VERONA, Italy (Reuters) - Italian winemakers, usually wedded to centuries-old traditions, are slowly embracing Twitter, blogging and Facebook to boost sales that have been hit by the global economic crisis.
Italy, the world's second-biggest wine producer after France, saw export sales drop 6 percent to 3.5 billion euros in 2009 hit by the crisis and advancing competition from the "New World" wines, according to industry data.
"In the times of crisis it is important to experiment with new ways of making yourself known," Susanna Crociani of family owned Crociani, makers of full-body red Tuscan wine Nobile di Montepulciano (www.crociani.it) told Reuters.
Crociani, who says she was the first Italian winemaker to start a blog in 2004, said she has gained many new clients -- individual wine lovers, restaurant owners and professional buyers -- after launching a Facebook page. She has also started to use Twitter just a few months ago.
"An advantage of social media is that you don't have to pay (for making yourself known). You have to invest your time. But it pays off," Crociani said at Vinitaly wine trade fair.
Contacts through social media have boosted Crociani's online sales with the number of orders doubled to 50-60 a month, a considerable help for the small company which makes 60,000-70,000 bottles of wine a year, she said.
Facebook and Twitter, popular among the youth, are especially important in winning back young consumers who tend to favor beer or other drinks over wine, Crociani said.
Keeping with the new trend, consortium uniting makers of the famous Tuscan red Brunello di Montalcino (www.consorziobrunellodimontalcino.it), opened a Facebook page at the end of last year and now lists more than 10,000 fans.
Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, which has also activated ConsBrunello profile on Twitter in March, said it was too early to evaluate the economic impact of such innovations.
Crociani said Italian winemakers lagged far behind their U.S. rivals in understanding the growing importance of social media as new communication and marketing tools, but first steps are being made.
Crociani has helped to set up a Twitter group "Tweet your wine" a month ago which unites a dozen of Italian winemakers. As the word spread around, several winemakers came up to her on the first day of Vinitaly asking to join the group, she said.
In the tough times, social media community has created a kind of safety network as fellow winemakers exchanged useful information and even passed on clients to each other, she said.
Some conservative producers prefer stick to more traditional ways of promoting their business.
Ca' del Bosco makers of bubbly franciacorta wine are due to launch a new multimedia website (www.cadelbosco.com) in about a month inviting clients to an interactive visit to their winery and the Franciacorta winemaking district in northern Italy.
Hardcore traditionalists reject innovative communication in favor of personal contact with clients.
"We are part of history, part of a long tradition ... We prefer to have people visiting our winery," said Vincenzo Protti of Il Borgo di Vescine winery (www.vescine.it) whose history dates back about 1,000 years and which now makes some 60,000 bottles of Chianti Classico red wine a year.
Editing by Paul Casciato