May I Suggest…

Biagio Cru has the wine for your dinner

When hosting wine events and tastings, cousins Darren and Ben Restivo, who run Biagio Cru & Estate Wines, heard the same thing again and again. "The question we always got was, `What do I eat with this?'" says Darren, 32, marketing director for the Roslyn Heights (N.Y.) importer. "People were frustrated by having to spend lots of time in wine shops or groceries searching for the right wine for dinner."

In 2004, they decided to answer those questions with the Food & Wine Collection, which pairs particular foods with wines Biagio develops with selected vintners. First up is a wine called Rigatoni Red. The $10.99 bottles will be in mom-and-pop liquor stores and supermarkets, including Publix stores in Florida, beginning this fall. Ben, 36, Biagio's managing director, says they hope to lure neophtye wine drinkers as well as seasoned ones unfamilar with the nine-employee company, whose revenue grew from $5 million in 2005 to $6.8 million last year.

Many importers have exclusive relationships with vineyards, but rarely does one get deeply involved in the production and marketing of a wine. And Rigatoni Red may be different enough to get some attention in a very crowded market. "The `critter' brands, such as Smoking Loon or Yellow Tail, have tried to draw attention to themselves with their label," says Robert Smiley, director of wine industry programs at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Davis. "This is taking that to the next level. The plus is that it will definitely stand out."

PASTA PATROL

Ben and Darren's fathers, Vincent and Louis, respectively, started Biagio in 1998. Within a year, Ben, then a currency trader, and Darren, who had just graduated from college, signed on. Ben and Vincent now each own 25% of the company, and Darren has 50%. The four men make major decisions collectively.

Ben and Darren spent three months working with an Italian vintner, pairing blends with countless bowls of pasta. Far trickier was figuring out how to brand the wine without making it a novelty. "This is a serious wine. We didn't want to market it as too kitschy or too cute," says Ben. They decided on a label that eschews the standard identifications such as varietal or country of origin. The company spent $50,000 developing the label and packaging, then began selling to its distributors. "I think it will definitely appeal to the children of baby boomers who are just starting to think about wine and don't necessarily know how to pair it with food," says Peter Madden, corporate vice-president of wine at Atlanta-based Republic National Distributing, which has been selling Rigatoni Red in seven states.

Still, drawing so much attention to a single food has potential drawbacks. "What if somebody is making spaghetti with white sauce—are they going to say, 'I can't drink this wine'?" asks Smiley. "And given that most big retailers organize their wine departments by varietal, or country of origin, I'm not sure where this will fit in on the shelf."

The Restivos aren't worried. They are even working with high-end pasta and tomato sauce brands to co-market their products. And Ben and Darren are now drinking and eating their way through Spain, Argentina, France, South Africa, and Australia to find the collection's next offering. Risotto Rosé, anyone?

By Amy S. Choi

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