Sat 31 Mar 2012
E&J Gallo’s Carlo Rossi brand.
Yes, the wine in the bulbous 1.5-liter bottle that we — of a certain age — glugged down in graduate school and thereafter, until knowledge, experience and more or less financial stability pointed us toward more sophisticated and better quality wines, a process that opened doors to a vinous world beyond our ken: that label captures 7 percent of the entire wine market in Poland. Add Gallo’s Barefoot label, and the figure climbs to a 9 percent share of the Polish market for the giant Modesto-based company. For Carlo Rossi alone, that’s about four million liters annually, amounting to 3 billion PLN or 9.3 billion dollars. (Duh, I think that should be $1.1 billion; see the comment from sharp-eyed math whiz Jim.) The population of Poland is only about 38.2 million.
My attention was drawn to this phenomenon by a news item, issued on March 21, by Just Drinks (and reported by other sources) that Central European Distribution Corporation had signed an agreement with Gallo to distribute its products in Poland for three more years. CEDC is one of the world’s largest producers and distributors of vodka, as well as a major presence in Poland, Hungary and Russia for the multitude of whiskeys and other spirits and liqueurs that it imports. The company was founded by William V. Carey in 1997, as an outgrowth of a defunct company he and his father had exporting beef to Poland. Carey remains CEDC’s chairman and CEO. The company is headquartered in Warsaw but keeps an office in the United States.
There was an actual Carlo Rossi, that is, Charlie Rossi, a longtime salesman for Gallo who was related to the family by marriage. He went to work for the company in 1953, and in 1962 the Carlo Rossi Mountain Red label was released. Production of Mountain Red ceased in 1975 and Carlo Rossi Paisano, of which I and my then wife and our friends drank many a glass, stepped up to the plate as the label’s mainstay. Rossi was the spokesman for the brand and in the 1970s was somewhat of a pop culture figure because of the ubiquitous television commercials and his famous slogan, “I like to talk about wine, but I’d rather drink it.” In the commercials, Rossi looked as if he meant what he said. He died in Modesto — seems fitting — in April 1994 at the age of 90.
In the intervening years, the Carlo Rossi label has expanded considerably. In addition to Paisano, the line includes, for reds, Burgundy, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti, Merlot, Sangria and Sweet Red (isn’t that redundant?); for whites, Chablis, Chardonnay and Rhine; and then Blush, Vin Rose and White Zinfandel. These are available in 1.5 or 3 or 4-liter jugs or 5-liter boxes.
I contacted Ewa Wielezynska, vice editor-in-chief of Magazyn Wino, based in Warsaw, for her assessment of the situation.
“This single brand made California the best selling region in Poland,” she said. “I’m not even sure if people know that it’s from California, maybe they think it’s Italian. Carlo Rossi is in every country site, in every gas station in the deepest provinces. The day that Carlo Rossi is dethroned will be a day when Polish people actually start to like wine.”
Wielezynska said that in Poland advertising alcoholic beverages over 7 percent alcohol is forbidden under the Education in Sobriety law, but “Gallo is very clever in their strategy, so they advertise their products through virtual events, concerts and CD promotions.”
Here’s an example of a Carlo Rossi promotion tied to Fashion Week Poland:
Meet me at Carlo Club, anyone?