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.”
Verona – VinItaly came early this years, and while rain isn’t unexpected during this spring four-day gathering, the transition from late winter to early spring weather seems a bit cooler than normal.
That’s certainly not a complaint, since it’s always a thrill to arrive in this bustling north-Italy city, to see the coliseum and Castel Vecchio and stumble on fine restaurants hidden down narrow cobbly streets.
However, a comment on the weather is a suitable way to start as one of the laments heard from winemakers in northern Italy is that last year was one of the wettest vintages in memory, with rain until late August.
The sun returned in late summer but didn’t leave some winemakers with enough time to have their grapes reach the desired level of ripeness.
On the morning of Day 1 I first made a quick run through the Franciacorta region, which is one of my favorite places to start this fair, and several people remarked how their 2014 wines were a little “sharper” than normal, even in their young state.
That gave a bit more acidity to the wines, a characteristic I found pleasing and certainly makes the wines more food-friendly. Apparently a lot of people agree; by mid-morning this always popular area had people three and four deep at some of the booths.
Another oft-heard remark was the early start to VinItaly (last year’s fair was two weeks later) gave winemakers a short time between finishing and bottling their wines for presentation here in Verona.
“It’s a little young” or “It’s not ready ” was heard at many booths although there was no lack of enthusiasm for the wines from either winemakers or fairgoers.
My first day normally is a whirlwind as I get my bearings and seek out old friends and try their latest vintages. As customary, I spent most of the day on sparkling wines, from the metodo classico of Franciacorta to the tre bicchiere Prosecci of Graziano Merotto in Valdobbiadene.
I also stopped to see Ambra Tiraboschi from Ca’Lojera in Lugana, of whom I’ll write more after my visit there Saturday.
And that’s enough from Day One.
Before I continue with my posts on a recent trip to Mendoza, Argentina, I wanted to share a thought from Stevie Kim, the very smart and very talented managing director of Vinitaly International.
With the opening of the initial wine2wine on Dec. 3, the first event in Italy entirely dedicated to the Italian wine business, Kim re-emphasized the importance of fostering the Chinese wine market and particularly that of Chinese millennials, those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s.
This age group is also known as the “Net Generation,” based on its increasing reliance for knowledge about wine (and many other topics) on social contacts through the rapid proliferation of smartphones, Internet and wireless communication.
This reliance on the personalized message of social media is something shared by all young people, said Kim.
The Chinese “are not very different from their counterparts in other parts of the world,” Kim said. “The main difference, however, is the fact that in China wine knowledge and consumption is still at its early stage but social media will foster to bridge this gap.”
Her remarks appeared in a story titled “Are Chinese Millennials any different from others with regard to wine”? on the PRWeb site.
Apparently not, said Kim, because it’s this younger generaton who “will become opinion leaders in lifestyle trends, including wine choices,” noted Kim.
The entire article may be seen here.
Tezze di Piave, TV, Italy – When I first met winemaker Antonio Bonotto, of Tenuta Bonotto Delle Tezze, he looked like anything but a renowned winemaker continuing a family tradition almost 400 years old.
Instead, dressed head-to-toe in a forest-green rubber suit and standing on scaffolding 12 feet high, Bonotto was diligently power-washing 400 years of grime off the walls and ceiling of the ancient, heavy beamed space where grapes once were delivered by horse-drawn wagon and making the room into a new tasting room/reception area.
For the moment, Bonotto was making it rain harder inside than out.
I was with my friend Patrick Caseley of Trevignano and when Bonotto recognized Patrick, the oenologist called out, “Hey, Patrick, welcome,” and crawled down from the high rise.
“You caught me at a bad moment, I’m really working,” he said, shutting off the sprayer and walking to us.
It didn’t seem he was very dry, in spite of the rubber suit, and specks of grime dotted his smiling face
“But I’m quite happy to quit for a moment, this is hard work,” he said. “You probably don’t want any photos of me right now.”
He laughed and brought us a treasure found in the walls during the ongoing renovation.
“It is, or it was, a bottle of wine my father put in the walls in 1966, when he was doing some remodeling,” Bonotto said.
He showed us a broken bottle, still bearing a hand-written label with the date 22/9/1966.
“One of my workers was inexperienced with a machine and he wasn’t able to stop in time to save the bottle,” said Bonotto, shrugging. “Too bad, it would have been nice to have it whole. My father made this wine.”
Bonotto’s family has lived in the Tezze area since at least the 1400s and for centuries the family rented farmland from the local monastery and paid their rent with wine.
The commercial winery began in the 1800s and today Tenuta Bonotto makes a line of still and sparkling wines, including a delightful Prosecco DOC (he’s just outside the Prosecco DOCG zone) in brut and extra dry and a refreshing Novalis, made of 100 percent Manzoni Bianco, with hints of oranges, apricots and a stony minerality derived from the soils and waters washing down from the nearby Dolomites.
He’s particularly proud of his Raboso del Piave-based wines.
It’s an ancient grape, Bonotto said, with ancient records indicating this indigenous grape, considered the “king of wines” by Venetian aristocracy, having been vinified since the 800s.
“The real distinctive characteristic of this grape is the acidity,” Bonotto said. “Normally, when a grape ripens the sugars go like this (moving his hand in an upward arc) and the acidity goes like this (a downward arc). But with Raboso, the acidity gives you this,” and he drew a straight line.
