There is a very good chance that the best-selling wine brand in California isn’t from California. It’s not Josh or Barefoot or Coppola, or Two Buck Chuck. It’s an Italian import called Stella Rosa, created by the Ribolis, a fourth-generation wine family based in Lincoln Heights. IS IT OR ISN’T IT CALIFORNIA’S TOP SELLER? ARENT THERE STATS TO BACK THIS UP?
With the help of their Italian winemaking partners, the Ribolis debuted the product in 2003: Fifteen years later, according to data from the Nielsen Co, Stella Rosa is the top-selling import brand in the country. According to the industry analyst Market Watch, sales will exceed 2 million cases this year. The brand has been performing double-digit growth almost since its inception, and its popularity shows no signs of slowing.
You may not have tasted Stella Rosa wines (there are 22 different bottlings, or flavors) but you can’t help but be familiar with the brand. You may have seen their float in the 2014 Rose Parade (they’ll have one in 2019 also), or seen their airplane banners at the beach.
But you’re probably most familiar with the brand if you drive in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego or Las Vegas, because then you’ve seen the billboards. There are 400 of them scattered across the country, the company estimates, extolling you to “Taste the Magic” and to “Stellabrate,” replete with imagery exalting a lifestyle that seems exceptionally upscale, shiny and happy. So if you’ve never stellabrated, perhaps it’s time to get acquainted.
For more than a century, through four generations, the Riboli family has been making, importing and selling wine. Even through Prohibition, when they landed a contract to make sacramental wine for Roman Catholic masses, they’ve made wine — all kinds of wine, from jug wines to appellation wines, from fruit sources all over California (much of it now comes from estate vineyards on the Central Coast).
I’M UNCLEAR HOW THIS WORKS. ABOVE WE SAY THE COMPANY IS A TOP IMPORTER. THE GRAPES ARE GROWN HERE, THEN SHIPPED TO ITALY FOR THE WINEMAKING? NEEDS TO BE CLEARER
They sell these wines direct, in their bustling Lincoln Heights winery tasting room, which houses a restaurant, a gift shop, and doubles, quite naturally, as a front line for market research.
Fifteen years ago, Anthony Riboli and his father, Santo, noticed the rise in demand for a relatively obscure class of Italian low-alcohol sparkling wine called Moscato d’Asti, made in the northern region of Piedmont. As winery owners of Italian heritage they knew these wines, and had long imported them.
Occasionally in the tasting room, the staff would take queries from patrons asking if there was such a thing as a red Moscato d’Asti.
“They were interested in the health benefits of red wine,” says Riboli.
Riboli put the question to his Italian winery partners, Capetta and the Santero brothers. The wineries came back with a half dozen prototypical blends, and Stella Rosa red was born.
Stella Rosa wines come in at around 5.5% alcohol by volume, or less than half of an average bottle of wine. That arrested fermentation leaves plenty of residual sugar, and the wine is lightly frizzante, which gives them a more pleasant mouthfeel.MEANING TINGLE??
That first 1,000 cases of wine were sold in two weeks. The Ribolis re-upped immediately, and have been re-upping ever since, adding wines, flavors, testing different tiers, different colors, different flavor combinations.
Each morning, crowds file into the tasting room at 11 a.m., to buy Stella Rosa wines, t-shirts, tote bags, fans, scented candles, lip balms, and jars of Stella Rosa marinara. Cases are stacked chest high in the display room and are restocked daily.
Sales are particularly strong with women, as well as Hispanic and Asian buyers; Anthony Riboli will tell you that their tasting room is just like the melting pot that is Los Angeles, and in the several hours I spent there, I saw no reason to dispute this.
The success of Stella Rosa has been an unexpected boon to the Riboli’s more serious winemaking efforts, affording them the capital to purchase vineyard land and facilities.
So how, you ask, does it taste? The Stella Rosa wines resemble wine, they’re reminiscent of wine, but no one who drinks wine regularly would mistake these flavors for wine. To my palate they have at least as much in common with soft drinks (Seven-Up comes to mind) as they do with, say, Robert Mondavi Cabernet.
But if you don’t drink Robert Mondavi Cabernet, then this comparison may be meaningless to you. You may not be troubled by the rush of sugar, the jumbled terpenic flavors that frame the wine as a stand-in for the missing alcohol. And you may enjoy the sodapop sweetness, which ameliorates any perception of flaws, at least until the finish.
Residual sugar in wine, of course, isn’t anything new — hundreds of more expensive wines, from Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve to Meiomi Pinot Noir and the Prisoner, employ it to make their wines taste more plush and seductive. And residual sugar inhabits literally thousands of wines from Germany, Austria, France, from all over the world.
Stella Rosa is decidedly better than Boone’s Farm, than Arbor Mist, than Almond Champagne or MD 20/20 “Banana Red” or any of the hundreds of concoctions with lurid colors, additives, and cloying sweetness that crowd supermarket and bodega shelves. Stella Rosa isn’t as fake as any of these, but that doesn’t make it altogether real, either.
Stella Rosa plainly occupies a niche that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. It serves to remind us that the wine market is at least two markets, one that takes itself very seriously, perhaps too seriously, that serves to distinguish itself from the mainstream beverage market. The other engages with that mainstream, seeks out commonalities with it, to sell wine that falls closer to its most common denominators.
The Riboli family — savvy, clever, and self-preserving — seems to move comfortably in both.