As we head into Italian Wine Week Feb. 3-9, with special events held in New York City, it’s fitting to remember the roles of five men key to the wine connection between Italy and the U.S.
With the Jan. 5 passing of winemaker Harry F. Mariani of Banfi Wines, another chapter in that American wine history could be written.
Mariani, 78, and his brother John, who survives, made their fortunes introducing
Americans to Italian wines. They were working for Banfi, founded in 1919 by their father and his three brothers, when in 1967 the brothers began importing Riunite, a chilled, sparkling sweet red wine that by 1973 was the nation’s largest-selling imported brand.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember Riunite Lambrusco’s promotional slogan, “Riunite on ice, that’s nice,” which was updated in 2002 to the trendier “Just chill.”
Imports of Riunite peaked at 11.2 million cases in 1984 and accounted for 27 percent of all foreign wines sold in the United States, according to Banfi Wines.
That success as importers allowed the brothers to branch out, purchase their own vineyards in Italy and on Long Island and by the mid-1990s Banfi was the nation’s leading wine importer, according to the New York Times.
Today, Italian varieties are the leading imported wine in the U.S. and Americans now are drinking more Italian wines than Italian themselves, said the Italian Wine and Food Institute.
Which brings us to three other major players in the Italo-American wine connection.
At one time the company owned nearly half the vineyard acreage in California with annual revenues estimated at $1 billion.
Ernest was in charge of marketing and his desire, according to his biography, was to see the company become the “Campbell Soup Company of the wine industry.”
The Gallos marketed their cheap White Port and Thunderbird wines in inner city markets along with a catchy jingle that in part went, “What’s the word? /Thunderbird/ How’s it sold?/ Good and cold/…”
The company gradually shed its low-rent image to become the largest winemaker in the country and today is the largest privately held wine company in the world.
Ernest Gallo died at the age of 97 on March 6, 2007, less than a month after his brother Joseph. Julio Gallo died in 1993.
The third of our Italian triumvirate is Robert Mondavi, who, dismissed in 1952 from
Charles Krug, the Mondavi family winery, went on to build his own eponymous winery and his great fortunes.
As Mondavi noted in his 1998 memoir, “Harvests of Joy,” he found his mission doing “whatever it took to make great wines and to put the Napa Valley on the map right alongside the great winemaking centers of Europe.”
In 1968, he took Sauvignon Blanc, at the time an unpopular variety, and rebranded it as “Fumé Blanc,” figuring it was something Americans could pronounce. The wine was so successful that Fumé Blanc became an accepted synonym for Sauvignon Blanc.
By the time Mondavi sold his winery in 2004, it was sixth-largest winery in the U.S. with annual sales of 9.7 million cases, according to Wine Business Monthly.
Mondavi remained as chairman emeritus until his death on May 16, 2008 at the age of 94.
In 1993, Mariani told the New York Times that wine was always a part of his life, “it was never taboo.”
And at every meal, Harry Mariani would toast: “A tavola non s’invecchia,” which can be translated to “At the table with family and friends, one does not grow old.”
For various reasons (like, 2,000 of them, about what the trip would cost me) I’m not getting to VinItaly this year. It’s not that I’m not interested in seeing Verona, Italy or too busy to taste a couple thousand wines or anything, I’m just not there.
Instead, I’m following the action through the ether: reading press releases sent from the VinItaly press office and on some favorite blogs, including those by Susannah Gold and Alfonso Cevola, aka The Italian Wine Guy.
Susannah speaks impeccable Italian (including several different dialects, which comes in handy when dealing with Italy’s 20 wine-making regions) and during a recent visit to New York City for Italian Wine Week Susannah introduced me to Kris Kim, VinItaly COO and a charming, hardworking spokesperson for all wines Italian. All of which means that even though I stay here in the States, the contacts in Italy are among the best.
One recent release that Susannah wrote on concerned a seminar (actually, a series of related seminars) on the question, “Do Italians still love wine?”
