ABPG - The struggles of fine Pinot Grigio

By Craig Camp
Friday, July 4, 2003

YOU REMEMBER ABC, that insider phrase used by serious wine types when asked what wine they would like to taste. Their response is ABC, anything but chardonnay. ABC seems to have been recently joined by another varietal: ABPG, anything but pinot grigio. The wild success of pinot grigio in the United States has made it another grape that's too popular to like among those in the know about wine.

As recently as the late 1970s pinot grigio had no foothold in the American market and only local importance even in Italy. As the story goes, Tony Terlato, owner of Paterno Imports, changed all that when he ordered 18 bottles of different pinot grigio wines, while dining alone, to taste one night at a restaurant in Alto Adige, and discovered Santa Margherita. How he found eighteen wines bottled under the name pinot grigio in those days remains a mystery, but the rest, as they say, is history -- or at least legend. Terlato's successful marketing of the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio brand created not only the pinot grigio market in the United States, but also in Italy. Less than 30 years later, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is the number one selling premium imported white wine brand in the United States, reaching combined sales of 445,000 cases in 2002 according to Adams Beverage Dynamics magazine.

This accomplishment has earned Santa Margherita the privilege of being the brand that serious wine folks love to hate: the number one ABPG.

"At first pinot grigio was a chic new name. A name that turned on sophisticated customers," says Ray Capitanini, owner of the Italian Village and Vivere restaurants and creator of the first great Italian wine list in Chicago. "Pinot grigio was the ice breaker for good Italian white wine."

"When I first started in the wine business, I could not figure out why they were so popular," says Seth Allen, president of Vin Divino, a prestigious fine wine importer. "Many were oxidized and were made by people with a commitment to quantity not quality, but then I tasted wines like Eno Friulia and Jermann."

But Santa Margherita is just the tip of the iceberg these days. Pinot grigio sales have exploded in the United States and new domestic examples from California and Oregon are popping up every day. More than 6 million cases of pinot grigio, or about 12% of total wine imports, were projected to be sold in 2002 according to the forecasts of the 2002 edition of The U.S. Wine Market: Impact Databank Review and Forecast. This followed a 40% increase in sales over the previous three years as reported in the same trade journal. These huge surges pushed pinot grigio to the position of the number one imported category of table wine in the United States as it raced past former import leaders merlot and chardonnay.

There's nothing like success to earn you the scorn of connoisseurs.

This scorn is causing a serious marketing problem for Italy's best pinot grigio wines. Howard Silverman, owner of Howard's Wine Cellar in Chicago, observes, "Pinot grigio has become an entry-level wine for inexperienced wine drinkers. The ones that graduate to better wines don't want to go back to the wines they started with and don't try the top wines. The problem for serious Italian pinot grigio is that most pinot grigio drinkers don't want to spend any money. It's easier for me to sell high priced California or Oregon pinot grigio than the best Italians."

The name pinot grigio, or pinot gris as it is called in France, means "gray pinot." The grapes are not actually gray at all, but rather have a light reddish color similar to the flame tokay table grapes you see in American supermarkets. If you buy the classic pinot grigio from Livio Felluga you will notice the wine has a light salmon tinge that it gets from a brief period of skin contact during fermentation. Pinot gris is part of the same family of vines as pinot noir and pinot blanc. The finest examples of this variety are produced in Alsace (France), Friuli and Alto Adige (Italy), and Oregon (US) -- the latter, in particular, seems to be betting its white wine future on it.

"You have to open a lot of bottles to sell premium Italian pinot grigio," says Vin Divino's Allen. "People don't want to spend money on a wine category with a bad image. You have to convince them." Apparently he's doing that with some success: his Peter Zemmer and Villa del Borgo brands each sell more than 50,000 cases per year in the United States.

Yet, as with all mass produced products, somewhere there are keepers of the original flame that created all the heat in the first place. If you look hard enough, you can still find the true believers. Finding good pinot grigio is difficult, but the quality of wines produced by the finest pinot grigio producers in Italy makes it worth your efforts to seek them out.

The best of Italy's pinot grigio wines come from only a few zones in the two northeastern-most regions: Alto Adige (which borders with Austria), and Friuli (along the border with Slovenia). The wines from Alto Adige have a wonderful freshness and acidity from the alpine climate, while the wines from Friuli are richer and more complex. The best Friuli wines come from the zones of Colli Orientali del Friuli, Isonzo, and Collio. As with all things, quality doesn't come cheap and the best examples of Italian pinot grigio start at around $18.00 and can approach the $40.00 mark -- a hard sell indeed.

When it comes to vintages, stick to the youngest wines available for inexpensive pinot grigio wines: not more than a year old. For instance, the crisp, fresh, zesty 2002 Peter Zemmer from Alto Adige is already in the market and is a refreshing aperitif. However, for the more complex pinot grigio wines listed below, two or three years of bottle age will reward you with a more interesting and multi-layered wine.

At the end, we must return to the beginning. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is a crisp, clean wine that will not offend anything except your wallet and your intelligence. It is true it sells in Italy for about €5.50 in a store, but like all brands that establish a category it demands a premium. Sure you can buy facial tissues than cost less than Kleenex, but we still have a tendency to call all the tissue brands Kleenex don’t we?

The finest pinot grigio producers

-Livio Felluga, Collio

-Castello de Spessa, Collio

-Russiz Superiore, Collio

-Cantina Produttori San Michele Appiano, St. Valentin, Alto Adige

-Schiopetto, Collio

-Villa Russiz, Collio

-Borgo San Daniele, Friuli Isonzo

-Viticoltori Caldaro, Soll, Alto Adige

-Alois Lageder, Benefizium Porer, Alto Adige

-Ferdinado e Aldo Polencic, Collio

-Isidoro Polencic, Collio

-Ronco del Gelso, Friuli Isonzo

-Pierpaolo Pecorari

-Bastinaich, Plus, Colli Orientali del Friuli

-Jermann, IGT (Collio)

-Vie di Romans, Dessimis, Friuli Isonzo