Based out of the Napa Valley, Melinda Kearney and her daughter, Michèle Lorenza Ouellet, have created a popular Provençal-style rosé wine called Lorenza. They also make a sparkling rosé in aluminum cans that is tantalizing and stylish, but since launching in 2008 the duo has maintained a laser focus on crafting a single type of wine — rosé. Their discipline and focus have consistently paid off, making their limited wines highly coveted by customers, wine retailers and top restaurant sommeliers.
A mother-daughter duo
Melinda grew up in Boulder, Colorado, before moving to Northern California in 1988 to work in the restaurant business. Eventually, she moved from restaurants to the wine business, working with wineries that included Frog’s Leap Winery and Star Hill. Today, with nearly 30 years of wine industry experience, she runs the day-to-day operations at Lorenza and also continues to consult for some of Napa’s most luxurious wine brands, often helping them launch their wines into a highly competitive marketplace.
“We’re based in the Napa Valley, and so there’s a seriousness and precision that comes with that,” Melinda said. “We were never going to make a wine that was an afterthought. We wanted to find an old-vine vineyard and create a distinct, traditional blend, but we also intended to create something that was fun and accessible — a wine that people could drink out at a fancy restaurant or in their backyards with friends.”
Beyond making a serious, yet fun, wine, the idea was also to provide the mother and daughter a way to stay connected, not only with each other but also with their friends, family and the region.
Michèle grew up in the Napa Valley surrounded by vineyards, food and wine. Her father ran Mustards Grill, a popular restaurant north of Yountville along Highway 29, and she attended St. Helena High School.
“Our house was right next to Mustards, and I spent a lot of time there just hanging out and loving the energy and buzz,” she said. “When I was about 8, I remember they had a coloring book that was really for adults. It showed the stages of winemaking, and I’d sit there coloring and learning about MOG.”
Material other than grapes (MOG) is a fairly common term used in winemaking for leaves, stems and anything else in the harvested grape bins and gondolas that isn’t a source of grape juice. For years, rumors of MOG in some larger operations have included everything from large insects, snakes and even car tires being found when sorting through the grapes prior to their being pressed.
At 15 years old — through a series of odd encounters and recommendations from friends in the business — Michèle was recruited as a fashion model, and she began traveling the world during the summers on photo shoots, spending time in Europe and New York. It was in France that she started her love affair with rosé.
“When I was in France, I told my mom about drinking rosé and loving it. She was like, ‘Cool, I’m glad you are having a ball in Europe, but I thought you were working,’ and I told her, ‘When in Rome,’” Michèle said. “But I found out that she [Melinda] loved rosé, too, and so when I turned 21 we launched our own brand.”
Since then, Michèle has continued her career as a model, splitting her time between New York and St. Helena, from where she helps her mother blend, design and sell Lorenza Rosé.
Their idea was to create an “intentional” California rosé that was not made as an “afterthought” like some rosé wines but instead picked, crafted and sold — from start to finish — as a rosé.
Rosé is a type of wine typically made from red-wine grapes produced in a similar manner to red wine but with vastly reduced time fermented with grape skins. This reduced skin contact gives rosé its pink hue and results in a lighter flavor than that of red wine. Rosé can also be made from saignée (the “bleeding off” of liquid from the must during winemaking to concentrate a red wine) or by making a white wine and then adding in a dash of color at the end from red wine. Although there are excellent rosés made through these other methods, many purists believe they are more of an afterthought or a way to increase cash flow. (Saignée often is just poured down the drain, and because rosé wines do not age in oak barrels they are less expensive to produce and can go to market quickly.)
Rosé is produced around the world and can be made from any wine grape cultivated in any wine grapegrowing region. Provence, France, however, is widely considered the epicenter. That’s where they make what’s known as Provençal rosé, which blends Grenache with other grape varieties such as Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Tibouren, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon. Next time you purchase a non-Provençal rosé, have a look at what grapes are included and you might be surprised to find anything from Sauvignon Blanc to Malbec playing the leading role.