That’s a question you might never expect to hear voiced out loud, particularly when it’s voiced at VinItaly, the world’s largest gathering of Italian wines and winemakers.
However, that was the very question on many lips last week at one of the trade seminars offered during Vinitaly’s four-day run that ended Sunday in Verona, Italy.
To be blithe, the answer is yes but maybe not as much as in the past. Forty years ago, Italians managed to down 100 liters (about 133 of those .750 liter bottles, about 26 gallons) of wine per person per year.
Today, that’s dwindled to a comparatively meager 42 liters per year. But it’s positively W.C. Fieldsian compared to Americans who, according to the Wine Institute, choke down just under 9 liters (less than seven bottles, about 2 gallons) per person.
According to some 2009 numbers from the Wine Institute, the leader in per-capita wine consumption is Vatican City State where the 932 or so residents down 70.22 liters (18.5 gallons) per person each year.
That’s not as much as it sounds. It comes out to about 1.35 liters (less than two of those .750-liter bottles) per week, which won’t nearly keep up with most of my friends.
Italy’s 42 liters per person is sixth in per person wine consumption while the U.S. at 8.96 liters per person is far down the list, behind such notable wine countries as Finland, the Cook Islands and New Caledonia, the French Territory in the South Pacific where residents drink almost 21 liters per person per year.
But here’s the biggie: Even though American drink less wine per person that Italians, there are WAY more of us drinking our share.
Last year, for the first time the United States surpassed Italy in terms of total wine consumption, Wine Institute said.
Wine Institute reported that in terms of total consumption the U.S., drinking 2.75 billion liters, is second only to France (2.9 billion liters). Italy now is third, at 2.45 billion liters.
Which doesn’t necessarily support any theory purporting Italians losing their love for wine. What it might indicate, though, is how world economics and the changing demographics of Italian wine drinkers are affecting that country’s wine consumption.
Contrary to what the dreamy-eyed Italophiles among us might think, only 40 percent of Italians say they drink wine everyday, said a report from VinItaly.
Many Italians are saying they have reduced consumption due to economic or health concerns.
Curiously, wine industry consultants Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates in Woodside, Cal, reported earlier this year that year the U.S. surpassed France as the world’s largest wine-consuming nation as wine shipments to the U.S. from California (leading a reader to believe California no longer is part of the U.S.), other states and foreign producers grew to nearly 330 million cases, a record high for the industry.
Gomberg, et al, said the estimated retail value of these sales was $30 billion, up 4% from 2009.
The French, meanwhile, consumed 320.6 million cases of wine in 2010, Gomberg said.
Robert Koch, president and CEO of Wine Institute, said U.S. wine-market conditions remain “highly competitive”, which usually means lower prices for consumers, and he expects the growth in wine consumption to continue.
“Americans are increasingly interested in a lifestyle with wine and food, demonstrated by the presence of wineries in all 50 states and 17 consecutive years of growth in U.S. wine consumption,” Koch.
Other countries to watch include China, which last year increased its wine consumption by 36 percent, and Russia, where wine consumption last year jumped by 30 percent.
The panelists at VinItaly had a handful of suggestions for developing new consumers, including marketing campaigns aimed at women and at young people just developing their interest in wine.
Italian wine producers also are exploring ways to increase sale in supermarkets, which currently account for 60 percent of that country’s wine sales.
Many states in the U.S. allow food stores to sell wine but Colorado isn’t among them. Buying wine in a food store generally is a “caveat emptor” experience, since few stores (none, in my experience) offer the level of expertise found in dedicated wine and liquor stores.
I mentioned in my last post that while I was in New York for VINO2011NY I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Marilisa Allegrini of the Veneto wine producer Allegrini.
We were attending a charity wine tasting benefiting the American Cancer Society where Marilisa was pouring some her wines alongside Cristina Mariani-May of Castello Banfi.
In spite of being close to the end of a long wearying day, with plenty of New York’s finest snow to negotiate and a late dinner yet to attend, I found Marilisa delightfully charming and eager to educate consumers about her Corvina-based (along with rondinella and molinara) Valpolicella wines.
