Italian Wines Shine
Staff Writer – January 21, 2004
Italian winemakers offer plenty of selection for Americans to try.
America's love affair with all things Italian just keeps getting hotter, and Italian wines are benefiting. Pinot Grigio is partially to thank, continuing to drive Italian wine imports to double-digit growth, producers are happy to report. At the same time, blended wines, classic reds, indigenous varietals and emerging fine wine regions are getting consumers approval as well. Whatever consumers want, Italian wine have it.
"Italian wines, like Italian food, are very accessible," says Lidia Bastianich, co-owner of Felidia Ristorante, Becco and Esca restaurants in New York City as well as Lidia's in Kansas City and Pittsburgh. "Wine does not have to be super expensive to be good. Italian wine offers all of that and they are being very diligent about the quality and the production." The 140-seat Felidia Ristorante offers 1,300 wines by the bottle, with Italian wines comprising 75 to 80 percent of the list. Italian whites range from $25 to $135 a bottle and reds from $25 to $700 a bottle for the 1982 Sassicaia, reports wine director David Weitzenhoffer. Top sellers are the 2001 Lis Neris Pinot Grigio from Friuli for $62 a 750-ml. bottle, the 2002 Valditerra Gavi for $42, the 1999 La Togata Rosso di Montalcino for $62 and the 2000 Sole Chianti Classico Casasilia for $80.
"The most important thing customers are always looking for is value," says David Lane, director of marketing for Gallo Imports, a division of E. & J. Gallo Winery, which imports Impact Databank's No.3 and No. 5 Italian wines, Bella Sera and Ecco Domani. "Today's consumer is tougher than ever before. They like to try new wines and new varietals from different countries. You won't find a consumer that says they only drink Italian wine."
In September 2003, Bella Sera introduced what Lane calls a "breakout Chardonnay," with a chewier mouth feel and a more creamy texture, which he says will distinguish it from previous Italian Chardonnays. The 2003 Chardonnay follows the line price of the other Bella Sera varietals: $5.99 to $6.99 a 750-ml. bottle at retail, $10.99 a 1.5-liter bottle and $6.99 a four-pack of 187 ml. bottles.
Pinot Grigio phenomenon
The Pinot Grigio varietals is consistently the highest volume seller among all the wines imported by category leaders such as Gallo's Bella Sera and Ecco Domani: Cavit, ranked No. 2 from Palm Bay Imports; Bolla, ranked No. 4 from Brown-Forman Wines as well as competitors such as Cesari Due Torri from Opici Imports, San Giuseppe from Vintwood International and Fontana Candida from Brown-Forman Wines.
"Pinot Grigio means 'quick sell,' " says Jaime Smith, Aureole restaurant sommelier at the 3,215-room Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Las Vegas. "There's a Pinot Grigio renaissance. It's the most dominant Italian white wine seller for any wine list in America." The restaurant offers 500 Italian red wines by the bottle, priced from $25 to $2,000, and 75 Italian whites, priced from $22 to $275. Popular sellers are the Venica wines from Friuli for $35 to $40 a bottle, which includes the 2002 Venica Pinot Grigio, Smith says. A popular red is the 2002 Cogno Barbera d'Alba for $40 to $45.
The varietal's overall 24 percent growth curve will continue, says Gallo's Lane. "It is far from peaked." Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, strong in metro markets, "bring in consumers that were previously drinking wine coolers or Martinis or Chardonnay," he says. Pricing for the brand is $9.99 to $10.99 a 750-ml. bottle at retail. On-premise the brand sells for $20 to $36 a 750-ml. bottle and $5 to $7 a glass.
The Pinot Grigio bounce extends to smaller wine houses such as Vintwood International, which imports the 2002 San Giuseppe Veneto IGT Pinot Grigio, showing volume growth at 110,000 cases. Price points are $9.99 a 750-ml. bottle at retail and on-premise $24 to $26 a bottle and $5 to $7 a glass. Vintwood president Frank Gentile recently launched the 2002 San Giuseppe Piave DOC Pinot Grigio for $35 a 750-ml. bottle with restaurant accounts in mind.
