There are two cliches about Italians that generally hold true. One is that they dress well.
Another is that they make great wine.
Now the two industries are joining forces in a publicity push designed to capture the US market and boost Italy's global wine exports. Italy already comes first in terms of volume of world exports, with a market share of 22% as of 2010. According to Coldiretti, Italy's Agricultural association, Italian wine exports rose 13% from 2010 - 2011 to a value exceeding 4 billion euro. This is an all time high. On the flip side wine consumption in Italy is falling and the country has become increasingly reliant on exports to buoy up the industry. France - Italy's long-standing rival, comes first in terms of value.
Istat, the Italian National Institute of Statistics, identifies the closure of 2011 with a general levelling off of wine exports, in keeping with the economic climate. Italy remained flat at 4%. Istat issued a word of warning: " Italian exports are still largely concentrated on the 'old world', that is Germany and the US, who account for over 900 million euro each. In terms of knowledge of the market, this is positive; but with regards to Italy's impact in emerging markets, it is negative. Instead of being seen as a protagonist, Italy looks like a support act." France is no longer the only threat. Pressure is mounting from relative newcomers like Australia, South Africa and South America who have carved out a name on the international stage with fine tasting wines and appealing prices. Italy's primary market is the US where it dominates with a 33% quota. This is good news. The US is the largest export market and it is predicted that they will soon become the largest group of wine consumers in the world with a net value of 45 billion dollars. But aggressive competition from new wine-producing nations coupled with the global economic downturn is making Italy nervous. It is time to wheel in the big guns. There are few better ways to grab attention in the US than with celebrity endorsement. Better still are celebrities from the world of fashion whose very presence beside a bottle of wine, or on a wine label, could spark a buying frenzy.
"As soon as you say 'Prada and Brunello', 'Ferrari or Maserati and Brunello', it makes a very vital association, especially for consumers around the world that might not know the differences in the wine," said Cristina Mariani-May, co-CEO of Banfi, who produce the full-bodied Brunello red. Altagamma, Italy's luxury industry body, is getting behind the push for celebrity endorsed wine with a photo exhibition of Italian luxury products, including wine, to start in Shanghai this summer. Altagamma Chairman, Santo Versace, brother of Donatella Versace, explains: "It is clear that fashion is more eye-catching, better known around the world. Wherever we go, we bring along our Italian wines and make them known."
Italy has long used its VIPs - or they have used it - to cement the association between lifestyle and wine. Roberto Cavalli, himself a Tuscan, produces wine from his Tuscany vineyards and embosses the bottles with leopard print and RC logo'd labels.
Salvatore Ferragamo sidestepped fashion in the early nineties for the more relaxing pursuit of crushing grapes - to deluxe standards, and Diesel boss Renzo Rosso has his very own Diesel Farm on which to lovingly harvest his crop. Versace, Missoni, Valentino, Blumarine and Alberta Ferretti have all put their names to special-edition wines. And Giorgio Armani went one step further by inaugurating the opening of a Tokyo wine bar with 300 bottles of Italian wine. In other words, wine is the ultimate jet-set hobby and there are countless high-profile evangelists clinging to its cause. This is likely to resonate in emerging markets like Russia, China and India, where knowledge of Italian wines is at present, limited but celebrity knowledge high.
This year's VinItaly in Verona - the biggest international wine conference in the world, saw a marked increase in the number of Chinese, Canadian and South American buyers. Along with Russia and India these emerging markets have large and young populations who are receptive to Western influences. What works in terms of marketing in the US will likely do well when rolled out there. The VivaVinoLA wine conference, set to take place in Los Angeles in May, will further bolster Italy's presence in the US.
Organised by the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, this year's fair features 150 wine producers.
Collectively, they will emphasize the uniqueness of Italy's diverse wine-producing territories. "If wine consumption in the US continues to rise, it's due to two categories of consumer: the young, and women - especially in the 21 - 33 year old age group. The American consumer prefers Italian wine not only for the taste, but above all for the sense of culture and tradition that the bottle transmits," explains Letizia Miccoli, Director General of the Chamber of Commerce.
If this is the same demographic who would buy Roberto Cavalli clothes, Italy is on to a winning deal.