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Italy: On-Trade / In Gastro Grigio

The on-trade is the perfect habitat for Italian wines, says Tom Bruce-Gardyne. Italian restaurants are fiercely loyal to the wines from home, while Pinot Grigio and gastropubs go together like Dolce & Gabbana

Italy is still one of the hottest brands in the food and drink sector in the UK. Not all of those Italian-style dishes and ready-meals in the supermarket are actually sourced there, but they are at least Italian by aspiration.

Think how much of the total restaurant trade in the UK is built on the twin pillars of pizza and pasta. And how in virtually every bar and café you can buy cappuccino. Admittedly the quality can vary -– there is a bar in Bermondsey, probably not unique, where “cappuccino” means Nescafé with a squirt of fake cream on the top. Yet, in its small way, this too shows how being “Italian” sells.

In the off-trade, Italian wine continues to be bottom-heavy with an average bottle price still around £3.40, some 40p below the average for total light wine. On the perennial issue of how to trade consumers up, Sainsbury’s buyer Julian Dyer suggests, “Some of the glamour and interest in Italian food and style needs to run off onto the wines.” In retail, this is easier said than done. Cross-promotions linking a brand of Italian olive oil, for example, to a brand of Italian wine are notoriously difficult to pull off for logistical reasons.

Captive audience
No such problem exists in the on-trade of course. Here you have a captive audience where the glamour and interest in the country’s cuisine flows naturally into the wines, assuming the list is largely or wholly Italian. On the downside this can lead to complacency, with restaurateurs simply picking the lowest common denominator Soaves, Chiantis and Valpolicellas, simply on price. But on the upside, where there is genuine interest on the part of the buyer and where this is passed on to those serving the wine, it can work brilliantly. Compared to the off-trade, David Gleave MW, believes Italian restaurants “can be more dynamic because the diversity and slight idiosyncrasies of Italy need to be sold, and that is very difficult for a multiple retailer to do. Whereas in the on-trade, if you have got people there who are able to sell and explain, you can put say a Refosco or a Rosso Piceno on the list.” In a store, with just a back label and shelf talker to help, such esoteric wines tend to stick, which is why they tend not to be listed in the first place.

Leo Addis, MD of Eurowines, agrees: “I think there has never been a time in the last 10 years when there has been such a diversity of Italian wines available in the on-trade. In London you now have some very small denominations on wine lists.” By contrast, he feels the big grocers have tended to ignore regionality and have generally been much less dynamic on wine than on food from Italy. This could be simply because so much Italian wine does not fit comfortably into the branded, price-promoted model that the supermarkets seem enslaved to.

Having surged past Italy in the off-trade, particularly in the mid-price battleground, the New World is hungry to gain its share of the on-trade. Having seen Blossom Hill in pubs as a house wine, Claudio Gambarotto, export director for Cavit, says, “There’s no doubt, the big brands are going to take a larger chunk out of the on-trade.”

Yet, of course, there is stiff resistance to successful retail brands moving into the restaurant sector. Like many, Gambarotto, feels this comes more from the trade than the consumer. “At the end of the day we have to deal with the trade and they don’t want to see the same product in both the on- and the off-trade. So for practical, commercial reasons

we keep them separate.” At present 80% of Cavit is sold through the on-trade and independent sector, with solid growth reported for the last 12 months.

Pasta power
The Italian on-trade is a broad church. At its widest definition it could include every licensed outlet in the country that serves pasta – and that doesn’t preclude many. So to split things up, let’s first consider those traditional Italian restaurants that introduced Italy to Britain in the sixties and seventies. Sergio de Luca of Enotria says these Mamma and Papa-style outfits are certainly in decline. “London is very, very tough for this sort of restaurant. Possibly in the North and South where things are not so competitive, it is probably better.

“The main problem is that there is no generational back-up. Often the owners don’t have anyone in the family prepared to take over the business.” This is the classic dilemma of the second or third generation that has gone to university to join a profession. Having seen their parents trapped in a hot, sweaty kitchen day in, day out there is a natural urge to break free. While outsiders might see running a restaurant as a fun way to make a living, those who have seen it from the inside have fewer illusions.

