A rose by any other name

It's light on the alcohol and reminds American drinkers of the south of France: two factors that explain the rise of rose

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Sun, Aug 06, 2006 - Page 12

It was Fourth of July weekend in Montauk, New York, and Ben Watts, a DJ and photographer, was serving as host of his annual beach blowout at Ditch Plains, a popular surfing area. Although there were plenty of people in hoodies huddled around a fire, this was no humble gathering. Watts was spinning '80s rock and hip-hop for a crowd that included Russell Simmons; Sean MacPherson, an owner of the Maritime Hotel and the Park restaurant in Manhattan; the Hollywood stylist Philip Bloch; and actress Naomi Watts, Ben's sister.

At least a dozen revelers were chugging light pink wine from a bottle. It was Domaines Ott, a French rose that retails for about US$30. Thanks to MacPherson, who always packs several cases for the weekend, it has become the unofficial drink of the Ditch Plains scene, so common that attendees were referring to it as "DO" and "the Ott."

"To me this wine tastes like the South of France and summer, and you should have an endless supply of it," MacPherson said.

Rose wines, long disparaged as too sweet, too pink and too cheap, have improved in quality in recent years and been embraced by food and wine connoisseurs. But a new collection of fans have emerged: club-hopping hipsters and tastemakers, who lay in a stash of rose for parties and ask for it when out on the town.

"Rose has replaced prosecco and cosmos as the new chick drink," said Ken Friedman, an owner of the Spotted Pig, one of the celebrity-friendly restaurants in Greenwich Village, which offers five roses on its wine list.

At Union Square Wine & Spirits in Manhattan, the demand for rose has increased about 30 percent over the last year and 100 percent to 150 percent over the last four years, said Jesse Salazar, the wine director.

"A lot of younger people are buying roses," he said, adding that many men are no longer embarrassed to be seen drinking a pink wine. "Guys will bring it to rooftop parties and backyard barbecues. I've been putting rose in an empty Gatorade bottle and drinking it in the park."

Long a populist summer staple in Provence, where it is enjoyed by everyone from socialites to construction workers, rose first became popular in the US during the 1960s and 1970s with sweet, fizzy and inexpensive Portuguese brands like Mateus and Lancers.

But because it was often made with grapes harvested for other wines and doesn't age, it was always considered less credible than reds and whites. Over the last few years, however, wineries around the world have begun to harvest grapes specifically for rose production, and quality has increased.

"I used to hate rose," said Alex Kapranos, the lead singer of the rock band Franz Ferdinand and a food columnist for the Guardian in London. "It was a Blue Nun-style secretary's-night-out drink, and that put me off it. But a couple years ago I had a cold bottle on a hot night, and it was marvelous."

Still, its reputation was hard to shake. Jay McInerney, the wine columnist of House & Garden, compared rose to Jackie Collins novels and Jerry Bruckheimer movies in this month's column.

"There was a sense that pink wine couldn't be serious," said McInerney, a rose fan, who has been trying to lead a revival for years. "People were afraid of looking unsophisticated by drinking rose. It wasn't red. It wasn't white. They didn't know what to do with it."

But now, among a certain group of global style setters, ordering rose is a sign of being in the know. Dropping the name of a Provencal rose like Domaine Tempier can be code for having recently frolicked in St.-Tropez or Cap d'Antibes, where rose accompanies leisurely seaside lunches. Even Pamela Anderson, in the days before she wed Kid Rock in St.-Tropez, was snapped by paparazzi on a yacht, a glass of rose in hand.

"The South of France holds a place in people's hearts and psyche as this cool jet-set place," said Jennifer Rubell, the author of Real Life Entertaining. "Ordering a bottle of rose back in the US is a subtle sign of belonging to that world."

Devotees praise its light, refreshing flavor, one that complements food and tastes best very cold, even iced. Recent converts say you can sip it all night without getting too drunk or suffering a bad hangover.

"A lot of my friends don't want to get wasted on vodka and be sick the next day," said Greg Krelenstein of the MisShapes, a group of three influential Manhattan party promoters and DJs, who tasted rose for the first time this summer. "And everybody's off the speed drinks like Spark. I've bought rose for people, and they've been excited to drink something that's not going to make them crazy like tequila."

On a Tuesday night late last month, rose was flowing at restaurants across downtown Manhattan, including Freemans, Lil' Frankie's, Uovo, Grape and Grain and Little Giant.

At the Spotted Pig the most requested label, Friedman said, is Domaines Ott, which has become the trendsetter's rose of choice since it was bought by Champagne Louis Roederer, the maker of Cristal Champagne, two years ago.

Distribution of rose expanded from six states to 50, and sales have increased 150 percent this year in the US, said Xavier Barlier, the vice president for marketing and communication at Maisons Marques & Domaines, the US importer and marketer of Domaines Ott.

And at least according to those who buy and serve it, it is the most recognizable brand of rose, the top seller at both Sherry-Lehmann on Manhattan's Upper East Side and Union Square Wine, which was sold out by late last month.

"Domaines Ott is the 501 jeans of rose," said MacPherson, the hotelier, who discovered rose 20 years ago while vacationing on the Riviera.

"It's like a groundswell buzz name," said Friedman, who draws a comparison to the way Tommy Hilfiger clothing became popular in the rap world.

At twice the price of most roses, it is far from a bargain, said Lettie Teague, the executive wine editor at Food & Wine.

"An expensive rose is oxymoronic," she said. "Domaines Ott is good but not so significantly better than wines that are US$10 cheaper or half the price."

She suggested that Domaines Ott is "a good wine for those psychologically unprepared to drink rose, because it's so beautifully packaged and expensive."

She recommends Castello di Ama from Tuscany, which sells for about US$15, and Muga from Spain, which is about US$11.

Perhaps the best thing about rose is that no matter how trendy it gets, it will never overstay its welcome. When the weather cools, it gracefully disappears.

"The rule is it's pretty much rose exclusively all summer until the end of the season, around late September," MacPherson said. "By then we're all so rose-logged that we're happy to dry out for a while."