It’s a cool, bright, breezy day in Napa and I am meeting with the mother/daughter team. These two are the Founders of Lorenza Rosé wine. I discovered this brilliant wine at a tasting at 750 Wines in St. Helena. Our rendezvous has been scheduled for a meet up at Oxbow, one of Napa’s great tourist destinations and foodie heaven. The vibe at Oxbow is ‘bustling tourista’ with a dash of local, complemented by delicious aromas.
I’m waiting for Melinda Kearney and her daughter, Michele Ouellet. I met Melinda briefly at a tasting held at 750 Wines in St. Helena a few weeks ago. There were dozens of wine being poured. The rosé she poured left an indelible impression as did Melinda. Without knowing much about the background of the wine, I knew I needed the story behind the allure in the glass.
It’s an easy air I get about both of them. Mother & daughter.
I’m approached by Melinda while waiting at the coffee bar and gather my things to head out with her to the patio of Oxbow. The weather is incredible, the patio traffic light, and a perfect place for our conversation. Her daughter, Michele joins us moments later. Smiles, great energy and a synergy I can’t articulate yet, but it will come. It’s an easy air I get about both of them. Mother & daughter. The result is a conversation that is easy and complimentary. It’s as if what ever one leaves out, the next will fill in. Words of sentences, a lasting smile or a laugh. I begin to think of them as sisters, or the very best of friends.
Kearney, is a resident of Napa who has long been involved in the marketing of wine locally. She obtained her food and wine chops in Boulder, Colorado while in the restaurant business during college. As a former restauranteur with her then husband, she worked with a knowledgable wine manager who shared with her his interest in wine. Over time wine became a passion of hers and she started working in the wine industry in 1990.
The French are known for their appreciation of wine with food.
Michele Ouellet grew up in Napa and is a successful international model, based in NYC. Ouellet began modeling in Paris when she was just 15. She’s enjoyed a pretty amazing career for her young age and is experienced working with modeling agencies across the country and in Europe. Today, she is the face of J Crew & Madewell. I find it hard not to be distracted by such an incredible career and have to force myself back to the topic at hand. I’d very much like to be discussing the beaches of St. Tropez and modeling across the globe with of course, an amazing glass of rosé in hand, perhaps another day.
The French are known for their appreciation of wine with food. While in Paris, Michele discovered rosé. It was low alcohol, so she could have a glass for lunch and not be wiped out for work afterwards. Both Kearney and Ouellet appreciated the food friendly aspects of rosé. It was as if, while a continent apart, both were enjoying an appreciation for similar things. They determined it was time to join forces so they could not only spend more time together but do something they also loved.
Every success related to wine begins in the fields with the farmers.
They began their journey in 2008, when rosé was not the hottest ticket in town. Coming from modeling into the wine space, Michele quickly learned how much she didn’t know. From sourcing grapes, the harvest, the crush, and so much more she relied on her mother to do the research. Both were clear on what they were going to make. It would be a very pale pink, low alcohol, and very crisp rosé. A favorite wine of Melinda’s was Domaine Tempier. This Bandol style rosé was the inspiration for selecting how the wine was to be made and the types of grapes to be used. They settled on the grapes; Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault. This blend would achieve their desired result, but even more work had to go into cultivating the relationships with those who had the power and knowledge to make this venture fly.
Every success related to wine begins in the fields with the farmers. They knew exactly what it would take to get the grapes to make this rosé, but they were bucking tradition. The wines known in this region, particularly in 2008 spent a decent amount of time on the vine to make the great cabernets California is known for. They discovered the farmers were hesitant to support such an early harvest for this rosé. Then questions came, “Don’t you want higher alcohol? Leaving it on the vine longer will get you that.” None of the farmers they spoke to were particularly comfortable with the tradition breaking tactics Kearney & Ouellet needed to get the wine they wanted. Melinda had to assure them they knew exactly what they were doing and had the money to pay for their adventure.
When it comes to wine, a critical factor in marketing is the name and the label. This rosé is called ‘Lorenza’. It is Michele’s middle name and comes from her father’s side of the family. Her middle name is the effeminate derivative of her grandfather’s first name, “Lorenzo” . Lorenzo Ouellet was the real deal. Lorenzo was a true bon vivant who lived a wildly amazing life.
While Lorenza Wines is based in St. Helena, their fruit comes from Lodi, California. It is not limited to a certain appellation. They identify with the California Appellation. California has a sense of summer, palm trees and sunshine. They are also using old vines which provide such a contrast. They’re super gnarly and crazy, a dichotomy of grandfather vines (very fitting considering the namesake), with rosé, which is fresh and young. “We like to think that working with old vines gives us complexity and longevity. You don’t think about rosé as something that you would age, or being age worthy at all but actually it is. A few years down the road, it adds beautiful nuances to the fruit. It adds layers and from an aesthetic or authenticity factor it feels really good.” says Kearney.
Their harvest can be done as early as late July. 2016 will likely be a harvest in the first week of August. The reason for picking this early are to get the freshest possible grapes, brighter flavor, exquisite color and the lower alcohol. The alcohol content is just 11.4%. The style is more European, and they are making a beautifully bright, dry, true rosé. They do a handpicked harvest with the grapes going directly into the press at a very gentle cycle. As the juice comes out it’s pale pink and is stored in stainless steel. It’s a very different way of creating rosé in the context that many others produce rosé more as an afterthought harvesting grapes for red wine, taking an initial quick press and calling it rosé. “We wanted to make our rosé with intention.” Ouellet explains.
Behind the scenes, another working his magic is Joseph Smith, winemaker. They met him in 2010 when they moved to St. Helena. He’s grown with them in their business as the partners enjoy a very close working relationship. His team of people do everything from dragging the hoses to climbing tanks. The women are right there with them.
A favorite part of this process for Michele is she loves working with her Mom. “If I was to do a brand on my own, I can’t even imagine how. It’s a huge undertaking. To have a partner in crime is so much fun. We’re going to make this wine. I don’t care if anyone else likes it we like it!” Ouellet laughs.
After eight years of producing Lorenza Wine they are thrilled about what they’ve built and where the market is. It’s taken time to erase the bad rap rosé had once upon a time, but the market is educated and please with this newer generation of dry rosé.
I asked them about pairing, which is often a loaded question. “With a versatile wine like rosé is there anything this shouldn’t be paired with?”. I brace myself, not knowing what to expect. The response was perfect! “Not really, just bad attitudes”, said Michele. Kearney interjected, “You just need the right mindset. It can hold it’s own with a steak. It can also cut through fat and spice.”
Last year they sold out all their wine by mid-July. Today production has increased and the season is already off to a spectacular start. This year they’ll have 4000 cases ready to roll.
The business is very much a collaborative partnership. You can feel how intrinsic the relationship is this simply by talking to them. The conversation is peppered with occasional interjections from the other and it is apparent they work incredibly well together and compliment each other both figuratively and literally. As I look back on our conversation I realize Kearney and Ouellet are the yin and yang in the world of rosé.