Sunday, June 06, 2021

10 Wines that Forever Changed the How the World Sees Italian Wine

From 8½ by Federico Fellini
Italy was once a forlorn country, vinously speaking. The wines were made haphazardly. The flavors were sometimes off, especially the white wines. They didn’t “travel” well to foreign countries. And the producers and the importers thought, in order to get a foothold in the market, that the wines had to be cheap. So they were. And, in the immortal words of Rodney Dangerfield, they “didn’t get no respect.”

We’re talking the 1960-70’s here, which is a universe away from the world we live in now. But to get from there to here took a revolution that hammered away at the commercial, cultural, logistical and financial worlds that prevailed. It was a long, slow climb to the top, where now Italian wine enjoys a reputation as one of the great wine producing countries of the world. No longer is Italy in the shadow of France, as it was when I started out. But it took some dogged determination, and the blood, sweat and tears of a diverse group of producers (and importers) in order to pull this revolution off. Here are ten of those fomenters who created a new reality for Italian wine, and changed forever how all of us see wine from Italy.

Martini & Rossi Asti

Asti Spumante, what? Who gives a hoot about cheap, sweet bubbly? I didn’t know that 2020 they sold over 4 million bottles in the USA. And during their peak, much, much more than that. Many folks haven’t even heard about Asti Spumante these days, but they sure know about Moscato D’Asti, which is a close relative to the famed bubbly. What Martini & Rossi did, along with the competition, which followed closely, was introduce America to a soft, enjoyable wine, kind of a training wheels for real Champagne. After all, in those days, Moet White Star wasn’t that much drier. But Italian style won the hearts without disenabling French Champagne to enjoy its ongoing tryst with sparkling wine lovers. (That is, until Prosecco arrived.)

Bolla Soave

Was it Bolla Soave? Or Soave Bolla? In my day as a server and a sommelier, most of the time the two words were interchangeable. People didn’t know the wine from the producer, which was a huge branding win for the Bolla family. They brought a light, soft, dry white wine to the American table. And in a day when Italian white wine production was not the most industrially advanced. But up in Conegliano there was a technical revolution in the works, for white and sparkling (hello? Prosecco) wines. And Bolla, being also in the Veneto, benefited directly from the early progress. The wine was also easy to get into, cost-wise, and many folks don’t know (or remember) but in the early to mid-1970’s the US was in a financial funk. Value mattered. And Bolla was all over the television and airwaves with their romantic advertising. They killed it. Bolla – the only name you needed to know.

Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio

To a lesser extent, Verdicchio, and Fazi Battaglia, benefited from the white wine revolution, from up the Adriatic coast in the Veneto. But this was a wine from the Marche region, so they were closer to their largest domestic market, Rome. In those times, Italy was experiencing a wave of tourism, especially from young Americans. And everyone came to Rome. With that sleek, sexy amphora bottle, and that light, dry, crisp style, it went well with pasta, fried foods and even pizza. And the tourists ate it up.

Back home, in America, Italian restaurants were desperate to find white wines from Italy. From Soave, to Frascati to Verdicchio, these were the early entrants onto the tables in Italian restaurants all over America.

I know the bottle shape had a lot to do with getting people to try the wine. But again, as a server and a sommelier in those early days, the stuff went down like water. It was nothing to sell 6 bottles to a table of four in an evening. Yeah, I know, now it sounds pretty irresponsible. But it was the late 1970’s and 1980’s, and the country was pulling out of the darkness of the Vietnam years and the sun was rising again in America. And Fazi Verdicchio was a shining star in the sky. My colleague Geralyn Brostrom, of Italian Wine Central, recently mused that Fazi might have been “Italy’s first white wine success internationally?”

Riunite Lambrusco

This was the “killer app” of all Italian wines at the time. I think at its peak, something like 20+ million (12 pack) cases a year were sold in America. Nowadays Barefoot in California sells that much, but now we have more wine drinkers (and much more competition too) than the wine industry had 40 or 50 years ago. Riunite was a phenomenon. That sounds so simple and calm, but it was anything at the time. Again, the wine was heavily advertised, and along with its cadre of competitors (Chill a Cella!) they blanketed the airwaves and TV ads with their commercials. And people drank the wine like it was holy water from Lourdes. Good lord, it was ubiquitous. And it made a fortune for the family that brought it into the US, the Mariani family, with their Banfi company, and set them on another journey of once in a lifetime achievement in Montalcino.

