira 2018 Wine Creek Ranch rosé from Dry Creek Valley made from Rhône varieties at $22.

Beyond those three, be sure to check out additional rosé ratings and reviews, including other producers we mentioned, all available for free at WineMag.com. Subscribe to The Wine Enthusiast podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find podcasts. If you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and comment. And why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out, too? For more wine reviews, recipes, guides, and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at WineMag.com.

The Wine Enthusiast podcast is produced by Marina Vataj and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers!

Published on August 7, 2019
Topics: Podcast


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