In the early 1980s, I may have been a few years from drinking wine, but during a football game, or when the babysitter let me stay up late to watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, certain very memorable commercials promoting a wine called Riunite and a fittingly fantastical lifestyle of leisure would appear. The scenarios of these ads would vary slightly, but in the end, they always arrived at the slogan: Ruinite on ice…so nice. In some, a group of vibing, good-looking young people might be enjoying a day of skiing and eating fondue. Or they might be having a sunny barbecue, grilling hot dogs and playing softball. Or they might be at a resort, by the pool, watching a man contort under a flaming limbo stick. Or the scene might suggest romance in exotic locales, with men who looked like Tom Selleck and women who looked like Farrah Fawcett.
One memorable ad is set in Venice, where a man with a sweater tied around his shoulders sees a beautiful woman passing by in a gondola; he immediately grabs an ice bucket with the bottle already chilling in it, jumps into a speedboat in hot pursuit and pours her the wine. “Riunite on ice,” he says. “So nice,” she replies. I absolutely had no notions of Europe, gondolas, wine or the ins and outs of romance and seduction. But even to a clueless suburban preteen like me, this all made wine seem pretty fun and cool and something worth trying. (This kid, mind you, also found mullets and parachute pants fun and cool, too.)
Before It Was Cool
Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice… the jingle may be burned into the brains of wine drinkers of a certain age. Yes, with 40 years’ hindsight, these ads are unspeakably corny. 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.
After all, there’s been a lot of chatter and handwringing lately following the latest “State of the U.S. Wine Industry” report, which used to be released annually by Silicon Valley Bank and given much weight in many wine brand corridors. Apparently, wine has an “old people problem” and fails to connect with younger consumers, who now drink significantly less wine than their parents and grandparents. “Wine was last cool with young consumers 30 years ago,” says the report, written by Rob McMillan, longtime analyst and the bank’s former executive vice president.
One key area where the wine industry is failing, says the report, 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, 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,” McMillan writes. “That message is, at best, wasted on a younger crowd; at worst, it’s turning them off.”
What to do? Well, perhaps the wine industry should look backward. Toward a golden era of big hair, shoulder pads, leg warmers, aerobics and synthesized power ballads. Toward another time when wine struggled to find an audience—before wine was cool.
In 1979, wine was dead last among all major U.S. beverage categories. Two years later, it was the fastest growing category. Throughout the 1980s, wine experienced massive growth as Americans suddenly converted into enophiles. What changed the game? Well, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but you could make the case that it was a sweet, fizzy, maybe not-very-good Lambrusco called Riunite.
The success of Riunite in the 1980s feels mindboggling by today’s standards. In 1981, Americans drank almost 135 million bottles of Riunite. One in every four bottles of imported wine sold in the United States was Riunite. It was the No. 1 imported wine in the U.S. from 1976 until 2000, hitting its peak in 1985 with 11.5 million cases sold—a number that is simply unfathomable for an imported wine in today’s market. Even Yellow Tail, at its peak in the mid-2000s as the top imported wine in the U.S., sold around 7.5 million cases by comparison.
We all know, of course, that market success does not equal a good wine. Among wine drinkers, Riunite eventually became a joke. 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).
“Riunite may be on the pop culture shelf along with Coke, the Marlboro Man and Kleenex, but one thing it isn’t is chic,” said a 1982 article about the brand in New York magazine. “Riunite doesn’t see other wines as the competition: no, it’s after all beverages.”
Harry and John Mariani, the two brothers who ran Villa Banfi, which first imported Riunite in the 1960s and created the infamous Riunite ads in the late 1970s, always saw Riunite as something beyond the typical way wine was talked about. “Ultimately, we hope this will be another Coca-Cola. We want this to be in the fridge along with the beer and soft drinks and orange juice.”
Look at that 1982 article. You may be struck by just how little our conversation about wine has changed.
So, what answers does the story of Riunite give us in the wine world of today? Both simple and complex ones. The simple answer is hard to resist (especially if you believe that the present-day American wine has an “old people problem”) that can be solved with better marketing and promotion. If you agree with that premise, a reboot of something like those corny old Riunite ads probably may seem like a brilliant idea. When you look at those Riunite on ice…so nice ads now, they might seem legitimately ahead of their time. Just re-imagine a 1981 Riunite ad set at a ski resort or a lawn party as a Gen Z picnic. There’s likely some wide-eyed suburban kid—scrolling through YouTube past his bedtime instead of flipping between episodes of Family Ties and The Wide World of Sports—who will think wine is fun and cool and something worth trying someday.
The more complex answer, of course, is that we still have no idea how people move beyond the sweet, mass-market fizz and dive deeper into the world of wine. Unfortunately, all the corny ads in the world won’t give us that answer, either.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: August 18, 2023