Antinori Tignanello

In reality, Tignanello is really the crown, or one of the crowns, of achievement for the Antinori family. And while this wine and obliquely, their other, earlier, family venture, Sassicaia, have taken on a life of their own in a smaller scale than any of the other wines we’ve so far covered, what Tignanello did was change the hearts and minds, and direction, of Tuscany and wine making in Italy. It was “the” Super Tuscan that found its way into the nooks and crannies of America’s Italian restaurants, American steakhouses and fine wine shops. It was the wine that people no longer shirked from laying out more than $25 for and gladly so. And it was a damn good wine. But the Antinori family had a stable of great performers, starting with their Santa Cristina red, and moving up in the lineup of products from their estates and vineyards. But I think it was “Tig” that became an iconic wine and a game changer, not just for the Antinori family, but for Tuscany, and by extension, Italian wine.

Gaja

That guy. Angelo Gaja. A firebrand. A visionary and a zealot, with a manic drive to uplift the image of Italian wine starting with his own. Geralyn Brostrom, who assisted me in this exercise, had this to say about Angelo Gaja: “He broke—I’d say—put “a crack in the Piedmont glass ceiling” (that is my own description for his pricing strategies) allowing Piedmont wines to command prices like that of Bordeaux and Burgundy.”

He broke it – we bought it.

It’s hard to look back and have the courage to accept that many of us might not have had the same hard-driving determination, and ego, that Angelo Gaja has had in his single-minded determination to make it to the top of the wine world. But there’s no denying that he made it to the summit and placed his wine there. And there it remains to this day.

You have to understand, it just wasn’t being done, prior to Angelo Gaja. That was the domain of French wine. And Angelo muscled his way in, and he was unstoppable. And he changed Italian wine forever.

Banfi Brunello

Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Join the club. Either side. It doesn’t matter. They made a mountain out of a molehill. And put Montalcino on the map.

But, but Biondi-Santi. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The reality was, Montalcino was a sleepy little backwater place and Banfi came in with their bulldozers and helicopters and woke the place up. Did they do good? Of course. Did they do harm? It depends on who you ask. But it really doesn’t matter at this point. Water under the bridge.

They ramped Montalcino up, brought it into the 21st century. And now Montalcino is where much great red wine of Italy, and some would say the world, comes from. And much of it stemmed from the profits from the sales of Lambrusco, the undaunted vision of a winemaker (who had an ego the size of Italy) and a family with money to burn in search of that all-too-elusive legacy.

They changed Montalcino. And then they changed the world.

Ruffino Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva (Tan and Gold)

I had this place in my wine closet where I stored wines. And for years they were all neatly in these cute little wooden boxes from Ruffino. The boxes came filled, originally, with Ruffino’s top-of-the-line Chianti Classico Riserva, the Ducale Oro or Ducale Gold, as we called it. One peg removed from it was their normal Riserva, the “Tan” label. And I saw thousands of bottles of both disappear from the wine racks, night after night, when I was working in the on-premise sector. It was like a game, trying to get folks to buy a bottle of Barbaresco or Gattinara in place of the “Tan.” But many folks were unyielding. They wanted their bottle of Chianti.

Geralyn Brostrom recalls, “I know that my aunt, who was a Navy nurse and traveled the world, and whom we thought we extremely ‘worldly’ once told me the Ducale Gold label was the only red wine she drank from Italy.”

The wine was good, and wholesome and serviceable, within the context of a menu at an Italian restaurant. And available. There was usually no problem with getting cases of the stuff. And to be perfectly candid about it, in those days, the supply chain wasn’t that great for Italian wine. But Ruffino was a powerhouse and it had big-time mojo. And because of that they made a dent. And while it might not have had the impact of a Riunite or a Martini & Rossi, we were entering into the age of “Americans who dined out a lot more than their parents.” And Ruffino was part of their aspirational stretch. I know, it sounds odd today, with so many choices and styles of wine, and with sommeliers leaning their guests into all kinds of places when it comes to Italian wine. But this was the beginning of the world, a few moments into the Big Bang. And it was all new. And Ruffino was there, like Yogi Berra at home plate just catching all the fast balls, calm and cool-like. Yeah, maybe not these days, or at least since the end of Tony Soprano, but they laid the groundwork for a lot of folks to come.

