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Consumers Embrace Italian Wine’s New Varietals And Offerings

December 5, 2011

Retailers and restaurant wine directors say U.S. consumers are becoming more experimental with Italian wine, particularly with regard to lesser-known grape varieties, taking chances on types that are largely unknown on a global scale. And with about 40 Italian varieties available, consumers have a broad choice. “People are becoming more adventurous,” says Ian Louisignau, wine director for Italian Village, which operates three restaurants in downtown Chicago: La Cantina, The Village and Vivere. “We’re making our list more exclusively Italian because people are taking chances and looking for the next big thing.”

Jacopo Giustiniani, owner of the two-location FELICE Ristorante & Wine Bar in New York, is seeing a similar trend. “We have unique varieties that weren’t well-known five years ago, but now people are asking about them and appreciating them,” he says, pointing to such varietals as Piedirosso and Vermetino. “As long as you offer choices, people will try something different.”

Of course, such consumers make up a relatively small portion of Italian wine drinkers in the U.S. For most, Italian wine means Pinot Grigio, Chianti or Prosecco, along with newly popular Moscato. At the higher end of the pricing spectrum, Barolo, Brunello and Barbaresco and other red wines continue to have strong followings. Italian Pinot Grigio has been one of the biggest success stories in the U.S. wine market in recent years. James Galtieri, president and CEO of Pasternak Wine Imports, says the varietal “has transcended the Italian category,” and he calls it “one of the darlings of the by-the-glass set, in Italian restaurants steakhouses or wherever.”

Tyler Field, vice president of wine and spirits at Morton’s, says that, despite its American slant, the 70-unit steakhouse chain is seeing strong demand for Italian Pinot Grigio. “It continues to increase in volume share,” Field says. “We used to have one Pinot Grigio by the glass and now we need two.” The core wine list for Morton’s includes 19 Italian wine brands ranging from about $40 a 750-ml. to more than $300, with prices varying somewhat by location.

Part of Pinot Grigio’s continuing popularity could be due to some fairly intense price wars undertaken by some producers. Angus Lilley, marketing director for Ruffino at Constellation Wines U.S., notes that “a number of players are showing average price declines in the Pinot Grigio segment.” At the other end of the pricing spectrum, importers and on-premise wine directors appear cautiously optimistic about the Italian luxury segment. The recession hit hard for many of Italy’s top tier wines that rely heavily on higher-end restaurants, but in many cases those wines are in growth mode again.

La Campania, a Waltham, Massachusetts restaurant with an all-Italian wine list of over 600 bottles ($24-$1,500), is seeing corporate spending slowly climb back to pre-recession levels. With that has come increased demand for Italy’s best-known wines, according to owner David Maione. But at La Campania, and the neighboring retail store under the same ownership, Vino Italiano, Maione is taking advantage of moves by Italian producers to sell wines at lower price points. “Lately I’ve seen a lot of interest in second labels of high-end producers,” Maione says. “Take Ornellaia. They started a second label called Le Serre Nuove. It’s made with the same grape types used for the more expensive wines, but from younger vines. Those are doing really well because people know the quality of the vineyard and they have an opportunity to taste the grapes of that vineyard but not pay $300.” On the La Campania wine list, Ornellaia “Ornellaia” sells for $295 for both the 2005 and 2006 vintages. The 2007 Ornellaia “Le Serre Nuove” is $100.

Field says lesser-known or new producers have opportunities at Morton’s. “If a great value comes along from a great producer that not a lot of people have heard of, we can put it out there at less than a competing wine, and people will go for it,” he says, noting that with Italian wines, his clientele doesn’t seem to be particularly brand-loyal. “I think it’s a good time if you’re a new entrant from Italy, and you can come in a little bit under the current pricing of some of your more established competitors,” Field adds.


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