October 30, 2013 9:54:18 AM
TORANO NUOVO, Italy -- It's harvest season at the family-run vintner Emidio Pepe in central Italy and workers are wading into the vineyards, hand-picking grapes and pressing them under their boots in giant wooden vats.
The seasonal ritual has brought together generations of rural communities. But the final product, the highly-rated Pecorino white, is now more likely to be enjoyed in New York or Beijing than in the local village of Torano Nuovo, in the Abruzzo region. That's because wine-drinking in Italy, one of the world's biggest producers, is hitting record lows, forcing many vintners to seek buyers abroad.
Consumption is at its weakest since Italy was unified as a country in 1861, according to Coldiretti, the main farmers' association. The most immediate cause has been the economic downturn, which has pinched incomes. But that has just accelerated what has been a decades-long slide in consumption.
Italians are expected to drink 10.6 gallons a head this year, down from 11.9 gallons before the financial crisis began in 2007 and just about a third of the 29 gallons seen in the 1970s, according to Assoenologi, the main enologists' association.
In the past 25 years, wine "has become a hedonistic product, which is not part of Italians' basic diet anymore," said Michele Fino, law professor and wine expert from the University of Gastronomic Studies in Pollenzo.
That leaves it more exposed to short-term fluctuations in economic conditions. The two-year recession was like "the flu that arrives when one's defenses are already low," Fino said.
Italians' change of attitude is going hand in hand with the increasing popularity of other, more casual alcoholic drinks -- above all, beer, particularly among the young. While the average Italian's consumption of wine is only a third of what it was in the 1970s, beer drinking has doubled.
"We like beer because it's more refreshing, lively, soft and lighter," said Francesco Rizzo, a 30-year-old hanging out with friends one night in Campo de' Fiori, one of Rome's nightlife hotspots where beer is a top choice.
Other traditional wine-producing countries in Europe, such as Spain and France, have also seen a drop in wine consumption. But the shift to other drinks is less dramatic. In Spain, people already drink twice as much beer as they do wine.
With interest ebbing at home, more than 50 percent of Italian wine is currently exported, up from 28 percent in 2000. The biggest buyers are the United States and Germany. But sales are rising quickly in many new markets. In China, for example, they grew by almost a fifth from 2011 to 2012.
But it's mainly top-end wines that find a way on foreign markets, meaning many Italian producers of low- and mid-range wines are still suffering.
"Paradoxically, the wines that do best during an economic crisis are the most expensive ones because those who buy top-end wines are those with economic means, and therefore those who suffer the crisis the least," said food and wine expert Daniele Cernilli.
Emidio Pepe is one such example.
Sofia Pepe, who is in charge of production and sales, said the company had been able to weather the recession by securing a loyal customer base abroad that is willing to pay its high prices. Its bottles go from 15 euros for a 2011 Trebbiano to 300 euros for the 1964 Montepulciano.
Sofia says Emidio Pepe relies on its reputation for producing organic wines made with traditional methods. No weed killers, filters or purifiers are used in the production process. Demand has held up, with some 45 percent of production exported, up from 20-25 percent in the 1970s.
"We're lucky because recently people have been rediscovering unadulterated wines, genuine wines, so we've not really been affected by the crisis," Pepe said.
Incarnating that foreign interest was Chris Leo, a 39-year-old American who participated in the vintner's harvest this year. Leo, who decided to fly over from Los Angeles after tasting an Emidio Pepe wine back home and loving it, argued that interest in wine would endure the slump in Italy.
"In good times you can drink wine in an expensive restaurant, in bad times you can have an incredible dinner in your house with a bottle of a wine on the table," he said. "I think there is always a need for wine."