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio

This one. Who knew? Not in 1979, for sure. I remember the sommelier at my place of work, she had a case of white wine in the cellar. I asked her, “Hey, Sharman, what is that new Italian white wine?” She said, “The salesman got in a new wine and wants us, needed us, to take a case. It’s a Pinot Grigio from some winery called Santa Margherita.” And that was it. No bells. No whistles. No starting gun. Not even a bang. Just a salesman who had a quota and needed to make a sale. The rest is history.

This was the one that made Italian wine accessible to a wide-range of diverse people, with regards to the various economic strata and ethnic groups in America. In fact, Italian Americans might have thought the wine was too expensive for their pocketbooks in those early days. And there were a handful of knock-off brands to satisfy the demands of the most miserly. But Santa Margherita was a gateway wine for many folks not familiar with the Italian American experience.

It was Santa Margherita that set off the next wave of the Italian white wine revolution in the early 1980’s. And they did it with an import company, Paterno (and later named Terlato) which advanced a firm commitment to the on-premise sector of the wine trade. They were relentless in getting placements in every white tablecloth Italian dining spot in America. And then by telling the world about it. It was impressive. It was also a relentless drive, if you were part of the army dispatched to conquer that world. But they won. They won! Boy did they ever. And now, it’s part of history.

Prosecco

Remember all those monster movies where one monster battles with another one, like King Kong vs. Godzilla? Well, Prosecco is all the monsters rolled into one. It’s unimaginable where this monster came from. But it’s here now, to the tune of 48 million cases made and sold in 2018. 48 million cases! That’s more than double Riunite at its peak.

Now that’s spread out among many producers and wineries. But at the top of that heap is a wine called La Marca. Imported by Gallo, La Marca, when I was tracking those numbers (prior to 2019), accounted nationally for about 80% of the sales of Prosecco in the US. Not 80% of 48 million cases, 48 million being the world production. But a butt-load of bubbles, nonetheless.

I cannot tell you how long this conga line will go on, but Prosecco has only strengthened in the last year, and that was during a world-wide pandemic. So, it’s probably not going anywhere fast. You gotta love how the Italians reinvent wine every once in a while. And Prosecco is one colossal achievement.

Epilogue

Some of these wines may no longer be au courant, what with wine styles changing as they are. But, at the very least, they laid a foundation for many of the current darlings of the wine world, from orange wines to the lighter styles of Lambrusco. From the nervy whites of Alto-Adige to the waves of fizzy Moscato (and Brachetto) that wash up on our shores. The Italian revolution is still in play. It’s just with a younger and more vivacious team of players. But these original, starry-eyed visionaries set the dream in motion and changed the world. And for that, many of us are grateful.   

From 8½ by Federico Fellini
 

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

5 comments:

MICHAEL VICKERY said...

Plus... if there are 10 people in the States that have made a significant impact to the overall success of Italian wines, you Sir would be on that list.

Thank you for all you have and are still doing in the world of wine, Alfonso.

Michael

Stefano Poggi said...

Here here

Tom Maresca said...

Alfonso: This is a very pertinent piece, and you're absolutely right about the market impact of each of the persons/wines you named. But while that market-and-consumer-awareness revolution was going on, there was also within Italian wine a quality revolution led by both young lions and some old foxes. I think in the long run the contribution of this group to the rise in stature of Italian wine was at least equal to the other. Gaja, of course, and Antinori and, ultimately, Banfi straddle both groups -- but individuals such as Livio Felluga and Silvio Jermann, the Ceretto brothers and Bruno Giacosa and Bartolo Mascarello, Antonio Mastroberardino and too many hard-working Sicilian winemakers to name -- these all ultimately shaped the direction Italian wine took after it began to gain some market share. Your point is absolutely sound, but this is another perspective on that chunk of vinous history.
Thank you, Alfonso, for your so often provocative posts. (I especially loved the stills from 8 1/2, my all-time favorite movie.)

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Tom, for your perspective. You are correct, a lot of folks were in there pitching, the Sicilians not the least. One wine that didn't make the top 10, but should be #11, was Corvo. Again, thanks, and yes, we share an affection for that crazy Fellini movie.

Tony Laveglia said...

Alfonso, you’ve nailed it. The history of Italian wine blends brands with types and regions( and of course Gaja), but the one universal quality of those things is the entree and sustainability of these over time … even though some of those times are limited.

Tony Laveglia

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