It’s that straight-on acidity that deters many winemakers who don’t understand how to make wines with Raboso, Bonotto said.
“It’s not something you can eliminate, so you learn to work with it,” he said. “Or not.”
When vinified as a sweet wine, the acidity balances the sugars, the result being a sweet wine with “nerve,” as Caseley said.
That bottle of his father’s wine from 1966 may still have been drinkable, given Raboso’s acidity, and the current Bonotto rued not being able to see how it might have aged over nearly 50 years.
With his wife Vittoria, we tasted Bonotto’s 2009 Potestá Raboso del Piave DOC (100 percent Raboso Piave) and found hints of violets and roses on the nose with spice, licorice and a pleasing bit of earthiness and minerality.
He also makes a Raboso Passito, its grapes dried naturally for four months before vinification, and a Raboso Rosato Frizzante, bright and indulgent in fresh red berries and cherries.
“This is the blessing of this grape, you can make so many different wines from it,” Bonotto said. “It’s a pity because we have so many other varieties here we don’t focus on Raboso. It’s really a marvelous grape.”
VERONA – One of my many “Instant Italian” lessons while at VinItaly last week turned up when my cellphone didn’t. Looked in pockets, bags, hats, suitcase and even the bag with my brioche from the panificio. No luck.
Finally thought of looking in the car, which meant repeating a 10-minute walk but no big deal, because that’s where I left the phone.
Gloria Giovara, wife and business partner of good friend Patrick Casely of Trevignano, laughed when I explained my short absence and said, “Now you know how to say, ‘Ho lasciato il mio telefono in la macchina.'”
We were headed around to explore several of the immense pavilions comprising VinItaly, each of them the site of a different Italian wine region. Patrick and Gloria, ever working in the beehive-busy culture of the world’s largest wine fair, were seeing clients and I was tagging along, hoping to absorb some of their encyclopedic knowledge of Italy and the Italian wine world and maybe meet someone interesting.
As if that was any problem.
The trans-generation crossing is something every winemaking region worries about. Who is going to take over when the first (or fourth or more, in many cases here in Italy) generation gets tired and starts looking around for the next generation of winemakers? But in my days at Vinitaly, I was fortunate to meet several young winemakers eager to take over, or at least eager to accept the reins when handed to them.
Among the notable are the attractive six young people in the accompanying photo who comprise the future of Cantina La Salute, which is a cooperative formed in 1969 when 11 farmers in the Piave River valley near Treviso, feeling threatened by encroaching “big business,” came together to ensure the continuation of their lifestyle.
If I understood correctly, today the cooperative acts like a consortium, maintaining the quality of the wines while making a line of wines from the grapes produced by the various members of the cooperative. The winemaker for the cooperative is Antonio Cocca (second from left) and the president of La Salute is Nicola Fantuzzi (third from right). The others in the photo include (from left) Allessandro Milan, Cocca, Elena Rossi, Fantuzzi, Enrico Prisson and Serena Lessi.
The sextet in the photo are among the current generation of winemakers and viticulturists, although many of the original winemakers still are actively involved in the day-to-day operations of their individual aziendas and vineyards. The cooperative today produces a variety of wines, including a delightful Raboso and a millesimato spumante designated “21,” a number relating to Feb. 21, 1969, the founding of the coop, and Nov. 21, the day of the Feast of Our Lady of Health and the day the cuvée selections are made. The wines have been awarded many medals and honors, including several Gran Menziones at this year’s Vinitaly.
It’s one week at a time, since it will take a year to talk about all the wines I tasted and the winemakers I met, but among the memorable were the Lugana white wines from Ca’ Lojera and other members of the Lugana DOC.
It came on my first night of a too-quick tour of the Lugana DOC , which lies at the southern end of Lake Garda and roughly midway between Brescia and Verona. The DOC was one of the first such designations (1967) in Italy and today remains one of the smallest DOCs, according to the Lugana Consorzio, which actively promotes and protects the uniqueness of this wine.
Our group, led by Francesca Goffi of the Lugana Consorzio, was welcomed at Ca’ Lojera by Ambra Tiraboschi, historian, delightful hostess and wife of winemaker Franco Tiraboschi. She poured us several iterations of Lugana, including their top-tier Riserva Lugana del Lupo, all made from the Turbiana grape. Once known at Trebbiano di Lugana, the local consorzio changed the name of the grape to the local name “Turbiana” to differentiate the Lugana wine from Trebbiano di Soave, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and the other numerous Trebbiano wines grown in 80 of the country’s wine regions.
According to Ambra, the winery’s name (Ca’ Lojera translates to House of the Wolves) is drawn from the days centuries ago when bandits (pirates) from up north would slip down to the south end of Lago del Garda and hide their contraband in local warehouses, including one that sits a few yards from the modern Ca’ Lojera winery.
According to local lore, the hideouts were guarded by wolves (lupo in Italian). The only wolf we saw was on the label, while the wine inside was all bright fruit and good acidity, with hints of green apple, spice and the characteristic minerality for which Lugana DOC wines are famed.
This 2002 Lugana Superiore was particularly enticing, not only because it’s commonly held that Trebbiano/Turbiana wines won’t age but also because this wine had held its years beautifully, the past 12 years adding a gold color and a hint of almonds or hazelnuts to the finish.
Ca’ Lojera wines are imported by Worldwine Cellars (Fridaly, Minn.), Wine House Ltd. (San Francisco) and others.
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.