New era on tap for American drinkers

With the Jan. 5 passing of winemaker Harry F. Mariani of Banfi Vintners, another chapter in American wine history could be written.

Mariani, 78, and his brother John, who survives, made their fortunes introducing Americans to Italian wines.

They were working for Banfi, founded in 1919 by their father and his three brothers, when in 1967 the brothers began importing Riunite, a chilled, sparkling sweet red wine that by 1973 was the nation’s largest-selling imported brand.

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember Riunite’s promotional slogan, “Riunite on ice, that’s nice,” which was updated in 2002 to the trendier “Just chill.”

Imports of Riunite peaked at 11.2 million cases in 1984 and accounted for 27 percent of all foreign wines sold in the United States, according to Banfi Vintners.

That success as importers allowed the brothers to branch out, purchase their own vineyards in Italy and on Long Island and by the mid-1990s Banfi was the nation’s leading wine importer, according to The New York Times.

Today, Italian varieties are the leading imported wine in the United States and Americans are drinking more Italian wines than Italians themselves, according to the Italian Wine and Food Institute.

Which brings us to three other major players in the Italo-American wine connection.

In 1933, brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo founded E. & J. Gallo Winery, eventually producing 16 brands of wine and cornering more than 25 percent of the American market.

At one time the company owned nearly half the vineyard acreage in California with annual revenues estimated at $1 billion.

Ernest was in charge of marketing and his desire, according to his biography, was to see the company become the “Campbell Soup Company of the wine industry.”

The Gallos marketed their cheap White Port and Thunderbird wines in inner city markets along with a catchy jingle that in part went, “What’s the word? /Thunderbird/ How’s it sold?/ Good and cold/...”

The company gradually shed its low-rent image to become the largest winemaker in the country and today is the largest privately held wine company in the world.

Ernest Gallo died at the age of 97 on March 6, 2007, less than a month after his brother Julio.

The third of our Italian triumvirate is Robert Mondavi, who, dismissed in 1952 from Charles Krug, went on to build his own eponymous winery and his great fortunes.

As Mondavi noted in his 1998 memoir, “Harvests of Joy,” he found his mission doing “whatever it took to make great wines and to put the Napa Valley on the map right alongside the great winemaking centers of Europe.”

In 1968, he took Sauvignon Blanc, at the time an unpopular variety, and rebranded it as “Fumé Blanc,” figuring it was something Americans could pronounce.

The wine was so successful that Fumé Blanc became an accepted synonym for Sauvignon Blanc.

By the time Mondavi sold his winery in 2004, it was sixth-largest winery in the United States with annual sales of 9.7 million cases, according to Wine Business Monthly.

Mondavi remained as chairman emeritus until his death on May 16, 2008, at the age of 94.

As we head into Italian Wine Week, Feb. 3–9, with special events held in New York City, it’s fitting to remember these pioneers.

In 1993, Mariani told the New York Times that wine was always a part of his life, “it was never taboo.”

And at every meal, Harry Mariani would toast: “A tavola non s’invecchia,” which can be translated to, “When dining at the table with family and friends, one does not grow old.”

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