Banfi's new guard wants to thaw Riunite wine image
* Riunite Sweet Red, Sweet White to launch in June
* Banfi courting multicultural market w/ Rosa Regale
* Future acquisitions more likely to be in California
By Martinne Geller
NEW YORK, April 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. wine market has come a long way since 1967 when Banfi Vintners started importing Riunite Lambrusco from Italy. Now, the third generation of the family that runs the company is introducing products and making acquisitions to suit the times.
In June, Banfi will launch Sweet Red and Sweet White varieties of Riunite in the United States, aimed at twenty-something year olds who may never have heard the slogan "Riunite on ice, That's nice".
A vast advertising campaign supporting that catchphrase made the brand the top-selling imported wine in the country at its peak in 1985 with 11.5 million cases sold. That record has yet to be broken.
Banfi expects to sell about 100,000 cases of the sweet wines in the year after the launch, co-Chief Executive Cristina Mariani-May said in an interview this week. "We're hitting a whole new target audience," she said.
The brand will still be marketed in classic fashion to its more traditional customers, think "your uncle's Riunite". But the sweet wines will have a campaign of their own with a large online, social media component to take advantage of the love affair young people are having with sweeter varietals, Mariani-May said.
"That category of wines is very hot right now. It used to be taboo to call something sweet and now it's just the opposite," she said.
Another sweet wine, Moscato, has tripled its sales from 2009 to 2011 in the United States, due partly to heaps of praise from hip-hop artists and television personalities.
"Our philosophy as a family in the imported and production business is graduating people up," said Mariani-May, who runs the business with her cousin James. "They start with Riunite as a younger drinker, and then a lot of times they graduate up into drier wines."
Banfi Vintners, still a private company with no plans to go public, imports a large portfolio of wines including Bolla and Riunite from Italy and Concha y Toro from Chile. It also sells wines from Castello Banfi of Montalcino, the Mariani family's wine estates in Italy.
Perhaps best known for its higher-end Brunello wines, Castello Banfi is trying to attract a more multi-cultural following with its Rosa Regale, a sparkling red wine that appeared in a music video by English R&B singer Estelle.
Banfi, based in Old Brookville, New York, had global net sales of $350 million last year, with a greater proportion coming from the importing business, which grew about 10 percent last year, Mariani-May said.
ACQUISITIONS AND EXPANSION
Founded in 1919 in New York City's Little Italy by Mariani-May's grandfather, John, Banfi is completing due diligence on its proposed acquisition of Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma County, California, from Korbel. This would be Banfi's second purchase of a U.S. vineyard, highlighting a generational shift in company strategy.
"You see the youth always wanting to go out and grow and expand," Mariani-May said, noting that older generations tend to be more cautious.
"I think the beauty of a family business is balancing and respecting that. In a private business, the previous generation never goes away, unlike in public companies, where they exit the room and that's it."
Since so much of the company's investment is in the Euro zone, Mariani-May said Banfi was looking at other vineyards in the United States. She declined to be more specific but noted that the company does not own anything in Napa Valley.
She also said the opportunity for Italian wine was wide open in China, a largely under-developed market.
"It's almost like what the United States was back in the 1970s -- French, French, French," she said.
"They've understood what a Bordeaux is and they've embraced it. The rest is going to come, but I think it's the education. What's a Brunello di Montalcino? What's a Chianti? What are the grapes behind it?" (Reporting By Martinne Geller; Editing by Toni Reinhold)
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