Valpolicella, which translates to “valley of many cellars” (perhaps because of the area’s long history of winemaking) is a DOC wine-making region west of Verona and east of Lake Garda.
The Allegrini winery makes wines using a system where a single vineyard of locally grown fruit goes into each wine.
Marilisa said all of the Allegrini fruit is estate grown, she said, coming from 70 hectares of vineyard in the communes of Fumane, Sant’ Ambrogio and San Pietro, all within the Valpolicella Classico DOC.
When I asked her to explain the difference between her basic Valpolicella Classico (made of Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara grapes) and the deeper, more concentrated Palazzo della Torre (Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Sangiovese) and the intense Superiore La Grola (Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, Syrah and Sangiovese), she said it starts in the vineyards, where green cropping lowers the fruit load on the vines dedicated to the Superiore.
Her brother Franco is the winemaker, and Marilisa said he adds to the wine’s intensity by using variations of the ripasso (double-fermentation) technique.
“This gives the wine more intensity and concentration as well as a longer aging potential,” said Marilisa, whose family name has been making in the area for at least 500 years and today is synonymous with fine Valpolicella wines.
She also described the Superiore as “halfway” between the basic Valpolicella and the Amarone.
Those at the tasting also had the chance to sample Allegrini’s La Poja, a 100-percent Corvina wine aged in barriques. Very dense and complex, it’s full of dark fruit and round tannins and a silky finish. A great wine for a snowy evening in New York City.
What a week in New York City.
And on and on.
Lucky to get out only 24 hours late.
Here are a few highlights from the four days of Vino2011, also known as Italian Wine Week, presented by the Italian Trade Commission and one of the best weeks of the wine year for fans of Italian wines.
One of my highlights was heading through the storm to NASDAQ and watching Cristina Mariana-May of Castello Banfi, Marilisa Allegrini of the Veneto wine producer Allegrini and Giovanni Montovani, the CEO of Verona Fiere (organizers of VinItaly and the VinItaly WorldTour) ring the closing bell.
Also along for the event were representatives (I’m sorry I can’t find their names in my notes, made soggy by the constant snowfall) to accept a $45,000 donation to the American Cancer Society by VinItaly.
Why would an Italian corporation make such a hefty donation to an American group?
Montovani said simply that he and others who spend their days in the world of Italian wine “feel very fortunate and it is our honor to share our good fortune with those in need.”
And to show how serious about sharing the Italians are, last September they gave an additional $25,000 to the ACS after a “VinItaly Day at Eataly” benefit.
Part of the ceremony too was the unveiling (at least for me) of the video campaign (which first was announced last November) for the commemorative 150th anniversary wines (one white, one red) with grapes from all 20 regions of Italy.
The 150th anniversary commemorative wine concept was conceived by Ettore Riello, president of VeronaFiere, after an idea from Giorgio Napolitano, the president of the Italian Republic. Folks at Vinitaly embraced the idea and the blends were created by a group of Italy’s leading winemakers.
The actual wines (don’t get excited: only a handful of bottles will be produced and, no, you don’t get one) will be introduced on March 17, the anniversary day of Italian independence.
I believe it was the VinItaly PR department that came up with the memorable “1 Nation, 2 Bottles, 20 Regions, 40 Grapes, 150 Years” campaign. You can see a list of the varietals here, with thanks to Serge Lescouarnec.
No one is saying just what the blends are nor how the wines taste, so that will remain a mystery until the first bottle is opened, if it ever is opened and not put in a showcase somewhere.
Later the same day of the NASDAQ festivities (which closed up for the day, probably due to all the great karma) a charity wine tasting was held at the ACS Hope Lodge featuring Banfi and Allegrini wines.
I had the opportunity to chat with (interview) Marilisa during a brief quiet moment toward the end of the tasting, just before she had to leave. It had a been a long day for everyone and she was off to dinner.
I’ll write about our conversation tomorrow.