Stella Rosa Wine CEO Discusses Spicy Wine, Innovation And Expansion

Food & Drink

Steve Riboli, CEO & President of Riboli Family Wines, grew up in Southern California watching his parents and grandparents manage the family winery and gourmet food shop in down-town Los Angeles. Established in 1917, today the family business is home to the very popular Stella Rosa wine brand, and has grown to be one of the 30 largest wineries in the U.S., selling over 700,000 cases domestically and 6.3 million globally, according to WBM (Wine Business Monthly).

But Stella Rosa and the other 24 wine brands that make up the Riboli Family Wine portfolio are not only known for outstanding growth, but for cutting-edge innovation. Indeed, the Stella Rosa brand on its own offers customers 40 different semi-sweet sparkling and semi-sparkling wines in some of the most unique and ‘mind-blowing’ wine flavors found in America.

In fact, it was due to the introduction of a trio of these creative concoctions – Stella Rosa’s new chili flavored wines – Pineapple & Chili, Mango & Chili, and Lime & Chili – that I was prompted to reach out to Steve Riboli, CEO of Riboli Family Vineyards, for this Zoom interview.

“We just heard from Nielsen that our Stella Rosa Pineapple & Chili wine became the #1 best-selling new S.K.U wine of the year in the U.S.,” said Steve Riboli, with a large smile on his face.

Other unique wine flavors in the portfolio include Stella Rosa Watermelon, French Vanilla, Blackberry, Orange Fusion, Ruby Rosé Grapefruit and many more.

“And some of the wines come with recipe pairing suggestions,” reported Steve. For example, the popular Pineapple & Chile wine can be paired with ‘Elote (Mexican street corn) with chili-lime mayo, mango salsa, and chipotle baked ham.’ There is even a recipe to mix the wine with tequila to make jalapeño margaritas.

When asked about the company strategy that allowed Stella Rosa to develop such innovative wines and achieve such successful growth in the market, Steve reported that it was due to the family motto of ‘Sempre Avanti.’

“It means ‘always moving forward.‘ And we always look forward and pursue innovation in all we do,” said Steve. “We are constantly looking for ways to ensure the greatest experience and enjoyment for all our customers.”

Over the course of the hour-long conversation, it became clear that there are four practices that the Riboli Family embrace that allow them to be so successful in the wine industry: 1) listening to the customer, 2) focus on the highest quality ingredients and sustainability, 3) a multicultural perspective, and 4) exceptional marketing.

#1) Listening to the Customer for Innovative Ideas at Stella Rosa

Most companies that are continuously introducing new product styles to customers rely on a strong internal insights department that surveys and interviews consumers, but at Riboli they don’t follow this custom. Instead everyone in the family listens to customers for new ideas.

“I think it was growing up working part-time in our family retail shop that taught me to listen and observe customers,” explained Steve. “Plus I travel a lot and observe what people are eating and drinking in restaurants. This is how we get all of our ideas for new products.

For example he said he was at a restaurant in Pasadena and saw a group of young people ordering spicy margaritas, so he decided to order one. “I liked it,” he recalled, “and it dawned on me that there were many people eating spicy foods, spicy chips, etc. and I thought, why not create a spicy wine?”

So he worked with his winemaking team in northern Italy, where all of the Stella Rosa wines are made, and after many taste-tests, they successfully crafted the new trio of spicy wines. The resulting pineapple and chili wine is 5% alcohol, semi-sparkling, and filled with the taste of semi-sweet pineapple with a pleasing, slightly spicy, hot chili note on the finish (140 calories and 14 carbs per 5 ounce serving, average price is $12 per bottle).

Another example of listening to the customer was when Steve was in a little restaurant in Alba, Italy during truffle season. “All the dishes had truffles on them and the air was filled with the aroma of truffles, which pair beautifully with a red Barolo wine,” said Steve. “But I saw this table of young women drinking a white Arneis wine with their truffle dishes, so I asked them why. They said that red wines stains their teeth, makes them feel fuller, and has higher alcohol, so that is how our Riva de la Rosa wine brand was born that night.”

Riva de la Rosa focuses on fresh, crisp and light white wines made from Italian grapes, such as Gavi and Vermentino, with a 12 to 12.5% alcohol level.

#2) Stella Rosa Focuses on Highest Quality Ingredients/Sustainability

With so many different fruit flavors in the Stella Rosa wines, many people would assume that they use a variety of additives, but the surprising truth is that all of the fruit is sourced from real fruit trees and plants around the world – many of them organically farmed.

