It’s one of the great wine success stories of the last 20 years: In the 1970s, pinot grigio, the Italian version of pinot gris—most of it made in the regions of Friuli and the Alto Adige—was virtually unknown in America, and almost as obscure in Italy itself. Today, it is one of the wines most often found on wine lists and as bar or restaurant house wine in this country—and not just at Italian establishments, either.
Why pinot grigio, of all wines? At its best, it can be crisp, clean, and flavorful—but no one has ever accused it of being particularly complex. “Never underestimate the appeal of a wine’s name,” Italian wine executive Philip di Belardino told us. “Look at how much people love to say the words ‘Pouilly Fuisse’.” In the early ’70s, di Belardino recalled, he represented three top northern Italian wineries, each of which made a pinot grigio, a pinot bianco, and a tocai. “Though in each case the pinot grigio was the least exciting wine,” he related, “it was always the most successful. Pinot bianco just sounded too cheap, and tocai sounded ugly.”