What Happened to Italian Wine in the Supermarket?

chiantiOver the past year or two I’ve noticed something troubling about supermarket wine shelves—Italian wines have virtually disappeared. You might find a bottom shelf Chianti, a Pinot Grigio from Santa Margherita, a Prosecco or two, and the ubiquitous Stella Rosa brand but that’s it. It seems to me just a few years ago, Italy was among the best represented of the imports. What happened?

So I read with some interest this post confirming my observation written by Alfonso Cevola, who sold Italian wine in the U.S. for many years.

But I’m finding something about buying Italian wine in high-traffic retail (groceries, convenience stores, drugstores) to be very discouraging, verging on the sinister. The battle Italian wine has waged, interpolating itself into the greater American culture in the last 50 years, has been lost. It’s disheartening. And it’s disgusting. Because it treats Americans in search of Italian wine in those outlets, as if they are a bunch of immature babies just looking for a sweet lollipop.

His explanation of what happened includes a number of details depending on the market segment but there is a common denominator. Big producers crowded everyone else out of the market through consolidation and liquidation. They then used  their market power and marketing prowess to push a few simple options to maximize short term profit.

That’s very good for them but bad for Italian wine and bad for consumers who might enjoy more diverse selections if they knew they existed.

…my concern is more for the hundreds of small producers, who I meet with regularly, who have these lovely wines -Dolcetto, Grignolino, Sangiovese, Falanghina, Nebbiolo, Trebbiano, Montepulciano, Carricante, you name it. what are they going to do in the shadow of the giants? How many individual drums can we beat? And how do we win the battle for Italian wine in America when the largest of the large do not want you inside their tent?

All good questions but I fear there is no solution because the problem is much larger than wine. His last sentence really says it all:

Sounds more like the larger 1%-99% battle that’s being fought in cultural America, doesn’t it?

Indeed it does. Until we lose the winner take all mentality we will not have nice things.

4 comments

  1. Hi Dwight

    It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll see any Santa Margherita, which sells for $18-22 a bottle and is one of the most popular wines in the USA, on the bottom shelves of supermarkets. That’s not the way the market, or a supermarket, works.

    But your larger point is still valid. Most producers in Italy don’t make the kind of volume that is necessary to have a presence in major chains in the USA, and those that do are often, it turns out, owned by large American wine companies. But that is really not so different from years ago.

    The real change is in the consolidation of the distribution network in the US, where 3-5 companies now control a huge amount of the wine sold in the US. When they talk to chains they want to have a steady supply of a very consistent product–and lots and lots of it. And that isn’t Italian wine in general. There are something like 80,000 wine producers in Italy, and very few of them have the financial strength, production volume, and desire to sell massive quantities in the US that are required to take their place alongside the major US brands in supermarkets.

    And supermarkets are not in the business of expanding consumer horizons on wine. They are in the business of making sure that every shelf placement generates enough revenue to justify its presence. Delete all “interesting but unknown” wines, whether they are from Italy or anywhere else.

  2. Paul,
    Agreed. Indeed, if you view my post, one of the pictures has SMPG on the top shelf. And as I said in my post, ” It was all about turning the product.” Turn, baby, turn!

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