Sunday, January 15, 2017

Is Italian Wine in Danger of Dying from Natural Causes?

I’ve just spent an afternoon looking at Nielsen wine sales reports for America. The exercise came as a response to a colleague who told me “Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is dead, nobody drinks it anymore.” Oh, yeah? Is that so?

Yes, so many of us pound our stake in the ground, set up our tent, seal off a cordon, and spend our careers in our little bubbles.

There are the mega-brand marketers (think Constellation with Ruffino or Treasury with Gabbiano) who look at the metrics for brand success and work to fill a channel (retail, supermarkets, big box, national restaurant chains) and who won’t stop until they make their number, which every year, the growth percentage goal is bigger than any measly GDP projection for the US.

And there are the family owned dynasties, like Banfi and Gallo, who have also built huge brands out of nothing. La Marca now controls 80+% of the Prosecco market in America, by my reckoning. That’s, relatively, an overnight success for the brand. Lambrusco was, at one time, king of the hill. It’s still a monster, just not a mega-monster like it once was.

A few years ago, the Riboli family in Los Angeles, brought in a little known wine as part of their importing wing of San Antonio Winery, a wine called Stella Rosa. It started as a red wine; highly fruited (some might even say it is sweet). Not very many marketing people gave it much hope. Boy, were they wrong. In the Top 10 Italian wine brands (in sales revenue) for 2016, Stella Rosa topped La Marca, Cupcake (yes, it is also a huge Italian brand), Cavit (some people still like to drink out of a 1.5 “jug”), Ruffino (who now also has a Prosecco and is doing very well), Martini & Rossi (oh, did you think sweet Asti Spumante was also dead? Wrong again!), Riunite (still in the Top 10). Rounding out the Top 10 is Santa Margherita, Ecco Domani and Roscato (another sweet red).

And there are those that fall into the natural wine genre, who are totally in another camp. The common perception is that there is relatively no brand building to do, for the idea of a brand is counterproductive to the aura of small, hands on, artisanally crafted wine. But don’t kid yourself, there is brand building being done there too. It’s just done with guerilla marketing tactics, small budget, relationship-driven and peer-influenced. Just take a look at Arianna Occhipinti’s Instagram page and see how much sway she wields with her posts. And by the way, good for her, she has found a way to do what her heart tells her, and grow and become successful, without “selling out.”

My point (which I just spent 440+ words getting to) is that there is no “one-way” with Italian wine. While we might spend a lot of time wailing and gnashing our teeth over the definition of natural wine, there are people who are making their wine, naturally, according to how they view the world and are trying to get other people to drink it. Just like the folks at Santa Margherita (well, not exactly “just like” those folks).

Italian wine hasn’t died from natural causes (or any other causes). In my view of things it is still in its infancy. It’s been a great childhood, for certain. Lots of love and attention. A few falls along the way. But we’re now past the age of reason for the child. Italian wine is walking, talking, and has taken on an independent streak. But, like all things Italian, it’s complicated. The one-way approach doesn’t exactly jive with those who prefer self-determination. Along with that, whether we want to admit it or not, we are entering an age of uncertainty. Look, all political positions aside, nobody knows what is going to happen with world events, And America is like the little kid with the firecracker, going around to the picnic party and setting off little blasts left and right. It’s kind of in the nature of America as we know it (maybe not as the indigenous people knew it or even think of it now, but with those who have the codes to the ICBM’s in Montana). Most definitely, we are now a nation and a culture of moving forward, albeit sometimes unpredictable and often disruptive. “Pass the M-80’s, please” could be the underground anthem of Italian wine marketing in America, from the big bombers to the lone wolfs. It surely fits the cultural climate of America. And it works with the Italian sensibility as well.

I love it. There is never a dull moment when it comes to trying to get Italian wine into the hands (and glasses) of Americans. You want it sweet? We’ve got it. Dry, no problem. Red? We have lakes and lakes of the stuff. White? Hell, yeah! Rosé? Who do you think the French learned about rosé from? Expensive? We can do that? You want it cheap? How low do you want to go? Rare? Can do! Mass appeal? We’ve got your deal! Anything and everything.

Eventually Italian wine might pass away from natural causes (but definitely not caused by natural wine). Yeah, things do pass. But Italian wine is just beginning to get its grounding in the world. And that might be something that will help save Italy in the coming generations. I sure hope so; I know I’ve done my part to help these last 30+ years, for better or worse. Italian wine is not dead - just going from being a little kid to being a teenager. In transition - but in a lively manner - ala Italiana.

As it turns out, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is also “not dead,” and it continues to command a huge share of the fine wine (retail and restaurant) market. The leadership at Santa Margherita, recently having divested their long term relationship with Terlato (who, ostensibly played a huge part in making Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio the mega-brand that it has become) and who now import the wine with their own dedicated team, also announced recently that they would be bringing another of their properties into their camp, Ca Del Bosco. Look out Franciacorta - did you just feel the earth move beneath your feet?

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Maurizio said...

Great, Alfonso.

Victoria De Maio said...

As always an excellent and insightful view of Italy and wine. Grazie!

Athalia said...

Italian wine is still in its infancy. I am such a fan of Italian wines no matter what.

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