Like a lot of wine writers, I’ve been drinking rosé lately. It’s that time of year, early summer: Rosé season is upon us, and wine writers are supposed to be out in front of the pack. And after tasting perhaps two dozen dry rosés in the last two weeks, I’m struck both by their value—you can get a very good bottle for under $15—and by the deep persistence of the “pink” problem. The latter issue came to mind mostly because of my various guests; almost everyone who drops by my house at a reasonable drinking hour gets a comparative wine tasting forced upon him or her, as I pull out the bottles I want to taste and seize the chance to hear how another palate reacts to the same phenomena. In this case, guest after guest—and I’m just talking about family members and the odd friend—confessed to expecting the wine to be sweet. Even my father, who spends a month in France with my mother every summer, said that he was surprised to find himself liking the rosés cluttering my kitchen island. Then, curiously, he commented that one of the bottles, from Bieler Père et Fils, tasted like Provence.

“That’s the taste of Provence,” is how he put it, I believe. “Right there in that bottle. That’s every night in Provence, in the summer.”

So this is a guy who has consumed and enjoyed rosé right in its heartland, night after night, and yet while standing in his own son’s kitchen he still expects it to be sweet. Here’s my theory: Even those of us who fancy ourselves somewhat alternative, shopping at farmers’ markets and avoiding white Zinfandel sold in boxes, inhabit a profoundly media-saturated American food environment. And in that environment—in advertising and on supermarket shelves and in the food aisles and drink coolers of every gas station minimart in North America—pink is a primary color, a color with meaning. And that meaning is very simple: It says, “This food is very sweet.” Pink popcorn, pink lemonade, pink soda, pink candy of all kinds—American food manufacturers simply don’t make food pink unless they want to signal sweetness.

The same goes for the metaphorical sweetness of nonfood items: Anybody who has ever known anybody who has ever had children knows that pink is the universal color of hyperfemininity. Dolls, clothes, toys—pink is a deliberately chosen, added quality, meant to indicate sweetness and girliness and nothing else, ever. (Nor would any American company ever call something by a French word spelled like rose if it didn’t want that product to be perceived as fancy and feminine.)

So even if rosé in America hadn’t been historically sweet—which it has, at least in the cheap, domestically produced iterations—we could all be forgiven for thinking that any pink beverage was bound to be sweet. That’s a lot of semiotic clutter, and yet it’s all utterly misleading. Pink is not, after all, a primary wine color, distinct from red and white. Nor is it an additive. Rather, pink, in the case of wine, is more of a light red. If red wine is metaphorically masculine, and white wine metaphorically feminine, then rosé falls somewhere in between. And it drinks that way: cool and dry, with a freshness to the fruit, and yet backed up by a hint of tannins that come from the red grape skins. In fact, if men could only start thinking of rosé as the reddish white wine, sales would probably spike accordingly. How to market that idea, naturally, I’ll leave to somebody else.

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