“We buy the most expensive fruit distillates that are made, because they are the most natural tasting, and linger on the palate,” reported Steve. “Our distillates are produced in Germany from fruit grown in multiple EU Countries, but we also use pineapples from Costa Rica, mangos from Asia, lemons from Sicily, and we source red chilis from Calabria, Italy.”

The reason the Stella Rosa wine is made in northern Italy is because that is where Steve’s grandparents immigrated from. “Our original San Antonio winery in Los Angeles was started by importing semi-sweet Asti Spumante wines from my grandmother’s home region of Piedmont, Italy,” explained Steve.

Next, the family started importing semi-sweet red sparkling wine made from Italian red grapes, and that is how the brand name ‘Stella Rosa, meaning ‘red star,’ was created.

However, over the years, the Riboli’s started purchasing vineyards across California, and today they own over 1200 acres in Paso Robles, Monterey and Napa, and have 450 employees. The grapes from the California vineyards go into 13 other brands, such as San Simeon, Opaque, Maddalena, and the Riboli Family brand, which is a high-priced cabernet sauvignon from their Rutherford AVA vineyards in Napa ($60 per bottle, 92 points from Wine Spectator).

Their California based brands are also made with certified sustainable grapes, and the family has invested much money in other environmentally-minded activities such as the use of solar panels that provides 100% of the needed energy to operate their winery, water saving efforts, and social responsibility practices.

#3) Multicultural Perspective Very Important at Stella Rosa

The Stella Rosa brand has also been very successful in attracting multicultural consumers to the wine category – something that many other wine brands are still striving to do.

“In LA, we are in the hotbed of multiculturalism. It has always been the fabric of our neighborhood,” said Steve. “In fact, 27% of our new business is people who have never had wine before.”

Steve said the company embraces multiculturalism, and as an Italian immigrant family “we understand early on that there were millions of people that didn’t want to drink cabernet, pinot noir, and other dry wines.” So they started the business by importing semi-sweet Italian wines.

Some consumers stay with the semi-sweet wines of Stella Rosa, whereas others decide to try some of the dry wine brands the company makes.

Steve also views RTDs and seltzers as gateway drinks to the wine industry, rather than competition. “I say thank you to the Trulys and White Claws of the world, because they are the gateway, and then consumers come to us, because they graduate to holding a glass in their hands.”

At the same time, the company wants to make sure they appeal to all customers, so they package Stella Rosa in cans and mini-bottles as well as 750ml bottles. They also make 7 different non-alcoholic Stella Rosa wines, that are selling very well.

“We have some customers who have told us that they have family members or friends who can’t drink alcohol due to health reasons, or have chosen not to drink alcohol. By creating these wines, everyone can still sit at the table and feel included,” said Steve.

#4) Exceptional Marketing at Stella Rosa

The wine industry has often been accused of a lack of marketing compared to beer and spirits. This is often true, but primarily because there are so many small family wineries around the world, without the funds for a large marketing campaign. However, when it comes to Stella Rosa, Steve Riboli reports they invest heavily in marketing.

“We spend double digits on marketing, because we want to be part of the public and accessible,” reported Steve.

Indeed Stella Rosa is one of the few brands that still use large billboards to market their wines, plus they do airplane flyovers, events, and music sponsorships with stars like Brandy Norwood and Lainy Wilson. In addition, to creating positive relationships with distributors and retailers in the broad market, Stella Rosa also has a very active social media campaign across multiple platforms.

Another important part of their marketing strategy is complimentary wine tastings in stores across the nation where it is allowed.

Next Steps for Stella Rosa and Riboli Family Wines

When I asked Steve what is next for Riboli Family wines, he said, “To continue innovating – I guess it is this crazy Italian DNA. And let’s not just look in the rear view mirror; let’s look ahead and determine, who is our consumer today and in the future?”

Steve said they are launching a new Spritz brand called ‘Conte Spritz,’ made from Prosecco grapes and their own special recipe of natural herbs and bitters. It will retail for around $17 per bottle, and is designed to be served over ice with a fruit slice garnish.

“It’s bubbly, packaged in a beautiful spirits bottle, and will be available in traditional Orange, Lemoncello Spritz, and a Non-Alcoholic version of the traditional Orange flavor,” he reported.

The family also appears to be continuing expansion plans, with the recent acquisition of Jada Vineyard and Winery in the Paso Robles area. Plus they are always looking for new international partners to join their Avanti Portfolio, which is a group of family-owned wineries that align with the values of the Riboli Family.

Members of the Avanti Portfolio include family-owned brands such as Nomine-Renard from Champagne, Ular from New Zealand, and Baskoli from the Basque Country in Spain.

Steve Riboli is joined in the executive suite by family members, Anthony Riboli as winemaker, and Santo Riboli as Chairman of the Board.

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