Flat as a pie | What a China pizza fest says about Italy’s wine performance

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Oh, Italy. Your reputation for luxury brands and sports, notably football, is strong here in China. You are a major tourist draw. Your culture and history are well-known compared to many others. And who doesn’t like pizza? It’s ubiquitous in China.

Yet Italy’s share of China’s imported bottled wine market is espresso small, usually 5 to 7 percent. Italy is a world-class producer with a modest, to put it nicely, presence in China, and it badly trails France, Australia and Chile.

Yes, I know, Italian grape names are unfamiliar to consumers. And many wineries are small and cannot provide the scale to be national brands. But while Italy is good with splashy gestures–remember when Jack Ma and Alibaba were going to save the day?–it hasn’t done as well reaching the consumers at large that would raise the country’s share.

Again, I know, some people will point to a six-month period or a certain price range of wines and say, “See everybody, sales are improving!” But look at a decade of stats and you’ll find Italy’s share is as flat as a pizza despite the hard work of some people.

Speaking of pizza, instead of talking in general, let me give a specific example of how Italy makes me wonder.

In October 2018, The Beijinger magazine held its annual two-day Pizza Festival. The theme was “Roman Holiday” and drew some 16,000 attendees.

That’s a lot of people for pizza. And the event created plenty of buzz in China’s Italian community. Guess why!?

Because 80% of the festival’s visitors were aged 19 to 39? And had plenty of money to spend? And were willing to try pizza from dozens of vendors and thus showed a curiosity for trying new products? Because an Italian-themed festival packed with young curious moneyed consumers was a superb way to get more exposure of Italian wine?

No, no, no and no.

The festival generated buzz because some Italians got upset about a vendor serving U.S.-style pizza with a cheeky sign stating, “Rome Sucks, Let’s Go to New York.

Even the Italian press picked up the story. And word is Italy’s ambassador to China fired off a message to The Beijinger.

I don’t know if Rome sucks. I haven’t been there. But I do know what does suck — the lack of Italian wine vendors at the festival. The same goes for soda, coffee and other Italian beverage brands. When your main contribution is outrage at a festival practically designed for you and that you didn’t attend, it’s hard to feel sorry for your sorry market status.

Anyway, fast forward a year and The Beijinger’s pizza festival returned. With another Italian slogan (veni, vidi, edi: I came, I saw, I ate) and theme (toga party). And for the first time, it would be held in Shanghai, too.

As I did in 2018, I contacted some Italian wine trade people, sent them the festival details, hoped to drink some of their wine at the event. I know some pizza vendors make a lot of money at the festival. I’m not sure about wine but, depending on price per glass, I guessed selling 100 to 120 bottles of wine over the two days would be enough. And there was nothing to stop several brands from sharing booth costs. At the very least, they would meet lots of new consumers.

How many Italian wine brands showed up at this second Italian-themed pizza festival? As far as I could tell, zero. No one drinking tasty Chianti, Sangiovese, Lambrusco or Aglianico, no toga wearers and non-toga wearers trying Italian wine and saying, “Hey, this is pretty good, I need to find out where to buy more.”

I know some importers had other plans–fair enough. But that no brands, or even more importantly, trade promotion people consider it worthwhile to join events such as this, for the price of a round-trip ticket or two back home, makes me shake my head. They may still be hoping Jack Ma saves the day. Or prefer a comfort zone of dealing with key opinion leaders and consumers at events already predisposed to Italian wines.

By the way, one my favorite Italian-owned pizza places was at the festival — they do a superb capriciosa pie. I grabbed a few slices and enjoyed them with my Australian wine.

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