Prosecco Makes Its Case

At the upscale, respected Range restaurant in San Francisco’€™s gentrified Mission District, one of the house specialty drinks is called Backwards in Heels, an homage to Ginger Rogers. The drink is a combination of vodka, ginger, kumquat and Prosecco, the latter beverage an Italian sparkling wine that plays a close second fiddle to the king, Champagne, as Rogers did to Fred Astaire.

The star of the latest bubbly act in America, however, may just be Prosecco, with its unassuming nature, modest price and perfect flavor profile (fresh fruit from the Charmat fermentation method, uncomplicated and instantly likeable) that is appealing on its own and adds so much to mixed drinks.

Indeed, it was a mixed drink called the Bellini Cocktail, made with peaches, which may have pushed Prosecco into the limelight decades ago after its invention at Harry’€™s Bar in Venice. Traditionally made from one part peach puree and two parts of any sparkling wine, the Bellini seems to have rapidly been transmogrified into Prosecco and white peach puree. And now, as with the Range specialty drink, there are numerous variations on a theme.

What has the industry buzzing over the last few years in regard to Prosecco is the fact that it has been around for a long time, and was, decades ago, considered a simple, modest, and not-very-elegant sparkling wine from grapes no one ever heard of ‘€“ or could pronounce.

The difference today is that Italy has made its greatest strides with white wines over the last 30 years, mainly as a result of greater use of high-tech tactics that preserve the fruit and make for wines with a more lively personality.

None of this was possible 30-plus years ago when there were few stainless steel tanks, cold fermentation, and sophisticated bottling equipment in places that only made modest wine.

Modest wine then meant modest prices, which meant that the wineries didn’€™t have the money to add in sophisticated equipment with which to make a greater wine.

Over the last two decades, however, some multi-national corporate investment into Prosecco has helped wine makers to maximize the flavors of their white wines, a common tale throughout Italy – with wines from Garganega, Fiano, Cortese, and dozens of other white wines that once were poorly received because they weren’€™t properly made. Today many of these wines are being made so well they can stand on their own two feet.

Prosecco now stands on its own, but still is a popular addition to mixed drinks. There is no particular reason for Prosecco as a choice for mixed drinks over other bubblies, but the fact that the wine is perfectly suited for mixed drinks certainly helps. Its fresh fruit is uncomplicated by such things as long aging on the lees, yeasty-ness and other Champagne-y issues.

On its own, Prosecco is made to be fresh and fruity, best when consumed young, which is the opposite of great Champagne, the best of which rely on aged elements.

‘€œThe category of Prosecco in general is very active right now primarily because Champagne has abdicated the market with its high prices,’€ says Wilfred Wong, Cellar Master for BevMo!, which operates 118 stores around the country. ‘€œAlso, Champagne is usually a little more austere, and Millennial wine drinkers seem to like the fruitiness of Prosecco. And it’€™s great for making Bellini Cocktails because the flavors of the Prosecco don’€™t interfere with the peach.’€

As the economy recovers from the recession that hurt all sales of alcoholic beverages, Prosecco has bubbled to the top of the sales charts partly, says Wong, because ‘€œAmericans love aperitifs’€ and he noted that for the most part, excellent Prosecco can be bought for less than $20 a bottle.

The leaders in Prosecco sales in the United States over the last year, of some 30 imported brands, are Mionetto, Lunetta (imported by Palm Bay International), E&J Gallo’€™s La Marca, and fast-growing Zonin.

Rapid Growth

Enore Ceola, managing director of Mionetto, based in White Plains, N.Y., said the entire Prosecco category is rapidly growing, ‘€œand Mionetto has been doing this for 15 years. We developed a strong distribution system and now have some wonderful partners in some chains. ‘€œWe have a lot of experience here and, like Moscato, this is a discovery item for the millennials.’€

What’€™s fascinating, Ceola notes, is that Prosecco ‘€œis not perceived as a celebratory item’€ the way Champagne is. ‘€œTo many new drinkers, it’€™s an every-day beverage, and that it is very pleasant also with food.’€ Mionetto, which this year celebrates 125 years making Prosecco, today offers eight different Proseccos, including an entry-level product with a crown cap. ‘€œIt’€™s made in a frizzante style, simple but elegant,’€ he said. Moreover, the company makes bottlings in various sizes, from the smaller (picnic- and on-premise-oriented) 187mls, 375mls, 750mls, 1.5l sizes.

