WineInk: Charles Bieler’s Rosé Road Trip
Charles & Charles Rose 2018This wine from Washington’s Columbia Valley checks all of the boxes for the kind of wines Charles Bieler wishes to make. It is affordable, distinctive of a particular place on Earth and refreshingly delicious. Made from a number of red varieties including syrah, cabernet sauvignon, grenache and others, the grapes are grown at elevation exceeding 1,000 feet in the northern climes, picked in the cool of the night, and then immediately pressed. The combination makes for a treat in the summer heat.
Wine entrepreneur Charles Bieler planned on making a final left turn in his pink 1966 Cadillac de Ville onto Aspen’s Main Street on the eve of the Food & Wine Classic. The turn would complete his grueling 60-day, 3,000-plus mile “Rosé Road Trip” across America and coincide with the Classic’s opening.
Alas, while Charles will still make that turn, it took a sad early-June twist in Detroit when the beloved drop-top Caddy went up in flames in the town of its birth over a half-century ago. A faulty fuel filter totaled the car.
Despite the carnage, Bieler will still be celebrating the culmination of his trip as well as the first two decades of a career as one of America’s most innovative wine producers and marketers. He will simply make the turn into Aspen in a Winnebago rather than the pink Cadillac.
The 43-year-old Bieler has masterfully ridden a 21st-century wave that has been marked by enormous changes in the way consumers — especially younger consumers — think about and purchase wines. As a “value warrior” he has put fine wines in jugs, pioneered the use of “to-go” box wines with his Bandit brand and showcased the beauty of Washington wines with winemaker Charles Smith and their Charles & Charles label. He has also created a mezcal brand, Sombra, with former Aspen Master Sommelier Richard Betts, and been a force in the “Wine on Tap” movement as a co-founder of the Gotham Project.
A pretty full glass indeed.
But his greatest contribution to wine in America undoubtedly has come as a passionate pioneer of the rosé movement. Long before the now-ubiquitous pink wines came into fashion, Bieler was on the road selling — from the back of a pink Cadillac — rosé to an industry and a public that was simply not buying the notion that pink was cool. Or delicious for that matter. An argument can be made that Bieler, and the rosé wines that he has spawned, have been the catalyst for what has become the fastest growing category of wine sales among American consumers.
“In 1998 I was a Nordic skier at CU, trying to make a decision whether to stay on that path,” Bieler said in a phone interview as he cruised down a highway somewhere between Schenectady and Rochester, New York. “I had some injuries and was not sure it was possible. I was a senior and I got a call from my father, Philippe, asking for some help. He had purchased a winery in Provence, France (Chateau Routas), that made this exceptional dry rosé but no one was buying the wine.”
At the time, the only experience most American wine drinkers had with frowned-upon pink wines was the insipid pink zinfandel that was sold in bulk.
“So I thought about it a bit, put on my P.T. Barnum hat, went on eBay and found a ’65 de Ville. I bought three vintage pink suits, put some Routas in the car and hit the road. I had no idea about the wine business and had no idea how hard it would be to sell these wines,” he recalled with a laugh. With no distributor or wholesaler, most of Bieler’s calls were cold. “I would sell a case and it was a huge deal, but I would tell the buyer, ‘If it doesn’t sell I’ll buy it back.’ And we did have to buy some cases back.”
For three years, and with many breakdowns, Bieler plied the roadways of America selling rosé. But he was also learning about the business and discovered that he could have a go at the wine world. Perhaps because his inexperience offered him a blank slate, he began to formulate ideas that were outside the norm for what had previously been a pretty staid industry.
The Bielers sold Chateau Routas in 2005, but launched a new Provence rosé that year under the Bieler Pere et Fils (father and son) moniker that has been a sensational success. Beiler also makes rosé in America under the Charles & Charles and Bieler Family wines labels.
This year on April 15, Beiler filled up a new-to-him pink Cadillac de Ville in Seattle and hit the road for a 20th anniversary tour to pour wines for a country that has now embraced his pink vision. This odyssey has been quite different than the one he undertook two decades ago.
“This time we are booked everywhere we stopped,” he said. “We average five appointments per day and get started at 7:30 and don’t end up until after 8 or so each night. I haven’t spent more than five hours a night sleeping this whole trip.” And at each stop he finds those who have been converted to the Church of Rosé.
The trip began with a cruise down the West Coast, took a left turn across the southland through Texas and Louisiana and eventually Florida, before heading up the eastern seaboard. Highlights include a number of Stanley Cup playoff tilts (he’s a huge hockey fan) and a 7:30 a.m. gathering in the heat of the morning at Sam’s Po’ Boys in Metairie, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans.
“We met three big restaurant owners for breakfast and ended up breaking out the Sombra,” he recalled with a laugh.
The final leg in the de Ville, before the calamitous fire, was scheduled to run west across America to Aspen, a place where the New York City resident once lived and now spends a month or more each year. “I went to the CRMS as a senior in high school and Aspen is still my favorite place. I have rented a house here and will be in Aspen for most of the summer.”
Bieler’s sojourn left him with strong impressions of the land he traversed, largely top-down. “You know there is so much negative press out there but I feel great about America. I felt this car (the Caddy) just made people so happy everywhere we went. And when people are happy they let their guard down and just open up.”
RIP, pink Cadillac.
“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.