“Michèle always says the nicest things,” Melinda Kearney observes with a soft smile. The mother-and-daughter winemaking duo behind Lorenza Rosé have dialed into a Zoom interview with TZR and it’s the first of several heartfelt exchanges between the two throughout the conversation. It’s also one of many indicators that their business partnership is, in countless ways, a unique one.
Michèle Lorenza Ouellet and her mother Melinda founded the company in 2008, but the brand’s origins go back further. “I grew up in Napa Valley immersed in the food and wine industry,” Ouellet says. She was raised next door to Mustards Grill, an iconic restaurant in the valley for over 30 years and her parents, both in the wine and restaurant worlds, came to Napa for business just before she was born. “At 15, I was scouted to become a model and was sent to Paris and that’s where I discovered rosé,” she adds.
At that time, in the United States, rosé’s cloying associations with white zinfandel meant that very few restaurants were serving it, and not many people (if any) were taking it seriously. “When I was growing up it wasn’t really part of the culture like it is now. And so when I was in Paris and everyone was having rosé at lunch during our shoots, I was like this is it, I am in love with this wine. It just really sparked something in me and incited an emotional response,” Ouellet says. The wine in question was a dry, crisp rosé crafted in the Provençal style — vibrant acidity, low alcohol, and a pale pink hue.
“So, I came back thinking, I’m fabulous, I’m French, I drink rosé,” she jokes. “But what it really did was spark an idea between my mom and I to create something together a few years later when I was closer to 21. It was a way for us to stay connected and a way to do something that’s very grounded, connected with the earth and the seasons, and of course, connected with my family and my home in California.”
It was to Melinda’s delight that her young daughter returned with a motivated interest in the family business. “It was such a great idea for passing down some information and something that we could do together,” Kearney says. “There were some timing issues — like her being 16 [laughs]. So, we put it on pause for about five years and when she was 20 we picked the first grapes and made the wine and then released it when she was 21.”
Fast forward to now and not only is Lorenza Rosé a well-regarded success, but the wine category as a whole is booming. “Obviously rosé is everywhere now, it’s a total staple. But back then, it was like, you girls are absolutely crazy, you’re only going to make rosé? It was an interesting choice and I’m really glad that we did what we were passionate about,” Ouellet says. The introduction of crisper styles of rosé (like Lorenza’s) plus an ongoing fascination with French culture are major factors that play into this wine’s success — but it didn’t come easily. “We wanted to change people’s perceptions about what a California rosé could be,” Ouellet says. “There was a lot of education especially on the consumer side in those early years. But then, of course, boom — everyone loves rosé now.”
Like all other small business owners, Ouellet and Kearney wear a lot of hats. “During harvest, it’s all hands on deck,” Ouellet says. Those are some of her favorite days she tells TZR, with long, tiring, and ultimately rewarding hours in the vineyard and in the winery. “We have complementary skill sets,” Kearney says. “Michèle has an amazing palette, by the way. And she’s just super talented. I really admire her and need her in our business.”
As it turns out, Ouellet feels similarly about her mother. “I think of my mom as a boss — I’m so inspired by her,” she says. “Also, everyone falls in love with my mom. When we’re out on the road everyone is just so in awe of her; she has so much expertise in this industry and everyone respects her so much and she is just … she’s a queen! I love her.” It’s this kinship and admiration that's bonded the two together for the last (almost) 15 years through Lorenza Rosé. “Michèle is extremely bright and very balanced and wise — extremely wise with affairs of the heart, friendship, and human interaction,” Kearney explains. “She’s a multifaceted person.”
Some of their fondest times together are those aforementioned long days in the vineyard during harvest. “I have a very vivid memory,” Kearney says. “We had been picking all night and the sun had come up and we were covered in dust and dirt and were walking down an avenue between the vines toward the car and I looked at her and just said, can you believe what we do? We are the most lucky.” Their hard work, she shares, has always been in pursuit of something bigger. “I always think about how many glasses of wine we’ve created in 15 years and the intention — sometimes it’s love, sometimes it’s connection, but we always have a theme each year and it helps to bring focus to our work.”
“I can’t imagine doing it with anybody else,” Ouellet says of her partnership with her mother. “It is unique. Not everybody can work with their mom or their daughter and it is those times when we're pushed to the limit of exhaustion or whatever and I’m just always so happy to have my mom by my side in those times when you can just relax, go eat a burger, or get in the hot tub. Those are great memories.”
Though harvest won’t be for another several months, the Lorenza Rosé gang is still enjoying previous vintages for Mother’s Day with a range of delicious bites (fun fact: rosé is an extremely versatile food-pairing wine). “I love Lorenza with a crudo, it's just the perfect thing,” Ouellet shares. “We made a scallop crudo the other day with Shiso leaves and shaved frozen strawberries and that was absolutely insane.” She’s also been spotting shishito peppers at the farmer’s market lately, another fun small bites idea. “I get a cast iron skillet super hot and blister them with oil and flakey sea salt and it's the perfect salty snack,” she adds. “We love pairing Lorenza with things that are salty and maybe a little bit spicy. And a dry rosé like Lorenza can literally pair with anything, so the world is your oyster — I mean, have it with oysters!”
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