"The only wine that the average customer comes in asking for is Pinot Grigio," says Peter Gatti, manager of the Westlake store of the 34-location Twin Liquors chain based in Austin, Texas. "We're getting a lot of crossover from Chardonnay drinkers looking for a white wine that is not overly oaked." The chain has 600 Italian SKUs. White prices range from $3.99 to $31 a 750-ml. bottle and reds are priced from $4 to $300. Volume leaders are the 2002 Tommasi Pinot Grigio for $12.99 and a "Baby Supertuscan," the 2001 Avignonesi Rosso for $12.99.
A blended world
Wines that blend several Italian varietals or combine indigenous grapes with international varietals are getting attention. Luna di Luna is maintaining double digit growth, according to Demille Richardson, Italian wine brand manager for AV Imports, which markets the brand.
"One of the biggest challenges for us is to keep the people in the trade interested. How do you differentiate your Pinot Grigio from others? Everybody has one," says Melanie Losey, vice president, marketing, AV Imports. Since Luna di Luna has blended wines, "they are already different," she says," and the colored bottles really stand out."
Luna di Luna's trademark brightly colored bottles "give us a great bar presence, " says Richardson. "They easy sell is Italian restaurants but the bright bottles help to get placement in non-Italian restaurants. It's instant consumer recognition."
New for 2003 was an AV Pinot Grigio-Pinot Bianco 50/50 blend, packaged in a bright yellow bottle, priced at $10.99 a 750-ml. bottle retail, $22 a bottle on-premise and $6 by the glass. Out last holiday, was a sparkling wine in a blue and silver box retailing for $15.99 a 750-ml. bottle and two-pack of the Merlot-Cabernet and Pinot Bianco Sauvignon Blanc blends, both NV 750-ml. bottles, priced at $22.
Folonari's 2002 Pinot Grigio-Chardonnay and Merlot-Sangiovese blends are showing promising growth, according to Folonari importer Richard Cacciato, president and CEO, Frederick Wildman and Sons Ltd. Customers love Pinot Grigio and enjoy the structure that Chardonnay lends, he says. The Merlot softens the more tannic Sangiovese and makes it a palate-pleasing softer, rounder wine, he explains. Both are priced at $7.99 a 750-ml. bottle.
Back to the classics
Riunite ranked No. 1 in the Italian import category, according to Impact Databank, and Bolla Valpolicella are experiencing growth as the general upward trend in reds continues. Riunite's flagship Lambrusco is treading 1.2 million cases and has experienced double digit growth the last few years, reports James Mariani, executive vice president, sales and marketing, for Riunite importer Banfi Vintners. "As people become more interested in red wines, it has a lot of distinctiveness and positiveness going for it," says Mariani. "Lambrusco's semi-dry, fruit forward style, low sulfites and 9 percent alcohol content make it an approachable, satisfying wine." Retail price points are $3.99 a 750-ml. bottle and $6.99 to $7.99 a 1.5 liter bottle.
Bolla's Valpolicella is its bigger seller after Pinot Grigio and controls 90 percent of the Valpolicella category, according to Andrew Varga, vice president, global brand director, import brands, Brown-Forman Wines. "Valpolicella reinforces our positioning in the U.S. as the true and trusted Italian wine," says Varga. In summer 2003, Brown -Forman raised its Bolla line pricing from $6.99 to $7.99 a 750-ml. bottle. "We're doing pretty well. We have only lost approximately 3 percent of our depletion with the higher price point, and feel very comfortable with our ability to execute during the important November/December period," said Vargas last October. The higher price point has slowed the rate of growth of Bolla Pinot Grigio and has caused a slight decline in sales in Valpolicella and Merlot, according to Varga.
Consumers are continuing to venture beyond the traditional frontiers of Tuscany and Piedmont regions into emerging fine wine regions such as Campania, Apulia and Sicily and in doing so, are discovering new indigenous varietals, producers and merchant say.
"Apulia and Sicily are producing wines that are going to challenge their northern cousins," says Bob Cappuccino, vice president and national sales manager of Opici Imports. New to the Opici portfolio is the Tenuta Rubino brand. "We're marketing the Negroamaro, the most favorite grape from Apulia," he says, with the 2002 Tenute Rubino Marmorelle Rosso for $15.99 at retail. Also available is the 2002 Tenute Rubino "Punta Aquila" Primitivo (100-percent Primitivo) for $21.99.