Because of the vision and specific needs the two had regarding Lorenza wines, they knew they needed to source grapes from a vineyard outside the Napa Valley. Grapes from Napa County are often prohibitively expensive for making a relatively inexpensive rosé, and the grapes needed for the blending are often exceptionally rare or not even grown in the area.
What they found were some of the oldest remaining vineyards in California, including sources from the Bechthold Vineyard (planted in the mid 1800s) and Spenker Ranch (planted in the early 1900s). The Lodi region is known for its sandy soils and hot weather that often result in dense, vivid wines, historically producing higher-alcohol wines than cooler regions. That’s changing, with many vintners picking earlier and finding the diversity and longevity of many vineyards in Lodi lending themselves to a shifting consumer preference for different varieties and flavor profiles. However, picking red grapes in early summer in Lodi from vineyards that are more than 100 years old with grapes that might otherwise go into some dark, brooding red wine, can come as a surprise to many.
“When we pick the grapes in early August we used to get some pretty strange looks,” Melinda said. “The guys picking would look at us like, ‘Do these two women know what they are doing?’”
Today, those strange looks have likely been transformed into looks of admiration as Lorenza Rosé has grown in popularity and stature.
The wine brand’s name — Lorenza — is Michèle’s middle name. It is also the name of her grandfather, who she says was a “bon vivant” who would have enjoyed the brand’s sophisticated yet fun ethos.
The 2019 Lorenza Rosé ($22 per bottle) is made in the Provençal style with a blend of 34% Grenache, 29% Mourvedre, 26% Carignan and 11% Cinsault. This 11% alcohol wine was picked on Aug. 22 at a sugar level of 18 Brix. (Named after Adolf Brix, a German scientist, Brix — or more accurately degrees Brix — is the concentration of sugar in an aqueous solution. For context, 18 Brix is typical for low-alcohol white wines whereas red wines such as some popular Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons might be picked at 28 Brix or higher.) The 2019 Lorenza Rosé was made by pressing whole clusters, and the juice immediately transferred to cold stainless-steel tanks for settling, racking and fermentation. A few months later, the wine was bottled and ready for sale in early 2020.
The color of this wine is a shimmering pale salmon or what Michele calls “ballet-slipper pink.” The aromatics are of white peach, sumac, chalk and jasmine flower. On the palate, this wine is full of zesty Meyer lemon, apricot and seashell with a hint of hyssop in the finish. When I drank it on a warm summer afternoon, I longed for fresh oysters and clams accompanied by ramekins full of mignonette and chimichurri sauce.
The Lorenza Spritz ($22 for four cans, which is equal to 1 liter of wine or slightly more than a typical bottle of wine) is non-vintage. An injection of “effervescence” and a dash of sweetness make this blend of 80% Carignan and 20% Grenache both fun and refreshing. Unlike the rosé, this wine’s blends lean to a fruitier bent, with aromas of watermelon rind, strawberry, cranberry, kiwi, white pepper and rose petal. The packaging is slick and modern with a blend of 1960s-fashion sense meets an Airstream-travel-trailer sensibility. Stick a couple of cans in your backpack and surprise your partner on your next hike to a mountaintop.
The future is rosy
Lorenza Rosé was launched at a time when low-alcohol wines coming out of California were rare. Today the acceptance of such wines is growing as people find them a welcome alternative to some of the heavier and hard-hitting wines of the last couple of decades.
The growing popularity of rosé has led to a wave of new brands hitting the market recent years. Most of these originate from large corporate wineries that often use blending or saignée as their means to an end. Most of those wines are simple, slightly sweet and are of questionable quality. Lorenza on the other hand, is a decidedly rare California rosé — a blending of classically used wine grapes, picked early, created from start to finish as a rosé and designed, made and sold by a team of two. Will this brand ever become one you see on the grocery-chain store shelves? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly one that you should seek out and support.
“Our approach is intentional and disciplined but also fun — a true mother-daughter story,” Melinda said. “Our focus provides an opportunity to explore another side of the excellent vineyards we source from, and our hope is that our wines help people remember what matters, especially during these challenging times. What matters is to love and enjoy one another and to find creative, safe ways to come together.”
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