You can tell it’s summer at SMAK Wines because the back patio has been transformed into a beach setting.
The couches that were side by side against the inside wall during spring at the Piper Avenue tasting room have been turned back-to-back in a flirty rearrangement at the cheery yellow building of the Airport District’s incubator village.
Minus the traditional signs of the season — the blazing sun of a blue sky in June, for instance — furnishings and décor are a surefire way to tell what time it is in a tasting room that redefines the “rosé all day” movement. Here, rosé is embraced every day of the year. And even though there are versions for the seasons, you can get any of them whenever you want.
The model for Fiona Mak, the maven behind Walla Walla’s first and only rosé-exclusive winery, is another step in the movement around a wine that until recent years hadn’t been taken quite as seriously in the Valley known for signature reds. Or many other places, for that matter.
That’s changing, said Mak, whose tasting room officially opened in February.
Anecdotally, the growth in the market is easy to spot. Waterbrook Winery two months ago celebrated its fourth annual Rosé Partay, a celebration of the wine in partnership with 25 Pacific Northwest wineries for a massive selection.
Early this month Walla Walla winemaker Charles Smith hosted his third annual Jet City Rosé Experience, a curated tasting of more than 25 rosés from wineries primarily from the Pacific Northwest.
Mak believes one potential reason for the rosé boom is price. The more accessible price point — between $16 and $19 for bottles of her three offerings — opens a door to rosé that can also open eyes.
Misconceptions around the wine as being sweet, and confusion around the difference between affordable and cheap are debunked, along with the notion that all rosé is made by blending red and white wines.
Nationally, rosé has been on the rise. According to Nielsen data, it was the largest growth driver in American wines sales in 2018. More than $142 million in sales were recorded in the category last year.
French rosé, the information showed, is the second largest category by dollars for imported wine, behind prosecco.
Many of the rosé wines made in Walla Walla are done in the fashionable southern French style, said Sabrina Lueck, instructor of enology at Walla Walla Community College’s Institute of Enology and Viticulture.
Mak is among those inspired by the French Riviera, where she spends time each year and from where many of the tasting room’s decorative pieces originated.
After growing up in Hong Kong, she came to the U.S. and graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in hospitality management. While managing Manhattan steakhouse Quality Meats she earned her certified sommelier title.
In 2013 she moved to Walla Walla for the Enology and Viticulture program and eventually joined custom crush facility Artifex in full-time lab management. That’s where the idea struck for her rosé-centric winery.
The rise of rosé, Mak said, has had much to do with consumer education, as well as access to quality blends.
Acreage used for rosé is impossible to measure since the grapes used to make them are the same ones grown for other varietals and blends.
But anecdotally, more wineries are producing more rosés, and more of them are doing it better, said Tim Donahue, director of winemaking at Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture.
When he arrived in 2010, Donahue said a cluster of students wanted to make a rosé. So they tried it. The first year it was good. “Every year after that, the students were more and more interested,” he said.
They’ve made rosé with grapes from Grenache to pinot gris, the latter getting its copper tinge “by letting the juice soak on the pale purple skins for about 24 hours before fermentation,” according to a description of the 2018.
Sleight of Hand Cellars co-owner and winemaker Trey Busch has been making rosés for at least 15 years.
The Magician’s Assistant is a single-vineyard cabernet Franc from Blackrock Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Under his second label, Renegade Wine Co., he also produces a Rhône-based rosé. But it’s rosé made as part of the Underground Wine Project in partnership with Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery that has taken off.
“And Why am I Mr. Pink,” the sangiovese-dominant rosé made with a bit of syrah and whose name was inspired by the Steve Buscemi character in “Reservoir Dogs” is at 33,000 cases this year.
For perspective, Sleight of Hand makes 10,000 cases of 12 different wines annually.
Mr. Pink started simply with about 1,000 cases that sold out in the Seattle market in less than two months in 2015. The next vintage, they made 3,000 cases with a similar result. The next time it went up to 11,000 cases.
The wine also grabbed the attention of Whole Foods, which seriously leveled up the distribution. Now, the wine is available in 42 states, in stride with the grocer’s footprint.
“Most wineries win Walla Walla are thinking of it as a seasonal wine,” said Busch, whose Sleight of Hand production of The Magician’s Assistant is about 500 cases. “But when we create a brand like Mr. Pink that’s a year-round, on-the-shelf-all-the-time wine. The idea is to get people thinking about rosé as serious wine.”
Production goes much faster than with classic reds — another appeal to its production with a turnaround time of just a couple of months and a subsequent quicker return on investment, too. But it requires finesse.
For Mak the approach is a direct press and separation of the juice from the skin, seeds and stems for what she seeks as a “true expression of the fruit from when it was picked.” Tannins in the skins, she said, weigh down the wine.
“For me, aroma is more important than color,” she said. “It’s harder to extract and it’s faster to disappear.”
Her rosé vision also allows her a different pace in the wine industry. She can make the wine in September that she’ll sell in February. For her first year she produced 185 cases of the spring rosé made with Sangiovese; 475 cases of summer rosé made with pinot gris; and 215 cases of the fall/winter rosé made with a syrah blend. For 2020, she imagines a sparkling winter rosé.
In the meantime, she’s spreading the word through tastings at her incubator facility, where beach hats on wall hooks and Adirondack chairs celebrate the summer vibes of the crisp refreshing wine.
“I think the interest in rosé is just going to go up,” she said.