What’s holding back the Italian wine industry and how can it change to be more successful in the hyper-competitive global market environment? These questions brought us to a Tuscan seaside resort last month. Read on to see what we discovered.
The icons of Italian wine gather in Cortina D’Ampezzo for a few days every other summer to spend some time thinking, talking (and, inevitably, eating and drinking) in contemplation and celebration of their wines. The event, VinoVIP Cortina, has always focused on taste, wine, and the inspirations and sacrifices that winemaking entails.
What Do We Talk About?
This year the event moved to the Tuscan coast, the famous resort town of Forte dei Marmi. The focus of VinoVIP al Forte shifted, too, from taste and wine to money and wine. We always talk about taste, someone told me, now we need to discuss the business side of wine with equal passion, candor, and serious purpose.
Alessandro Torcoli, editor of Civiltà del Bere, which organizes VinoVIP, invited me to lead off the program, inspired (or maybe provoked) by my book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I was honored to be on the roster, which included Angelo Gaja, Prof. Attilio Scienza, Allegra Antinori, and Piero Mastroberardino and other notables. Quite a line up!
My presentation analyzed key trends in the global wine markets and one of the points I made concerned brands. Brands are a powerful tool for wine marketing, I argued, because consumers find them so useful. It can be easier for a consumer to understand (and remember) a brand in a crowded retail setting. Trustworthy brands encourage consumers to open their wallets and pull more corks. If you approach the topic of money and wine from the consumer’s point of view, it is impossible to ignore the importance the brand.
Branded Wine and Its Discontents
But there is a risk. Branding can go too far in making wine user-friendly, I argued, citing what I have called Einstein’s Theory of Brands (Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler — can you see how this could apply to wine?). Brands are back as a key wine marketing element, I said, although they are evolving along with wine buying consumers.
Italian wine features some iconic brands, including Gaja, Antinori, and Mastroberardino, of course. But the single most powerful Italian wine brand based upon volume of sales in the U.S. market is actually Riunite Lambrusco, a sweetish sparkling red wine made by a cooperative winery in Emilia Romagna and imported into the U.S. market by marketing powerhouse Banfi. It is the best-selling imported wine in U.S. history.
Brands and their power were on the minds of other speakers as well and formed one interesting theme of the conference.
Italian Wines at French Prices
Angelo Gaja is famous for the high prices he asked for wines early in his career. People thought he was crazy and some, he told the audience, were even angry with him for asking French prices for his Italian wines. French wines benefited from a reputation for higher quality. Italian wines, even excellent ones like Gaja made, were thought to be in a different, lower class.
No one is shocked by Gaja prices now — he has proved his wines to be worth what he asks — but, he said, the same status upgrade cannot be said about Italian wine more generally.
Gaja stressed the importance of raising average bottle price of Italian wine exports and building stronger brands is part of that process. Cooperative wineries, he proposed as an example, should focus less on producing anonymous private label wines for foreign retailers and invest more in building their own brands so as to increase average bottle price and raise margins.
This was the first time that I have heard Angelo Gaja speak and I can report that he is a powerful orator who is not shy about stating his opinions. He presented a to-do list of things that the Italian wine industry needs to change, and quickly. Quite an experience!
Beyond “Small is Beautiful”
Piero Mastroberardino’s brief concluding presentation was much different in style from Gaja’s (much more professorial — in a good way), but no less of a challenge to the status quo. Mastroberardino’s topic was the Italian wine system — the industrial organization of the wine sector– which is made up primarily of cooperatives and small family firms. Indeed, it is not too much of an oversimplification to say that the family vineyard or cellar is the fundamental economic unit of the wine industry.
Family ownership presents a trade-off, Mastroberardino noted. As I discussed in Around the World in Eighty Wines, family wine firms have many advantages over corporate structures, which is why the wine sector generally has more family firms (some of them quite large — think Gallo) than other global industries.
But there are disadvantages, too, which was Mastroberardino’s point here. Scale can be limited and the strength of the brand affected by the fact that it is so closely associated with the founding family. In a world where scale and strong brands are important, family firm limitations sometimes get in the way. It is time, Mastroberardino said, to move beyond the “small is beautiful” idea of the Italian wine sector.
Mastroberardino called for more attention to building scale and strengthening brands to increase the competitiveness of the Italian wine sector and there was some evidence during the conference that others appreciate this point. Allegra Antinori, for example, spoke about how the Antinori family have adopted a new ownership structure in order to strengthen the firm’s long-term financial sustainability. A trust locks up ownership for a 90 year period, giving the firm stability and accumulating resources for future needs.
Theory & Practice
Sue and I spoke with Gianluca Bisol about Bisol’s partnership with Lunelli, which was initiated in 2014 in order in part to give family-owned Bisol the leverage it needed to expand forcefully into global markets. Bisol’s Prosecco and Lunelli-owned Ferrari Trento’s sparkling wines may sometimes compete with each other for shelf space, but they mainly work strategically to open market doors. It’s the sort of initiative the Mastroberardino’s analysis suggests is a necessary next step.
Gianluca expressed great satisfaction with the partnership and early indications are that the winery’s recent rebranding efforts, which stress history and terroir, are enjoying success.
The conference ended with a grand tasting at La Capannina di Franceschi, a famous disco located right on the beach. What a blast! Based on this sample of Italian wines, which featured many white and sparkling wines because of the summer seaside location, the Italian wine sector has no trouble with taste and wine. It is important that they now give more attention to money and wine and we are glad to have made a small contribution to the emerging conversation.
Thanks to Alessandro Torcoli and everyone at VinoVIP for their hospitality during the conference. Special thanks to Sylvia Conti and Maria Gilli of the Italian Trade Agency for their help and support. Sue and I clearly enjoyed ourselves and learned a lot from everyone we met! Here’s a photo of the two of us taken by Megumi Nishida at the post-conference lunch.