Hard seltzer has unquestionably swept the nation over the past year. In fact, Americans bought more hard seltzer than vodka in 2019. And with its light, fruity taste, low-calorie content, and successful marketing campaigns, it’s easy to see why young people are so drawn to the stuff. But while it may seem as though the hard seltzer phenomenon is an unprecedented one, its popularity is distinctly similar to a trend the wine industry has seen before: the rise of Lambrusco.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Lambrusco’s popularity was unmatched. In fact, in 1981, five of the top six best-selling imported wines were in the Lambrusco category. Typically red but occasionally rosé or white, the sparkling wine was, and is, a relatively inexpensive option, with a low calorie content and an easy-drinking quality.
Today, many think of Lambrusco — a wine from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy — as a low-quality and headache-inducing option, its sweetness impeding any depth of flavor. And though this may be true when it comes to cheaper versions, bottles in the $20 to $30 range can actually be dry, acidic, and contain a multitude of flavors.
Misconceptions surrounding Lambrusco likely stem from memories of the cheap, dessert-like bottles from the late ’70s and early ‘80s, and the cheesy commercials that made them famous. As American demand for wine rose in general back in the ’70s, French wine prices soared, making cheap Italian wines an ideal purchase for thrifty consumers. Brands such as Ruinite and Cella — the top two best-selling brands in 1981 — leaned into tactics appealing to young drinkers, employing fun, summery TV commercials to promote their bubbly wines.
The easy-drinking quality of both Lambrusco and hard seltzer has undoubtedly contributed to their success with young drinkers. Lambrusco and hard seltzer’s light, sessionable qualities are marked by low ABVs. A 12-ounce can of White Claw, for example, has an ABV of 5 percent, while a 5-ounce glass of Riunite Lambrusco has an ABV of 8 percent — an alcohol content lower than a typical red wine. And with only 100 calories in a 12- ounce can of hard seltzer, and 125 calories in a 5-ounce serving of Lambrusco, these fruity beverages make for ideal options for health-conscious drinkers or those who want a lighter, sweeter option on hot summer days.
This Ruinite ad from the 1970s promotes the bubbly wine as being ideal for young drinkers around the world, and even touts the Lambrusco as being “pure and natural.” This bears distinct resemblance to White Claw’s marketing techniques — showing imagery of young people drinking in various adventurous settings and boasting the beverage’s “all natural flavors” and negligible calorie content.
And these ads were successful. In the ‘80s, Lambrusco was extremely popular among young people. According to Clif Louis, longtime owner of The Vineyard Wine Shop in Denver, the shop sold “a lot of Lambrusco back in the ‘80s.” Louis notes that “it was primarily a younger clientele who were looking for a fun summertime red they could sip by the pool,” and jokes that these buyers would “graduate from Coke to Boone’s Farm to Lambrusco.”
Geared Toward Fun
Like current hard seltzer commercials, Lambrusco ads kept the tone light, fun, and sometimes humorous. The (in)famous “Chill a Cella” ads from the ‘80s feature Aldo Cella, an Italian caricature who drinks Cella Lambrusco at outdoor restaurants, and shares wine with beautiful women. Though the commercials say more about the fictional Aldo Cella than they do about the aforementioned wine, they do get one important message across: Lambrusco equals fun.
Bud Light Seltzer has employed similar tactics by including celebrity appearances from Post Malone in its commercials. Though executed in a more modern way, these commercials employ a similar strategy to Cella’s. Using goofy yet somehow aspirational men to appeal to their consumers, these ads keep the tone silly and entertaining — and consumers want to be a part of whatever’s going on.
The similarities between these products’ advertisements don’t stop there. Both modern hard seltzer ads and ‘80s Lambrusco commercials lean into their easy-drinking, summery reputations. This 1981 Riunite commercial, showing a group of young friends pairing Lambrusco with hot dogs at a summer picnic, is distinctly similar to this 2018 Truly ad, in which a group of similarly aged friends enjoy Truly at a beach party, and this 2019 Natty Light Seltzer commercial featuring a boat, a tailgate, and a bro shouting “aloha, beaches.” In these ads, the sessionable sippers go hand-in-hand with budding romances, outdoor partying, and carefree attitudes.
So, Who’s Buying Lambrusco Now?
Old habits die hard, says Elena Lottici, Cantine Riunite’s export director. “Young people were the main consumers of Riunite” in the ’80s, she says, and these customers “have been loyal to the brand and are still drinking Riunite to this day.”
However, despite Riunitie’s claim of a loyal consumer base, retailer Nathan Gordon says that Lambusco’s “demographic hasn’t changed, the generations have.” Young people “who are curious about wine, experimental in their tastes, and not old enough to remember the heyday of Riunite,” he says, are still the biggest buyers of Lambrusco at The Vineyard Wine Shop. The shop’s older clientele, Gordon says, “are pretty sure that Lambrusco can only be one thing, and that they’ve long since moved beyond it. They’re the same folks who look at you funny when you mention Chablis as a quality wine region instead of cheap white wine in a jug.”
Though Lambrusco can be much more than the one-note wine that baby boomers remember, it seems that many older buyers can’t move past the vision of Lambrusco that was marketed to them in their teenage years. One might think that Lambrusco could endure the same fate as Zima, the clear, sparkling, hard seltzer-like beverage popularized in the 1990s. While Zima attempted to make a comeback in 2017 and 2018, most consumers laughed off its return, considering it a humorous relic that should have died in the ‘90s, along with mood rings and butterfly clips. Needless to say, Zima did not make another return in 2019.
But all hope isn’t lost. In fact, Lambrusco is more popular today than you might think. It remains one of Italy’s top exported wines, and sales are soaring in Latin America. Perhaps Lambrusco can make a comeback among seltzer-drinking American youth.
Lottici says Riunite’s days of “Riunite on ice, that’s nice” TV commercials are over. Instead, the brand has adjusted its marketing strategy to fit the times — and, more specifically, its audience — by “relying heavily on the digital realm,” she says.
Modernizing Lambrusco’s packaging has also been a vital force in keeping Lambrusco sales alive in today’s wine market, according to Rico Grootveldt, export manager at Chiarli. “Lambrusco producers have made leaps and bounds with modern, updated packaging, but we need producers across the board to re-style their packaging, giving added value to the product,” Grootveldt tells Wine Business International. These revamping techniques allow Lambrusco bottles to match what’s on the inside, as modern Lambrusco offerings are often dry or lightly sweet — a departure from the cloying, juice-like bubbles of the ’80s.
Through rebranding and newfound usage of social media marketing, such as partnerships with influencers, Lambrusco brands may once again garner the attention of young, calorie- and wallet-conscious Americans.