Michele Ouellet is taking back the wine list, one chicly labeled, screw top bottle at a time
Hanging out with Michele Ouellet is kind of like playing hooky from work and heading for the beach; you just want an endless day basking in her beauty and warmth. She’s wearing a black ruffled dress, worn-out Vans and a snugly-fit baseball cap over tousled locks – it’s the kind of inimitable cool-girl style we go crazy for. Chances are, you’ve seen the 29-year old model’s face everywhere from J.Crew to Madewell, plastered on the side of a Soho building or popping up in your news feed as her cheeky insta-ego @kissser. Chances also are, you’ve sipped a glass of her very dry, very delicious California wine, Lorenza Rosé.
Michele grew up in St. Helena, part of Napa Valley, California’s notorious wine region. Though her parents worked in the food and beverage industry, vintner was never on her horizon. She was scouted by a modeling agency at the age of 15, and thus began a career that took her globetrotting to Paris, where she first discovered the blush-hued beverage. “That was when I first was like, ‘Whoa. This is the best.’ And my mom was like, ‘Chill out. I hope you come back.’” She did; wine-drunk-in-love with a traditional French rosé, and inspired to make her own on her home turf.
Along with her mother, Melinda Kearny, Michele started Lorenza in 2008. The mother-daughter duo was early in their promotion of a rosé-only brand, before the category had really gained traction. But, the bonding experience has turned out to be quite fruitful. Nine years later, they’re still going strong; with laid-back branding and a feminist flair that screams 2017. These lovely ladies are democratizing rosé, one chicly labeled, screw top bottle at a time. We talked to Michele about everything from her all-girl grape picking crew, to women taking back the wine list. It was a good time.
COOLS: What’s the process like making wine?
Michele Ouellet: We make rosé in the true rosé method. What most people were doing in California before we started, and before this kind of ‘rosé renaissance’, was a saignée method, which is to bleed. Normally people would take their red wine, their moneymaker (like a pinot noir), do a first press of that, and put that in a tank, [and] call it rosé. That would intensify the rest of the juice and grape that was left in the press for their red wine; which is their more important [product]. So it’s basically a byproduct of red wine, and it wasn’t made with anything in mind other than their main focus. We wanted to focus completely on rosé, which means that we harvest the grapes super early. We like it to be really dry, low alcohol, not sweet at all, light acidity, light color – all of [that]. If you wait too long, you’re not gonna get any of those things. It’s around mid-August when we normally start. Actually, every year, it’s been getting a week earlier, so you can kind of see climate change in action. I’ll try to fly home for it, but it’s always fashion week, it’s always something. I’ll have a shoot, and be like “I’m going to go straight home.” I was in Bolivia this year, and [my mom] was like, “They’re coming in!” I was like, “No!”
COOLS: Do you pick the grapes yourselves?
MO: We have awesome crews that come. It’s a full on job; you gotta be like a machine. But what’s really cool is that in some of the vineyards, we have all girl crews. They’re really awesome. We love working with the girl crew; they rock. We make the wine in Lodi. It’s two hours from Napa. It’s been nice to work out there. It’s very different from Napa, which is very chichi and everything’s manicured. We wanted to work with old vines, and we wanted to work with some certain varietals. Basically, do a traditional style rosé, and you need a few different types of grapes that we weren’t finding enough of. More so Carignan, and Grenache. And so out to Lodi we went. It’s not glamorous; it’s kind of like the Wild West. We found these ancient vines over there. It’s really sandy soil, and so disease can’t live in [there]. These vines can grow for ages. One of the vineyards we work with, it’s called the Bechtold Vineyard , and it’s pretty much the oldest in California.
COOLS: Was it a challenge picking up the technical language, or was that something you always knew about?
