MILAN, Italy (Reuters) - Italian winemaker Luigi Mancini was having so much trouble selling wine in London that he gave up on his own language.
Faced with sceptical restaurateurs he switched the label for his white wine to the more familiar French name to win them over. “Pinot Nero is not well known, while Pinot Noir is,” he said.
Mancini, who exports about half of what he produces from his vineyard near Pesaro on the Adriatic coast, blamed the confusion over his wine on the haphazard way in which his country promoted its wines overseas. “We could all sell more,” he said.
Giorgio Serra, who recently became responsible for wine at the Buonitalia state marketing agency, said the problem lay with the disorderly way in which Italy’s regions tried to get more people to drink their Barolos, Brunellos and Barbarescos.
“What we need to do is set up a national plan,” he said: the regions rarely coordinate their promotional campaigns. “We will lose out to the competition (if we don’t).”
Serra’s resolve to clean up the marketing mess strengthened during a recent trip to Japan where he found French wine dominating restaurant menus.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a Japanese who knows about Campania wine,” he said.
One area where the regions were in need of help was in organising wine tastings, said Lucio Caputo, a promoter of Italian wine in New York.
“In some cases, they (regions) bring a company that has no representation in this country,” he said. “Even if someone is interested, they can’t buy the wine because it isn’t available.”
Although France and Italy fill more glasses than any other country in the world, they face fierce competition from likes of Australia, Chile, and the United States, which often use cheap prices and slick marketing tactics.
Between 2001 and 2005, Australia nearly doubled its export market share to 10.5 percent in terms of tonnes, according to figures from Ismea, a farm research body based in Rome.
By contrast, Italy’s share of that market declined from 23.73 percent to 18.88 percent.
Italy stood to lose even more market share if it did not follow France’s example, Serra said: “Small producers will suffer most.”
In France, winemakers work closely with promotional agencies to target specific markets or countries.
Sopexa, partially owned by the French state, is the agency which Serra would most like Buonitalia, which also promotes olive oil and other foodstuffs, to copy.
“You just have to visit the supermarkets and restaurants (overseas) to see how far the French are ahead of us,” he said.
Given their small size and budgets, Italy’s regions were at a disadvantage to big wine giants such as U.S.-based Constellation Brands, known for its Robert Mondavi and Woodbridge brands.
“Two or three companies control 80 percent of the production in those (New World) countries,” said Andrea Sartori, head of UIV, the country’s biggest confederation of winemakers.
“In Italy, it’s the reverse,” he said, adding: “Nobody is big enough to lead the way for the country.”
But Andrea Rea, a marketing expert at Milan’s Bocconi University, said Italy’s huge variety of wines should give it a competitive edge because its New World rivals focused on a much narrower selection like Merlot and Shiraz.
“Italy, in its disorder, is essentially competitive,” he said, adding that it had a lot of room to grow. “There are about 770,000 makers of wine, 30,000 of whom put it in bottles.”
Serra has already started work in Japan.
After learning that the Japanese used a French handbook to train sommeliers, he had printed a rival Italian manual: “This was just to even things out a bit.”
Serra is also broadening his marketing blitz to include China, India, and the United States.
But many regions could be sceptical of his strategy after having spent the last 20 years turning their cheap table wines into premium labels, said Rea.
After organising trips abroad for producers from all over the country, Lucio Tasca, chairman of the association of Sicilian wine makers, said he saw no reason for state involvement.
“If you organise things well, you can do things well (without the state’s help),” he said.
Given the challenges facing Serra, UIV’s Sartori said he was realistic about how long it would take Buonitalia to become the next Sopexa. “It’ll take another 20 years. I won’t live to see the end of it.”