Enotria moved away from the wholly ethnic side of the business in the eighties when it became heavily involved in non-Italian wine –  initially French and now the rest of the world. Since then, the emphasis has been much more on what de Luca calls “white table-cloth restaurants”. The shrinking band of ethnic Italian restaurants have tended to stick with the more ethnic suppliers. First because they may have helped them financially at the outset, giving them the loans to set up in business, and second because they offer the whole package. Companies like Alivini and Ciborio are like Italian cash and carrys, stocking everything from pasta sauces to salami, olive oil and beer.

Gaetano Alfano of Ciborio says the sector has evolved into a new generation of contemporary Italian restaurants where the freehold has been bought years before and there are children keen to stay in the business. An example comes from Gleave. “Take the Di Giorgio boys in Newcastle who have a place called Gusto. They’ve taken over their father’s pizza place, put in a modern Italian restaurant and shown much more interest in the wine side. They’ve updated the offer and that’s why they are doing well.”

Honorary Italians
Where this isn’t the case, the restaurant is sometimes sold to the head waiter who may or may not be Italian. In London, Addis says he has been “surprised at the number of Portuguese people taking over Italian restaurants. They are trying to reproduce the cooking, but some of the authenticity is being lost.” Yet the wine lists are staying Italian, as they are elsewhere, despite the best efforts of other wine regions. “From our point of view the great strength of the Italian on-trade has been its tremendous loyalty to their country’s wines. Clearly, with French and Mediterranean restaurants it’s a different story.”

Addis reckons the big chains like Pizza Express deserve credit for sticking to a wholly Italian list, despite tremendous pressure from the New World. “I think it will ultimately repay them because it will maintain their individuality and difference,” he says. Unfortunately, Caffé Uno, which announced it was going “wholly Italian” in February 2005 has since backtracked slightly. Now part of Paramount Restaurants, the 54-strong chain does sell a few other wines as well.  

The modern pizza/pasta chains which sprung up in the late nineties appear to be thriving. Typically such chains are 20 to 30 strong, have an Italian head chef and a wine list that is compact and fully Italian with prices ranging from around £10 to £20. One of the pioneers was Carluccio’s which has just opened its 25th cafe in London’s Chiswick. All wines are supplied by Enotria which is kept busy seeking out esoteric gems to add interest to a list that has just seven reds and seven whites. These specialities are added for six to eight weeks. Over Christmas Carluccio’s ran a Lazio Sangiovese called Kron. Despite being the most expensive wine at £26.50, it was hugely popular according to the company’s Mike Stocks. Other oddities include Bianchello del Metauro, a tiny DOC virtually unheard of outside its home province of the Marche. “That’s one advantage of having a tight list. On a 40-page list such a wine would get lost,”

says Stocks. 

But no prizes for guessing which wine trumps all. “Pinot grigio is still massive,” says Nick Bielak, Italian specialist at Bibendum, who points out how you now can find it across a wide spectrum. “It can be an entry-level blend with Garganega right up to a single-estate Pinot Grigio at £40.” Of course other countries have noticed and some have been busy planting. “In my personal experience, restaurateurs and consumers have not accepted non-Italian Pinot Grigio,” says Addis. “I think it was a major threat three years ago when Hungarian Pinot Grigio started to come onto the market.”

The varietal has certainly taken Italy into all sectors of the UK on-trade, including national chains whose interest in generic DOC wines is limited. “I think Pinot Grigio has found its way onto pretty well every wine list in the country,” says Addis who feels Italy deserves its turn in the sun after all those years of Australian Chardonnay. Gambarotto believes the wine has established itself long enough to transcend fashion and become a brand. When its popularity does start to fade, it will be very interesting to see whether ex-Pinot Grigio drinkers keep the faith with Italy.

Heading south

Moving into more adventurous territory, southern Italy continues to perform well with its indigenous varietals led by Primitivo and Nero d’Avola. Bibendum has had success with a Sicilian Shiraz and Prosecco, notably in the gastropub sector where Italy is doing particularly well, according to Bielak. He also notes how the top-end Italians, at least those clustered around Piccadilly, have seen a surge in investment given the number of new openings and refurbishments in the last three years. De Luca agrees that these flagship restaurants are doing very well, the only shame being “there are not so many of them”.

Except for an over-reliance on Pinot Grigio which could cause problems in the future, Addis is upbeat: “After a transitional year last year, I am very optimistic about 2006. The on-trade is in better shape financially and quality wine consumption is growing.”  db June 2006

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