MO: Growing up in Napa, you sponge a lot, because the only thing that’s going on is wine. You kind of learn about the workings of how it all goes down. But there was definitely a learning curve when I started going out and selling the wine. I was really uncomfortable doing it for a long time, because I was really young. I was 21 by the time it came out. People were like “You’re not even allowed in this wine shop.” I was like “I have an appointment!” And selling rosé, nobody was really interested except for a handful of excellent people who understood what we were trying to do from day one. So we’ve always had some really excellent restaurant placements, and it’s been really nice to have that kind of support for a small brand.
COOLS: Do you think now in the age of social media, when building a business is so different, has that affected the way you run things?
MO: Yeah. And I think that that’s just kind of natural for our generation, to be like ‘Oh. Well this could be useful for that.’ But Lorenza is not really a normal wine brand, and we don’t want it to be. It was unusual for us to start out only making rosé. Everybody in wine country was like ‘cool business model…Like, that’s not what you do.’ We don’t really care about how things are done. We want to do it all our own way. I think our marketing is unique also, and my other job influences things of course. We like to have nice imagery, and have fun with it. It’s a $20 bottle of wine, and we treat it like liquid gold. It’s our baby. It’s accessible, and we want it to be shared, and not too precious. We take it really seriously, but rosé is fun wine. It’s screw cap; you can drink it in the park.
“It’s a $20 bottle of wine, and we treat it like liquid gold. It’s our baby. It’s accessible, and we want it to be shared, and not too precious.”
COOLS: Does your work as a model ever dovetail with Lorenza?
MO: It totally does. And I think that’s a big part of why people want to work with me. Bring wine to all the shows, top it off. But I think that’s been the trend for a while now. People are interested in [models] doing something else; not just [being] one-dimensional. You don’t want to hang out with anybody too boring all day. Wine is something super different, and not many people in the fashion business even think about wine. I think there are a few crossovers, but for me it’s been my experience that it’s kind of separate. They’re both luxury industries, and can be super fabulous in [each] of their ways. But it’s really funny. The wine nerds are not going to be in head to toe Céline, and the Céline girl is not going to be spending money on wine. [But,] I think it’s important. My mom and I are always advocating for women to take care of the wine list. I don’t know, when you go out to dinner, do people give you the wine list? (Asking me, a woman. I shake my head ‘no’) Yeah, exactly, what is that? Watching my mom when I was growing up, she would just take care of it. And I was like, ‘That’s so cool.’ I think that it’s a nice turning of the tables. But, I think also it’s cool to buy a case of wine, and have it in your house and know that, ‘Oh, you’re going to something? Here, this is what I have.’ And I know it’s always going to be good.
COOLS: You’re probably the go-to wine girl among all your friends:
MO: A lot of my friends are from Napa too. So, it’s a balanced thing. We all learn things together. But outside of the Napa crew? Always. It’s been like “Give the list to her!” Which is cool and nice, and then I get to pick something out. It can be awkward, and it is so much pressure. You’re like “Are these people wild style, or do we gotta keep it safe?” It’s fun. At the end of the day, it’s a beverage, and it shouldn’t be anything to stress about. I like to bring it down to earth, because I think wine can be such an intimidating thing if you don’t know about it. It just can instantly make you feel really stupid or insecure. If you mispronounce something, or thought a red was a white. I think there’s a lot of that happening now with younger people in the wine business. There’s this really cool girl named Marissa Ross, she’s the wine writer for Bon Appétit. She’s super fresh, and has a really nice perspective, and keeps it real. You know, you don’t have to be a rich old guy to like wine and to know what you’re talking about. So I’m into that.
“At the end of the day, it’s a beverage, and it shouldn’t be anything to stress about. I like to bring it down to earth, because I think wine can be such an intimidating thing if you don’t know about it.”
COOLS: What’s the perfect pairing with Lorenza?
MO: Dry rosé is the most versatile, you can really go anywhere with it. [But the perfect pairing is] fries. I could live off of that. The other night I made gazpacho, and that was so good with the wine. There are these tacos from a place called Gotts in Napa Valley; Ahi poke tacos, and they’re crispy and crunchy and heaven.
COOLS: Do you ever see yourself moving back to California?
MO: Yeah. I’m thinking about it right now. I can’t not!