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Italy's Finer Wines Make a Splash : U.S. Consumers Show Preference for Premium Vintages

October 02, 1987|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

After years of domination by its cheaper wines, premium Italian wines now account for the majority of sales in this country, according to an Italian trade official.

"Only recently did we realize that sales of the finer Italian wines were going up," Trade Commissioner Mario Castagna said in an interview before hosting Wednesday night's Il Vino Italian wine competition at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Castagna said an analysis of sales figures for the first six months of 1987 showed that about 61% were generated by quality wines, compared to 23% in 1985. While the amount of wine shipped to this country in the first six months of the year declined 23.9%, trade figures show that their value declined only 7%.

The sharpest drop in sales was recorded by Lambrusco, the inexpensive, fizzy wines marketed so successfully in this country by Villa Banfi's heavily advertised Riunite brand. However, even in this category, Riunite's fruit-flavored versions, which are not counted in wine statistics, remain extremely popular.

The Los Angeles trade journal Wine Investor reported last month that adding these alcoholic beverages to Italy's wines produced a net 3.8% increase in sales for the first six months of the year--21.5 million gallons compared to 20.7 million in the first half of 1986.

Although Italy traditionally supplies more than half the imported wine consumed in this country, wine generally ranks only around 10th in U.S. sales. But wine's value to Italy exceeds its monetary gain, Castagna said.

"When you think of Italy," he explained, "you think of fashion, wine and sport cars. We have to take care of that aspect of trade. Wine is an important export--but especially as a part of the Italian image."

The leading exports are jewelry, which accounted for about 10% of all of last year's sales in this country, followed by footwear and fashion. Also leading wine on the list were heavy equipment, petroleum products, office machines, textiles, furniture and machine tools.

However calculated, wine sales show an improvement over last year, when sales of all Italian wines plunged more than 32% after 24 deaths in Italy were attributed to cheap wine spiked with wood alcohol. Seven wholesalers were eventually charged with murder in that scandal. Although none of the tainted wine apparently made its way across the Atlantic, U.S. authorities warned consumers against buying Italian wines until current stocks could be tested for methanol. Many supermarkets temporarily pulled all Italian wines from their shelves.

Perhaps ironically, the increase in purchases of premium wines may have stemmed from Italian efforts to reassure U.S. consumers. Last November, for example, prime-time network TV ads featuring better bottlings concluded with the phrase: "Sincerely yours, the wines of Italy." A current ad campaign stressing "Italy at the Table" urges use of Italian wines with other cuisines than Italian.

"Spaghetti and meatballs--that's an Italy that belongs to the past," Castagna said.

U.S. TRADE WITH ITALY Italy's leading U.S. exports in 1986, in millions of dollars

1984 1985 1986 Jan.-June '87 Total Exports: 7,934.5 9,673.7 10,607.4 5,259.6 Jewelry 668.3 1,029.1 1,096.0 430.1 Footwear 783.2 873.8 908.4 432.8 Fashion 551.8 690.4 851.2 403.9 Heavy Equipment 405.8 402.0 595.2 344.8 Oil Products 475.2 668.7 512.4 158.6 Office Machines 166.4 427.3 448.9 121.0 Textiles 418.7 427.3 442.6 246.1 Furniture 188.1 298.8 387.2 214.5 Machine Tools 180.0 247.9 335.8 140.2 Wine 329.4 318.9 277.9 126.8 Marble 135.5 187.6 253.5 138.9 Automotive Parts 181.8 180.1 214.1 128.2 Metal Products 153.7 177.5 185.6 100.7 Airplane Parts 99.9 102.7 171.3 86.5 Industrial Motors 100.1 118.3 167.3 107.5

Source: Italian Trade Commission

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