‘€œThe 187s are very popular in by-the-glass pours at restaurants,’€ he said.

‘€œThe most interesting development is the success of the 1.5s. People are finding that it’€™s a good gift item, for $25 you can bring a 1.5 liter to a host for a dinner party.’€

Among Mionetto’€™s offerings are IL Prosecco DOC, Prosecco Brut DOC, Prosecco-Certified Organic, MO Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene DOCG and Sparkling MO Cuvée Rosé 1887; Il Lambrusco; Il Moscato, and Mionetto Moscato Dolce.

Il Prosecco, a DOC that has just 10.5% alcohol, is perfect for today’€™s younger buyers who are seeking a lower-alcohol wine. Some of the more premium items are primarily sold on-premise and in finer wine stores. ‘€œThey are doing very well with sommeliers,’€ said Ceola, who added that the company’€™s growth over the last year has been up 28%.

Steve Howard, marketing manager for Zonin USA, has been ecstatic over the last year by his brand’€™s sales increases.

Between 2010 and 2011, the company’€™s Prosecco enjoyed 60% growth, ‘€œand year-to-date, though June 1, we have already passed last year’€™s total sales,’€ he said.

Part of this increase in sales has been a result of pro-active advertising campaigns that Zonin has undertaken, which includes TV advertising (on food channels), and the work his sales team has done to establish chain partners as well as addressing the needs of the on-premise market.

‘€œWe have opened a ton of businesses; it’€™s been amazing,’€ said Howard. ‘€œWhat’€™s really encouraging is that the on-premise market for Prosecco has really taken off. The growth is three times what the on-premise was a couple of years ago.’€

Among the chain operations Zonin has a presence in are three huge internationals, TGI Fridays, Olive Garden, and Claim Jumper.

‘€œA lot of it has to do with the price point,’€ he said, ‘€œbut also it’€™s hot. And we are seeing a lot of reaction from social media, which has gotten younger people involved. They are saying, ‘€˜Why spend $48 on a French wine when you can spend $15 on a Prosecco?’€™’€

The Prosecco phenomenon predates the more recent excitement in some wine circles by Moscato, which three years ago was a virtual blip in the radar screen. Prosecco has been around long before Giuseppe Ciopriani, at Harry’€™s Bar in Venice, developed the drink decades ago.

‘€œMoscato has been hot for the last three years and now outsells Processo,’€ said Howard, ‘€œbut Prosecco has a lot going for it,’€ and he expects Prosecco to again outsell Moscato soon.

He’€™s proud of the fact that ‘€œProsecco used to be an IGT [Indicazione Geofgrafica Tipica] wine until Mr. [Gianni] Zonin made it a DOC.’€ Diligent campaigning by Zonin with the Italian government helped create Prosecco as a DOC. Starting in 2009, the wines Prosecco di Conegliano and Prosecco di Valdobbiadene were elevated to DOCG status, carrying with it far more prestige. Wong of BevMo! pointed out that Prosecco’€™s growth in his stores has been steady and, at times, surprisingly volatile.

‘€œI’€™m not saying it will replace Chardonnay [as the consumer’€™s favorite white wine], but it’€™s a great alternative, restaurants like it, and retailers like it. Champagne has this crème brulee sort of character, but Prosecco is simpler and easier to sip.’€

He said marketing companies have noted a large portion of the wine that’€™s consumed at home is ‘€œwhile you’€™re cooking, especially if they are into food and wine. Usually it’€™s about five ounces of something light, usually white, and for some people Prosecco is that perfect wine to sip while you’€™re cooking.’€

He recalled that some 25 years ago, the late Julia Child, on her televised cooking shows, always sipped a wine while cooking, considering it a mandatory adjunct to the show. Wong said it’€™s affordable, serves as a cocktail substitute, and is elegant.

BevMo! has an extensive collection of Proseccos (inventories vary by region and store location) and include both Prosecco di Conegliano and Prosecco di Valdobbiadene as well as more modest versions. Among the brands are Zardetto di Conegliano; Cinzano; Zefiro (with a little Chardonnay added); Nino Franco; Mionetto; LaMarca; Lunetta; Santa Margherita, and Maschio. ‘€œThe range has grown over the years, and we try to offer a broad range because the consumer is getting more knowledgeable about the different brands,’€ said Wong.

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