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Italy forever?

Published:  23 July, 2008

Last week, the debate over how best to promote Italian wines in the UK took a giant step forward.

While for years the mantra that Italy's diversity is also its curse has been directed at the lack of generic representation of Italian wines, at a symposium entitled 'Italy Today, Italy Tomorrow', chaired by Anthony Rose, the focus shifted towards more realistic and tangible ways to boost Italian wine sales in the UK multiples, the independents and the on-trade.

The event was the initiative of Claudio Gambarotto of Cavit, which sponsored the event, and it brought together a panel of winemaking and trade experts, all lovers of Italian wine, who addressed a full house with their analyses of why Italy has been a hard sell and how the situation can be improved.

The boot camp

Gambarotto, after thanking the UK trade for 'keeping the Italian wine flag flying' against the onslaught of the New World 'marketing tsunami', kicked off the proceedings with a searing critique of his country's failure to promote its own wines.

'Italian institutions have failed to provide adequate support for the Italian wine industry for several reasons,' he said. 'Italy is politically weak and fragmented, and the interests of minor groups can thwart any good promotion strategy.

'There are many local interest groups, consortiums and organisations, all with the power to act in the interests of the few rather than one strong body doing something for the greater whole.'

In what came as a surprise to some, he said that the 'impressive army' of generic bodies, even smaller ones such as DOC Colli di Parma and DOC Carmignano, all have significant funding that keeps them in 'budgets, offices, secretaries, telephones, accountants'.

However, these funds were unlikely to be spent in ways constructive to the promotion of their wines. 'It is not money Italy lacks, it is direction and strong leadership, and it is not going to change overnight, I am afraid,' he said.

Gambarotto explained that even more than the fact that Italy has 800,000 wine growers, hundreds of denominations and more than 600 grape varieties, the Italian wine industry's main problem is that it has 'historically been dominated by owners or managers with oenological backgrounds, which means the wine industry is still vineyard- and product-oriented rather than marketing-and finance-orientated'.

'Producers should be concentrating more on state-of-the-art distribution capacity rather than state-of-the-art production capacity,' he concluded.

Consultant and producer Alberto Antonini, who produces wine in Tuscany and consults both in Italy and internationally, echoed the need for consolidation of marketing forces, admitting that even he, a native Tuscan, found himself confused by the 50-some appellations in the region.

'There have been changes in our legislation but still we are not modern enough,' he said.

'We need to understand that at the end of the day the consumer has to understand what he is buying. I have tried to put myself in the position of the UK or US consumer and sometimes I am disorientated and sometimes I don't understand the difference between that monte here that valle there.'

Strike up the brand

Speaking for the multiple sector, Simon Thorpe MW, who was a Waitrose buyer for eight years before becoming purchasing director of Western Wines, also echoed Gambarotto on the subject of generic bodies.

'It's been discussed an awful lot and I feel we're past the whole issue of not having a generic body,' he said. 'To be honest with you, flowery marketing activities are good for certain things but they don't have any impact on the off-trade. The off-trade wants the money to be able to buy space - it's a simple equation.'

Kicking off his presentation with some recent AC Nielsen statistics for Italy (see box), Thorpe emphasised that the average price point in the grocer sector for Italian wine is only 3.29 - only 10p more than Romania - and that the only Italian wine in the top 20 brands is Stowells Italian, with 665,000 cases.

If Italy wants to move away from low-margin, high-volume sales characterised by consumer adherence to 'cheap versions of Pinot Grigio or Chianti' with few opportunities for trading up, the creation of brands will be vital.

'If you want volume with profit, you need to build brands,' he said. 'I can't see a way around it at the moment.'

He said he was surprised that a major pan-Italian brand has not been created already.

He recalled: 'As a buyer at Waitrose, I was just waiting from someone to knock on my door and say: "Here is a great new Italian wine. It covers all the regions, up and down; it's got a fantastic range of diverse wines, different styles, different price points. The quality is fantastic and we can do it next year and the year after." But nobody ever did it - why?'

For those willing to take on the challenge of building Italian brands, Thorpe offered some prescriptions. 'Brands don't necessarily have to avoid the provenance or quality issues,'

he said. 'But everyone needs to be bold, take a deep breath and stand back: 5.99 is probably where I would be. But you've got to over-deliver on quality. You've got to have pots of money.'

When asked if Chianti or Pinot Grigio have brand potential in the off-trade, Thorpe said that 'if Pinot Grigio were a brand, then it wouldn't be a very successful one because there is an awful lot of inconsistency in the packaging, product and price'.

Independent spirit

Tony Brown MW, who has been selling Italian wines in the independent sector for more than 15 years and now runs Meridian wines, celebrated the strides that Italy has made.

'Fifteen years ago France had 90% of the market and Italy was rooted in France's shadow, viewed by the trade as consistently unreliable and often downright dodgy,' he said.

While it seemed at the time that Italy would never be taken seriously as more than a purveyor of cheap plonk, he said that perceptions have 'changed completely' and that Italy now has great credibility.

But yet another 'Italian paradox' is that this recognition, bringing with it widespread media support, has not translated into the potential sales he feels Italy could yet garner.

Like the other speakers, he felt that 'you can talk about [generic support] but you're wasting your breath'.

He did suggest, though, that 'a small number of really prominent regions have the ability to become high-profile drivers', citing Rioja, which 'completely drives the Spanish category', as a qualitative, quantitative and promotional model to follow.

In the absence of such efforts, he said, 'Italy remains a minefield, with very little to guide the uninitiated'.

Brown felt possibly the best hope for Italy is the independent specialist sector, in which a largely affluent and educated consumer base seeks the different and diverse wines that can be so hard to sell in the multiples.

Though he said he was aware that this prescription to target independent retailers 'might sound a bit pie in the sky', he cited the example of what Hazel Murphy achieved at the Australian Wine Bureau some 15 years ago.

'When Australia was just starting to hit the UK market they really heavily targeted the independents,' Brown recalled.

'This was hugely successful because these people have a disproportionate influence on the trade. Australia was launched on the back of the independents because it was new and it was exciting.'

Buon appetito

Peter McCombie MW, consultant to several top restaurants, began with a critique of the way Italian wine tends to be presented on restaurant menus.

'Traditionally there have been incredibly conservative selections, a lack of rigour when it comes to those selections, and dreary presentations,' he said.

McCombie believes that Italy should exploit the fact that many in the on-trade are drawn toward Italy's wines and keen to list them.

He cited the director of a regional pub chain who told him that pubs like listing Italian wines as their house wines because they are of good quality and well balanced, and they appeal to a broad spectrum of palates. McCombie also mentioned a French sommelier who lists some 270 Italian wines, the second-largest country offer on his list after France.

Yet both people, though enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Italian wines, still admitted to being very confused by its profusion of grape varieties and appellations, and its dearth of promotional endeavours.

McCombie urged the consorzios to forego advertising in favour of actively promoting their wines front of house.

'You've got to get the wine in front of people's noses, because when people taste Italian wine they always say, "This tastes great!",' he said.

Suggesting a potential promotional model, he cited Sopexa's promotion of Alsace wines as good matches for Asian food, noting that 'last year Sopexa claimed 5% growth in this market'.