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The Perfect Rosé in Provence

Here was my fantasy: to create the perfect summer wine, something decent, light, and drinkable with anything, everything, or nothing. I wanted it to be inexpensive enough to keep around by the case, refreshing enough to hit the spot on a hot summer day, and attractive enough to put on the table at lunches that go on until sundown. I wanted it for myself and for my friends. I wanted to serve it at parties for my first book, Real Life Entertaining, which is all about doing things with plenty of style but no pretense or fuss. And in the end, I wanted it to be available to everyone else too. Since I’m already making it, I reasoned naïvely, I might as well sell it.

Over the past several months, my fantasy wine has come into being. Through a friend, I found a producer whose wine making I trusted (his Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine du Vieux Lazaret is reliably excellent) and who was also willing to do a 200-case batch for me (in the wine business, that’s minuscule). I procured an importer and a distributor. I sought—and gained—approval for the wine from the United States government, the French government, the state of New York (where I grew up), and the state of Florida (where my family’s hotel, the Albion, and art museum are located). I hired a company in New York to design the label (brilliant designers; no wine label experience), and slowly—it took many dozens of phone calls to various expediters, importers, and the winemaker himself—figured out all the necessary government-mandated wording. I discovered that printing wine labels to be used on a traditional bottling line is an art in itself, with plenty of its own rules (the grain must be horizontal; varnish is mandatory, for protection in shipping; self-adhesive and pressure-sensitive labels are newfangled no-no’s). All the while, the winemaker was creating the actual wine in France.

Now here I am at Domaine Houchart, a 220-acre vineyard with a tasting room and winery in the beautiful, tiny Provençal town of Puyloubier (population 1,319), walking through rows of vines with Jérôme Quiot, the man who has been making my wine.

At first, Quiot appears to be a Provençal cliché: dark hair, slightly crooked teeth, handsome, and friendly, with the sort-of-but-not-quite-American energy of a French pop song. Look a little closer, though, and there’s more to him than that. A fine red thread on the lapel of his cashmere jacket—the oh-so-subtle French symbol of knighthood in the Legion of Honor—is a clue that Quiot’s world is larger than this vineyard. As a matter of fact, his family is the largest landowner in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 60 miles to the northwest. (As Quiot tells it, his ancestors helped start the French Revolution because with the aristocracy in place, they’d never have gotten the choicest parcels of land.) But it was love—well, at least marriage—that brought Quiot to Puyloubier. His wife, Geneviève, née Houchart, was born and raised in these parts. Her family members are laced through this community on either side of the Route de Cézanne. Her father made a pact with God to build a church in nearby Palette if the town was spared during World War II, and there stands the church, on Place Houchard (the mayor’s office made a typo on the last letter). Mme. Quiot’s grandmother used to have Cézanne over for tea, but refused to buy his paintings, judging them to be of poor quality. Quiot’s son was married in town to a woman whose childhood home is just down the road. To this man, in this place, all geography is either biography or terroir. His land tells stories, and his land makes wine. And, though his land makes many different kinds of wine, I’m here for the rosé.

Yes, my search for the perfect summer wine has led me to Provençal rosé, one with that typical floral- and berry-infused bouquet and a dry, high-acid finish. After years of being pooh-poohed as the wine cooler of wines, and unaided by the ubiquity of sweet, flat, cloying white Zinfandel, dry rosé is starting to have its day. Serious restaurants, and seriously hip ones, across the country are putting it on their lists. Books are being written about it. And unlike the popularity of certain reds or whites, the newfound chic of rosé (proof: Sofia Coppola produces one) isn’t really about taste. It’s about a warm-weather way of life that’s easy, unpretentious, open, and ever-so-slightly tipsy. You don’t delicately sip a rosé and discuss the notes of fruit and leather. You pour it, drink it, eat something, drink some more, and then you take an afternoon nap. You can even drink it with a couple of ice cubes—heresy with other wines, fine with rosé.

In the vineyard, Quiot picks up a handful of earth and slowly lets it drop—is there some secret instructional video for winemakers that teaches them all to do this?—revealing the rich, dark, fertile soil where the grapes for my newly bottled rosé were grown. We walk for about a half-hour, with Quiot talking passionately about everything he does to ensure that these vines are happy. We start heading toward the winery, but Quiot suddenly stops. "Here," he says, waving dramatically at a smallish plot of land picturesquely dotted with trees, a small hut, and heavily scented ground cover, "is my petit bois."

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