Another brand from Apulia to watch is Feudo Monaci, imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons. Currently available are the 2001 Feudo Monaci Primitivo and the 2001 Feudo Monaci Salice Salentino, both priced at $8.99 a 750-ml. bottle at retail and $20 to $25 wine list. The Salice Salentino is 80-percent Negroamaro, 20-percent Malvasia Nera. Introduced this year, the brand is getting strong consumer response and on-premise placement, says Wildman's Cacciato.
In Campania, Feudi San Gregorio has invested $25 million in new cellars and hospitality center, reports Mercy Whitman, Palm Bay Imports senior vice president of marketing. The 2001 Feudi San Gregorio Rubrato (100-percent Aglianico di Taurasi) sells for $17.99 at retail and the 2002 Feudi San Gregorio Falanghina (a white varietal) sells for $15.99.
"We see a great opportunity in different varietals that make Italian wines unique," says Mike Petteruti, senior vice president of Palm Bay Imports. Fazi-Battaglia's 2002 Verdicchio Classico, a native grape from the Marches region, "can be aged as well as a great Chardonnay," he says, "and will rival the great white Burgundies." It retails for $7.99.
Customer's exploration is boosting Friuli brands
Friuli's venerable wine estates – Tenuta Villanova, Schioppetto and Borgo Conventi among them – are benefiting from today's adventurous customers who relish trying new wines.
"People are much more open to other things and will try blends, which create far more complex and interesting wines," says Bob Cappuccino of Opici Imports. He is marketing Roncocucco, Tenuta Villanova's top brand from the Collio region. Available are the 2002 Roncocucco Pinot Grigio, the 2002 Roncocucco Sauvignon Blanc and the 2001 Roncocucco Tocai Friulano priced at $18.99 at retail, and from $25 to $30 on wine lists, according to Cappuccino.
The Schioppetto Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blak and Tocai, all 2002 vintages, are available for $35 a 750-ml. bottle at retail and for $75 on-premise, according to Winebow Inc.'s CEO and president, importer Leonardo LoCascio.
From the Ruffino-owned Borgo Conventi estate, Schieffelin & Somerset Co. is marketing the 2002 Ruffino Lumina Pinot Grigio at $12.99 a 750-ml. bottle, reports Marina Borsini, brand manager for Ruffino at Schieffelin & Somerset. The 2002 Borgo Conventi Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc and the 2001 Borgo Conventi Merlot are priced at $15.99 a 750-ml. bottle.
Friuli's finest wines have often been priced higher than other Italian white wine imports. At the 35,000-square foot, Sam's Wine & Spirits store in Chicago, Jenni Heim, assistant department manager of Italian wines, says that their highest priced white is imported from Friuli, the 2000 Jerman Vintage Tunina, a blend od Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia and Picolit, for $45 a 750-ml. bottle and the 2000 Jerman Capo Martino, a blend of Tocai and Picolit, for $50.99.
At Sam's, a top seller is the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio 2002 for $18.99, which the store often discounts to $13,99 or $14.99. The lowest price popular seller in whites is Torresella Pinot Grigio IGT for $4.99 a 750-ml. bottle, according to Heim.
People in general, are looking for import bargains in all wine categories and finding it more difficult due to the weak American dollar, says Heim. "For regular customers, who often buy cases of the same brand, an extra dollar or two a bottle is a big deal," says Heim. "Under $7 there are fewer and fewer bottles for us to look at." A good example of a value of a good wine that is a real sleeper is the 2001 Botromagno Gravina from Apulia priced at $6.99 a 750-ml. bottle. Imported by Winebow, it is a white blend of Greco and Malvasia, with a mineral palate balanced by light, delicate pear, warm fruit flavors, says Heim.
In Friuli, is there life after Pinot Grigio? The next big thing will be the Tocai grape, says Winebow's LoCascio. "It's a great indigenous varietal."
|Originally published on Market Watch – ©2003 Market Watch
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