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What Can the '80s Teach Us About Making Wine Fun Again?
Yes, those “Riunite on ice" ads may have been corny. But it might be worth looking at what was really going on.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the past year about wine having “an old people problem.” I wrote about this issue back in January, and also last October, when Fred Franzia died. In both pieces, I pushed back against the industry’s use of “starter” or “entry-level” as euphemisms for garbage wine.
Still, the industry continues to push the false idea that younger drinkers with less developed palates will begin drinking lousy “starter” wines and then evolve, as they get older, to consuming more sophisticated, higher-end beverages. This is a “truthy” but ultimately bogus concept. There’s never been a marketing study that shows any significant conversion from “starter” wines to more complex wines. The same percentage of people would be just as likely to move to high-end Burgundy from kombucha or juice boxes or frappuccinos. If wine has an “old people problem” it’s simply because old people still buy the industry’s starter wines.
Case in point is Riunite, the infamous lambrusco with the ubiquitous jingle still burned into the brains of wine drinkers of a certain age (Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice). Riunite was a favorite of Boomers in their younger years, and it’s thought to be an artifact of the 1980s (like big hair, leg warmers, and synthesized power ballads). Yet, to this day, Riunite STILL sells more than a million bottles per year, mostly to the same old people who drank it when they were young.
I published an essay in the May issue of Wine Enthusiast looking at the legacy of Riunite and its unspeakably corny ad campaign. This was a super fun piece to write, and I hope you’ll take a moment to click over to Wine Enthusiast and read it. Beyond re-watching hilarious retro commercials, I did some thinking about how this trip back to the 1980s may shed some light on the wine industry’s age problem:
Yes, Riunite was an affordable, cloyingly sweet, cherry-soda-like wine that might have forever tarnished lambrusco’s good name. Yes, Riunite came in both a jug and individual-sized bottles, with a screwcap, and was—as the ad literally says—best enjoyed with ice cubes. Still, these vintage ads from the 1980s, as ridiculous as they are iconic, may offer a roadmap for an American wine business that suddenly finds itself in a crisis.
Much of the current wine industry’s soul searching happened this year after the annual State of the Wine Industry Report was published by (now defunct) Silicon Valley Bank in February. That report noted a key area where the wine industry is failing is in advertising and promotion.
In 2021, $122 million was spent on wine advertising—much less than beer (nearly $900 million), spirits (more than $500 million) or malt beverages (more than $300 million).“When we do market today,” [reads the report], “we are still largely selling ‘long warm days, cool nights and special soils.’ You know what I mean by that. We spend time talking about the date of harvest, the pH of the wine, acidity and pick dates. We speak of the owner, their background and their successes, if not also the family’s history. That message is, at best, wasted on a younger crowd; at worst, it’s turning them off.”
What to do? Well, I’m not necessarily suggesting that we toss out serious talk about wine in favor of unhinged commercials like the one below—in which a man in Venice sees a beautiful woman passing by in a gondola, then immediately grabs an ice bucket with Riunite and jumps into a speedboat in hot pursuit. We all know, of course, that advertising and marketing success does not equal a good wine. But maybe the answer is also not the current trend of “education marketing,” ie. videos, masterclasses, and lectures on soil types, carbonic maceration, skin contact, and sulfites we’ve all been subjected to, either?
In the end, I think the story of Riunite simply proves my ongoing point that the idea “starter” wines is a fallacy.
As I write in Wine Enthusiast:
The standard narrative is that, as Boomers’ knowledge and appreciation of wine increased during the late 1980s and 1990s, budding wine connoisseurs didn’t want to hear about fizzy red wine anymore. “No one drinks Riunite anymore” was the general consensus. Except that’s not true. In fact, Riunite still sells incredibly well, including 1.4 million bottles in the U.S. in 2020. It’s still the seventh most popular imported wine (just behind Kim Crawford from New Zealand).