Sunday, February 19, 2017

How do you solve a problem like Prosecco?

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp (L) and Sergio Mionetto (R)
It’s one thing to try and grow a wine category into a monster. It’s another thing to hold onto it once it has grown so big that it’s impossible to wrap one’s hands (or mind) around the giant it has become. Prosecco has become such a monster. And now Prosecco is at a critical crossroads.

It was not quite 30 years ago when I first spied a Prosecco on a distributor's inventory print-out. It was a simple wine, barely sparkling. Frizzante was the term used to describe it. I was curious, and did a little research, pre-internet style. At the time, Prosecco was very popular in Venice. There were two styles, slightly scintillating and full blown sparkling. This version I had in my hands had passed from effervescent to prostrate, almost comatose. Inotherwords, a close-out. I poured the wine down the drain and moved on.

A few years later, Prosecco resurfaced. No longer frizzante, Prosecco was a fairy tale wine, fostered by the glitterati of Venice, sipping their sparkling Bellini’s at Harry’s while waiting for their ship to come in. It was the story marketers told time and again. And the boat was heading to America.

And then 9/11 happened. And the USA went to war with anyone who didn’t agree with their world view. French fries were replaced by Freedom fries and Champagne was replaced by Prosecco.

A few years after 9/11 there was another upheaval, which spread from Wall Street to all over America’s Main Streets. And we all fell into a financial crisis, the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since the 1930’s. Fortunes were wiped out. Worse than that, small savings and retirement accounts of ordinary people. America, once again, was reeling. High priced wines were a thing of the past. Bordeaux sank. And once again, Champagne was out of sight for many bubbly lovers.

It’s been eight years since then and the world economic crisis has subsided, for now. America’s taste for Prosecco, while it has grown astronomically, has entered into a new phase. It has become a colossus, but it also has nowhere left to go. It’s kind of like King Kong on top of the Empire State Building.

From this perch, it’s a big problem for many small producers. There’s no more room for them. And more keep coming, like refugees out of Syria, hoping for a better life in a new world. And they keep coming and coming, and there is no shelf space place for them (Prosecco, that is).

I see it all the time. An importer loses a top brand and they create their own label, hoping to fill the pipeline from the relationships they have forged over the years. A producer, having outgrown their capacity for Prosecco production, turns to a generic sparkling version, and offers it on tap as sparkling Glera. Not a bad idea. And far too many conjure up a rosé version of Prosecco (and no, by law they cannot call it rosé Prosecco on the label) and push it out at all costs (usually a low-ball one, after the wine languishes in the warehouses too long).

But the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the success story. Never have I seen a category so overtaken and dominated in the market since the St. Margherita Pinot Grigio phenomenon. In fact the domination is so totally overwhelming that I have tried to advise hopeful producers to bypass the American market. The gates are closed; the wall has already been built. And the Prosecco that owns, by my reckoning, 45% of the market, La Marca, controls the category. Twice as much in dollar sales than Veuve Clicquot (so, yes Prosecco is also winning the Euro-bubbles war in America). And more than André, which for years had been a low-end but top selling bubbly in the USA. La Marca still trails behind Korbel, Barefoot and Cooks, but the Tiffany Blue label also grew 42% in the last 12 months, with no sign of slowing. It’s only a matter of time.

I’m not kidding. It’s over folks, pack up your sample bags and head out. There’s nothing to see here. We have a winner, both in popular and in electoral votes. And the winner is La Marca. Stick a fork in it – it’s done.

Right about now, contrarians are shaking their heads, saying Big Wine is the enemy of the people, clamoring that Colfondo is the darling of the resistance. Already on Etsy, they are knitting “Make Glera Great Again” hats, readying for marches on New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

Look, I love a producer like Ca' dei Zago – was one of the first to blog about it five years ago. Christian Zanatta is going to be fine. (According to this truth-adjacent blogger he makes the best selling Prosecco in the world). Back here on earth, he does make a great product, full of character and verve. But the intermediate producers, the large producers, the private labels as well? Sorry Charlie, the world has decided that Prosecco just has to taste good. And La Marca has nailed that for the masses – which is what the strategy for Prosecco has been, all along. They wanted to make a “Champagne for the people.” Something approachable, unintimidating and accessible, both in general appeal of flavor and in value. The masterminds at Gallo did all that and adorned it with a Tiffany Blue label – it looks expensive – guerrilla marketing at its pinnacle. Yeah, King Kong has a very big ding dong. And isn’t that exactly what many people try to do when they dream up a wine? They want to build it into a massive brand. Not all. But it’s part of the American Dream. To be successful, maybe even get rich. Hey, maybe we can’t all get there, but for under $15.00 we can slip into a Tiffany bubble and dream a little dream.

To all my Prosecco producing friends and colleagues out there. La Marca has won. The war is over. Pack up - go home. We don’t need another Prosecco. Not now. We have other pressing problems to deal with, for the moment.

Like Astisecco?

Nah, just kidding…although the Martini and Rossi folks might have something to say about that. After all, they trail (in the Nielsen’s) behind La Marca and Cupcake as the #3 brand in the Italian sparkling category.

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