Italian wines regained much of the consumer confidence lost in the aftermath of two major contamination scandals in 1985 and 1986, according to a recently released survey. But despite the improving image, lingering doubts remain about their safety, and sales have not fully recovered.
In fact, a sizable portion, or 17.4%, of those queried in a nationwide poll believe that Italian wines are "sometimes dangerous to drink." Most worrisome for Italy, as the leading wine exporter to the United States, is that among this group are a large number of high-income and college-educated individuals.
The survey was prepared by Paul Gillette, publisher of the Wine Investor, a Los Angeles-based trade newsletter, on behalf of the Italian Trade Commission in New York. University of Texas researchers gathered the data from questionnaires mailed to more than 2,000 geographically representative households in June.
The results arrive 16 months after Italian products were removed from store shelves in response to reports that 20 deaths in Italy were traced to methanol-laced wine.
Although none of the contaminated products reached the United States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms warned consumers to avoid Italian wines until the problem was ultimately resolved.
The highly publicized methanol episode was preceded by a November, 1985, contamination in which Villa Banfi voluntarily recalled 1.2 million cases of Riunite. The action was precipitated when trace amounts of diethylene glycol, an industrial coolant, was found in the wine. There were no reported illnesses linked to the chemical's presence.
In addition to those who viewed Italian wines with some concern, the poll found that 80.7% of the survey said the leading imports are "always safe to drink." An additional 1.9% said they believe the wines are "always dangerous."
"The most interesting thing about the findings is that everyone in the country would, at least, have said that Italian wines are sometimes dangerous if we had taken the poll last year," Gillette said. "But concerns are way down and that's a tremendous victory under the circumstances, but there's still more work to be done (for the Italians.)"
Mario Castagna, the Italian Trade Commissioner in New York, said the survey's results were positive.
"When I saw that 80% are drinking Italian wines, then I was very pleased," he said.
As for those expressing concerns about Italian wines, Castagna believes that most respondents were offering their opinions of all European wines or were just confused about the issue. In the last three years, there have been several wine scandals in Europe involving French, Austrian and German wines as well as those from Italy, he said.
"We are in touch with consumers, importers and retailers every day and the situation is completely reversed from last year and everybody is buying Italian wine," Castagna said.
Gillette, however, said that the 17.4% segment still harboring suspicions should be taken seriously, especially because the group includes those considered to be "opinion leaders."
For example, of the respondents with a college or advanced degree, 20% believe the wines are sometimes dangerous. And 22% of those with annual household incomes in excess of $30,000 shared the same opinion.
Castagna was not troubled, though, stating that the 17.4% figure represents consumers who are, at best, occasional wine drinkers.
Beyond Perceptions--There is little for the Italians to celebrate in financial terms, even though their image may be on the mend. The country's U.S. exports have been in decline since 1985, as have almost all wine shipments by foreign producers, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Treasury and other federal agencies.
The entire U.S. import category (including wines of Germany, France, Spain and others) dropped 4% in 1985. But the most severe decline was in 1986, when all shipments to this country fell by 28 million gallons, or 20.5%.
In 1986, the damage for the Italians was extensive and resulted in a 32% drop in sales. Germany, with a smaller share of the U.S. market, dipped 35%.
The declines can be attributed to several factors, including a weak dollar on the international exchange markets, the emergence of U.S.-made wine coolers and the contamination episodes.
"The Italians took tremendous punishment the past couple of years, and 1986 was undoubtedly influenced by the methanol incident," Gillette said. "This year is down too, but the damage is mitigated by the introduction of fruit-flavored wine (primarily from Villa Banfi's Riunite line)."
Calling Napa--In this country, sales of domestically produced wine are increasing, thanks largely to the wine cooler phenomenon. But for those who can't wait for the government's annual harvest and production statistics to arrive in early 1988, the Napa Valley Vintners Assn. offers a toll-free telephone number which dispenses information on this year's crop.