Two years ago, the Italian wine business might have been viewed like Woody Allen stepping into the ring to oppose Mike Tyson, Michael Spinks and Hulk Hogan. It would have tried to fend off the brutes with one-liners.
Looking back on that frightening time in 1986, Italian wine producers still shudder at the thought. They were dealing with a three-fold problem: a tainted-wine scandal that had caused 24 deaths and frightened consumers worldwide, a sinking American dollar that made imports more expensive and changing Italian wine laws and wine styles that made understanding these products more difficult.
"Then add to that the climate of fear that existed in this country because of the Tylenol deaths and the concern about adulterated products, well, it wasn't a fun time," said Greg Gillooly, president of Vintage House, a wine distribution company based in Los Angeles that represents a series of fine Italian wines.
Today, premium Italian wine is back in favor, and people have largely forgotten the scandal of the spring of 1986, said Gillooly. But at the time, Italian wine was on the ropes.
The major problem, he said, came in the spring when deaths were attributed to adulterated wine in a small rural area of Italy. News accounts of the deaths, coming on the heels of the Tylenol deaths in the Midwest, caused a panic in the United States. Two retailers--Safeway Stores and Liquor Barn (which then were related)--removed all Italian wine from their shelves and television reports of that action was the first uppercut to the Italians.
"Not a single bottle of that (tainted) wine ever was exported, but sales here suffered," said Gillooly.
Darrell Corti of Corti Bros. in Sacramento, a longtime supporter of Italian wines, said of that time, "We put an ad in the paper saying there was nothing to fear from any of the wines."
Still, the fear slowed sales considerably.
Then the lira began to strengthen against the dollar, driving up prices for Italian products. In 1985, the lira traded between 1,800 and 1,900 to the dollar. Last week, the lira traded at less than 1,250--a drop of more than 30%, meaning prices for Italian products have risen 30%.
Moreover, Italian wine was in transition, both in terms of quality and in legal designations.
It has never been easy to understand Italian wine and to fix that, the Italian government a few years ago created a new category of "guaranteed" wines intended to establish a new level of premium wines.
The long-established DOC law (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), that monitored how premium grapes grew and could be made into wine was extended in 1983 to include the word "garantita"--to make DOCG wines higher quality than DOC wines.
But because of delays in implementing the DOCG law, a number of premium producers didn't wait for it and simply developed their own super-premium blends. By doing so, they had to make non-DOC wine, even though Americans had at last become used to the fact that a DOC wine was better than a non-DOC wine.
This new class of non-DOC premium wine was not mere table wine. By ignoring the old law, these new wines gave producers a chance to make a quality statement by using better quality grapes and blending techniques.
An example was in Chianti, where by DOC law the famed red wine of Tuscany had to be made with a blend of two specified red grapes and two specified white grapes. Clearly, this made a lighter, less deeply flavored red wine and not what the connoisseur was seeking in today's market.
To deal with that, some producers began to make wines from the traditional Sangiovese grape alone, or with a bit of--horrors!--the forbidden Cabernet Sauvignon. By doing so, they were making non-DOC wine, but it often was better than Chianti.
This "non-Chianti Chianti" included the elegant and excellent Sangioveto from Badia a Coltibuono, a wine made almost entirely from a selected clone of the Sangiovese grape. Though it wasn't cheap, it was superb.
Other producers who made non-DOC super-premiums included Antinori, whose successful Tignanello and Sassicaia have been popular in the United States despite non-DOC designations; Angelo Gaja's Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines and premium non-DOC wines from others.
"We made the Sangioveto first in 1980," said Roberto Stucchi-Prinetti, son of the owner of Badia a Coltibuono, who was in Los Angeles last week for a tasting of Italian wines staged by Vintage House. "It was a selection of one of the four oldest vineyards, and we used no white grapes," indicating the family made a conscious decision not to adhere to Chianti DOC law.
Planting of these special vineyards differs from traditional Chianti/Sangiovese vineyards, and aging is done in small French oak barrels, he said.