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In land of Chianti and Brunello, wine drinking in decline

December 31, 1996

ROME (AP) _ From the ancient birthplace of the god of wine comes sobering news: Bottles of vino _ from rich chianti to bubbly spumante _ are increasingly staying corked.

Wine consumption in Italy has dropped steadily during the past generation and, according to recent figures, the estrangement from the grape shows no signs of reversing.

There’s vexation in the vineyards; concern in the cellars.

``If it keeps up like this, we will be looking at a real crisis,″ said Paolo Bartezaghi, spokesman for the Italian Wine Union. ``I hate to use the word crisis, but that’s what we’re heading toward.″

A study published in November by the Milan-based industry group reported a drop in average per capita wine consumption from 54 liters _ about 14 gallons _ a year in 1991 to a little under 47 liters in 1993.

``And we know it’s gone down a few more liters since then,″ said Bartezaghi.

Theories for the decline reveal as much about Italians’ lifestyle changes as their drinking habits.

The afternoon meal is still long, but often less spirited. ``People, especially in the big cities, are being forced to really work after lunch _ not just disappear,″ said Alessandra Ghelardoni, a director at the Nielson research group’s Milan office, which tracks wine drinking trends in Italy.

And there is an expanding health consciousness.

``Wine?″ said Anna Pizzi, who was heading into a Rome gym. ``Once in a while. You know, it’s really not good for your figure.″

But other Italians _ especially younger ones _ have gravitated to diet-busting fast food and the relatively small, but growing, array of ethnic restaurants and pubs. Sales of beer and liquor, such as Scotch and cream whiskey, have never been higher, the state statistics agency Istat reported.

``In some people’s eyes, having wine is a sign of Italy’s impoverished past,″ said Ghelardoni. ``They want to drink something they see as more up to date with the `new’ Italy.″

``Beer is definitely chic,″ declared Claudio Lancia as he and his date tipped back a pint at one of Irish-style pubs in Rome bankrolled by Guinness and other brewers.

It’s a similar story in other Mediterranean countries where wine once ruled uncontested.

Greek wine consumption has fluctuated since 1961, but generally has been on the decline, to less than 9 gallons a person each year. Meanwhile, the amount of beer drunk has shot up more than eightfold to nearly 11 gallons a year.

In Spain, per capita consumption of wine has dropped nearly half from 15.6 gallons in the 1980s.

But wine producers continue to thrive through expanding exports.

``The U.S. market is in constant growth,″ said Giuseppe Liberatore, director of a consortium of Chianti producers.

Table wine sales in the United States reached a record 387 million gallons in 1995 and were up 7 percent for the first six months of 1996, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute.

About the only good news at home for Italian wine producers is that consumers are becoming more discriminating. Surveys show that sales of top-quality wines _ with their correspondingly higher prices _ are holding steady.

``It’s true that Italians are spending less, but they are spending better,″ said Federico Castellucci, a spokesman for the Federvini trade group.

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