Italian wine has always been popular in the U.S., and today accounts for a staggering one out of every three bottles imported into this country. The growth of Italian wine imports has been constant over the last decade, with a consistent 3-5% annual increase, according to data supplied by the Italian Trade Agency. Indeed, as a country, we drink more Italian wine than the Italians, according to Leslie Gevirtz, a reporter who analyzed the numbers in an article for Reuters last year. This growth in popularity has occurred in the face of increasing competition from top quality wines from Chile, Argentina and other Southern Hemisphere producers, as well as from non-wine categories, such as cocktails and craft beer, that compete for American’s drinking dollars.
So why are Italian wines so popular with Americans? Michael Veseth, professor emeritus of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound, provided an insightful answer to this question during a symposium at VINO 2015, the largest Italian wine event outside of Italy, that just concluded in New York City. (Veseth is editor of The Wine Economist and the author of Wine Wars (2011), Extreme Wine (2013) and the forthcoming, Money, Taste & Wine: It’s Complicated.)
Not surprisingly, Veseth attributes economic factors, specifically, the strong U.S. economy over the last few years as one reason that Italian wine sales are so brisk here. But more importantly, according to him, “Brand Italy”--the idealized image of Italy--plays a critical role in our love affair with Italian wine. Brand Italy, a catch-all term for Italian style, design, glamour, music and beauty, is an expression of Americans’ love of Italy. He explains, “We love to travel there, we love its food, its style” and he offers an example regarding wine. He explains that, if you present to a consumer a glass of red Chilean wine made from an unknown variety with an unpronounceable name, there is likely to be certain skepticism. By contrast, if that same wine, with an unpronounceable name and made from an obscure variety, is from Italy, the consumer will embrace as “something new” or “worth exploring.” “That’s the power of Brand Italy.”
Americans Love Everything Italian
Cristina Mariani-May, co-CEO of Banfi, a leading producer and importer of Italian wines, agrees that the overall image of Italy helps sell their wines, noting that American’s love for all things Italian boosts the wine business enormously. Baby Boomers and Millennials love to travel to Italy. With 2.24 million visitors from the U.S. expected in 2015, Italy will rank just behind Britain and France, with about 2.55 and 2.49 million visitors, respectively. She notes, “Everyone loves to travel to Italy. There’s a romance to traveling to Italy. Your spouse always appears hotter there.” She continues, “Everything--the food, the wine--tastes better in Italy when you’re on vacation. People try to recreate that experience when they return home.”
And when they return home, they eat in Italian restaurants, by far the largest category of ethic restaurants in the U.S. They provide a “home base” for Italian wines, which are ideal partners for Italian cuisine. The bright, fresh acidity common to them is ideally suited to the butter- and olive oil-based foods of Italy. The Italian wine industry has even overcome the unique American habit of drinking wine--not with food--but as a stand-alone aperitif. In this setting, acidic wines come across as aggressive. Enter a softer, less acidic version of Pinot Grigio and slightly sweet and rounder Prosecco and--bingo--problem solved.
Undoubtedly, Prosecco’s surge in popularity has helped fuel the growth in Italian wine. Imports of Italian sparkling wines, the bulk of which are Prosecco, have increased an astonishing 250% from 2003 to 2014, according to data from the Italian Trade Agency. Not surprisingly, three Proseccos are now among the top ten sparkling wines imported to the U.S. Indeed, Prosecco has just surpassed Champagne as the world’s largest selling sparkling wine. But Prosecco’s popularity is not the sole answer.
Veseth invokes a variation of Batali’s Law, coined by noted chef and restaurateur, Mario Batali, which says there is no such thing as Italian food. Rather, there are as many types of Italian food as there are regions of Italy. Similarly with Italian wines, the country offers literally thousands of wines from its 20 regions. Americans have long been characterized as having a preoccupation with individualism, a trait that Veseth sees as dovetailing with the singularity of Italian wines. Veseth uses Sangiovese, Italy’s most planted red grape, to make his point. It produces markedly different wines depending on where it is grown even within one region, as in Tuscany, where Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano produce three distinctive wines from areas that are nearly adjacent to one another.
Brian Larky, founder of Dalla Terra Direct, a wine importing company that focuses on high quality Italian wines from small producers, also believes the plethora of Italian grapes, and hence wines, explains their overall popularity. “Americans have a certain amount of an ADHD-like disorder. They like to channel-surf. They move from one topic to another quickly.” For him, the sheer number of different kinds of Italian wines--from lightweight to burly reds, crisp or round whites, refreshing rosés and everything in between--offers Americans the requisite choices to keep them interested.
Anthony Dias Blue, noted author and wine expert, echoes Larky by saying that Americans are willing to try anything. They are not married to a single wine or grape. Italy’s vast variety or wines plays into that open mindedness. Plus, according to Blue, Millennials see Italy--and its wines--as cutting edge, not staid or stuffy like Bordeaux or Burgundy. And they’re far more affordable.
Focus on Origin
For me, a logical extension of regionalism is a focus on the specific origin of products--terroir, in essence. Terroir, viewed with some skepticism by the public, can come across as a geeky wine concept. However, with restaurants increasingly trumpeting the origin of their products (soon we’ll know what pasture a cow grazed in) the concept of “origin” is becoming more mainstream. Single estate coffee and chocolate are all the rage. This emphasis on site-specific sourcing helps Italian wines because Americans, having traveled there, recognize the place names and can relate to them.
Quality and Value is the Answer
These explanations for the popularity of Italian wines from people who market them make sense. But in truth, the popularity of Italian wines is far easier to explain: Regardless of region, they are consistently satisfying, and, almost without exception, over-deliver for the price. In the coming months, I’ll delve more deeply into some of Italy’s particular wine regions, pointing toward wines that offer especially strong combinations of quality and value.
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February 11, 2015
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