Countless U.S. consumers first tasted Italian wine from a Riunite bottle in the 1980s. The brand was booming — and continues to thrive today, celebrating 50 years in 2017 — thanks to its line of sweet, light, semi-dry, fruity wines from central Italy.
I recently spoke with Cristina Mariani May — fourth generation CEO of Banfi Vintners, owner of Riunite — about this 50th anniversary and modern wine trends.
Beverage Wholesaler: How did Riunite reach five decades?
Cristina Mariani May: Over the years we’ve always said that it’s got to be in the bottle.
Riunite is mostly the lambrusco style, of course. When my father and uncle first began to work with a cooperative in Italy to bring these wines over in 1967, the taste profile really didn’t exist yet in America. Riunite wines are sweeter, more fizzy, chilled, and more approachable, especially at their price of around $5.99.
Riunite sold more than any other imported wine in the ‘80s, and today Riunite Lambrusco remains the top-selling Italian red import because of that taste.
BW: Sweet has not seemed to go out of style in America.
CMM: As we know, consumers always talk dry, but drink sweet. Look at popular wines today: moscato, Riesling, red blends: there’s higher levels of residual sugar in those as well. Taste profiles will always be sweet. Especially for people just entering wine.
Our wines are naturally sweet because we cut short the fermentation process. We don’t add any sugars, which we believe plays into a couple modern trends: the ‘pure’ trend, and the move towards lower-alcohol wines. It’s about healthiness today. More people care about the ingredients.
BW: You invented fermentation barrels that are half oak, half stainless steel. How does those work?
CMM: These are patented technologies. You get the benefits of fermenting in oak with the cleanliness and ease-of-use of stainless steel.
We first started using these in 2007. We only have 25 of them and they’re for our high-end reds. The barrels are 120-hectoliters. Their sides are all wood panels, which of course the wine gets exposed to. The cap and the bottom are stainless steel. The steel cap allows you to get in and out of the barrel easily and clean it, unlike with a wooden top.
Along the edges of the cap and bottom are silicon gaskets. This is patented technology. The silicon has the expandability of wood. The gaskets keep the seal intact between the breathable wood and the inert steel.
BW: You’ve also moved into another modern trend, kegging.
CMM: The trend hasn’t caught on as quickly as we would have expected. The restaurants and retail outlets are still slowly converting over to this system. Though it’s definitely a positive trend and moving in the right direction.
We believe in it for its sustainability, lack of waste, and affordability. The price per ounce goes down tremendously. We work with a company called Free Flow. We bring our wine to them and they keg it.
BW: What’s next for Banfi?
CMM: We’re going to get deeper into our roots, where we feel our research and development can pay off. For instance we’re working on replanting and improving the sustainable characteristics of our 7,100 acres in Montalcino.
The popularity of that area does not slow down. It continues to be a crown jewel of Italian wine. The territory is so heavily claimed that you really need to be advancing the technology of your vineyards with better planting, trellising, etc.
And we’re looking to take that tech develop in Montalcino and spread it out to our vineyards in greater Tuscany and Piedmont.
In the U.S. market there’s such proliferation of brands. For companies like us the challenge is to take our authentic story and tell it to consumers so that it stays in their minds. You really have to get out there and educate. It sounds very grassroots, but that’s the way the market’s going. After all, not everyone can advertise in the Super Bowl.
We believe people will come back to a brand if they believe in it, and if the price and taste are right. We see a movement in the U.S. towards premiumization, and towards affordable luxury. We want our drinkers to graduate from Riunite to our premium wines.
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Beverage Wholealer. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece 7 Wine Trends To Watch In 2017.