It was impossible not to notice the Tenimenti Castelrotto stand at Vinitaly. Situated in what is usually no-man’s land at the end of an exhibition hall, it featured a silver and shocking pink velvet throne alongside a display of one of the most incongruous wines ever devised: a Hello Kitty wine.

Japanese phenomenon

Hello Kitty will be an unknown brand for most people in the wine industry, unless they happen to have daughters. That’s because Hello Kitty, a cartoon white cat with no mouth, is a character that has captured the hearts and minds of little girls worldwide since 1974. Produced by the Japanese company Sanrio, Hello Kitty first appeared on a coin purse, before going on to spawn her own line of stationery, school supplies, clothes, greeting cards, video games, accessories and home appliances, as well as her own theme park (Sanrio Puroland in Tokyo). If Wikipedia is to be believed, Hello Kitty’s licensing arrangements are worth more than $1bn in annual sales. And now another licensing arrangement has been added to the mix.

“We were contacted by the Belloni family of Camomilla, who distribute Hello Kitty products in Italy,” says winemaker Patrizia Torti, of Tenimenti Castelrotto in Lombardy, a family owned winery. “They tasted our wines and liked the sparkling wines and last year they contacted us and asked if we could do Hello Kitty wines.” Torti said the winery agreed immediately. “We know Camomilla because they produce bags and fine fashion products, so we put a wine together.”

Dino Torti makes the Hello Kitty wines: the Kitty Brut Rosé, the demi-sec Sweet Pink Rosé, and Kitty Angel and Kitty Devil, both made from Pinot Noir.

The bottles are attractive, in a stereotypically feminine way, with pink capsules and neck pendants and, in the case of Sweet Pink Rose, a heart moulded into the bottle. They’re so attractive, in fact, that they immediately raise the question of just who these wines are for. How are parents, whose young children are in thrall to the Hallo Kitty trend, supposed to explain that these bottles are not for them?

The target audience

Torti concedes that Hallo Kitty began as a brand for children, but says the wines are aimed at a much older group: “a lot of women who enjoyed it as babies are now mothers, managers and different people. Camomilla wanted something to offer them.” She says that other elements of the Hello Kitty range have also evolved to cater to women who are still engaged with the brand. “Hello Kitty also produce things like necklaces with diamonds, so it’s a range that offers something for everyone.”

Nicolas Belloni, export manager for Camomilla, is keen to stress the point. “The main difference between Italy and other countries is that Hello Kitty is considered a child’s character elsewhere,” he says. “Around ten years ago, we noticed that young women in Italy were interested in the character, especially the specialty items. This is why three years ago we began to think about the sparkling wine.”

Whether parents will agree that a Hello Kitty wine is aimed at grown ups is another matter. When an article appeared about the wine on in June, there were some swift reactions. “Stupid idea,” was one blunt comment, while Gregory Graziano of California’s Graziano Family Wines went even further: “As a winery owner/winemaker I would be embarrassed to market a wine with a Hello Kitty logo.” And a real blast came from respected Californian-based importer, Bartholomew Broadbent, who said: “My kids love Hello Kitty… to tell my daughter that Hello Kitty sparkling wine is only for grownups would make a very tough argument… I hope the government will see this as marketing to under-age drinkers and prevent it from reaching the shelves…”

Torti says, however, that the bottles will not be available anywhere small children will be able to see them, as they are only to be sold into wine bars and restaurants, not supermarkets. She says the company wants total control of where the wine will appear. “In Singapore we have Hello Kitty wines at Paolo’s Group restaurant and delicatessen. In New York we have two trendy restaurants – one is called Bread, which serves Italian food – and selected wine shops. We want to work with the right importers and right restaurants, not with places that have cheap products.” The wines are also available through Gum stores in Russia. And, of course, at restaurants in Japan.

Tapping a trend

But why expose trusted brands like Hallo Kitty and Camomilla to these kinds of questions and accusations in the first place? Belloni says it was a strategic decision, to tap into a different trend altogether. “Three years ago, to be positioned in the fashion market, you began to need to sell other goods,” he says. “[Fashion designer] Cavalli sells wine, Armani sells helmets. We thought that a wine would be a way of positioning Hello Kitty in the fashion market.”

From the initial idea through to making the samples and final production, the Hello Kitty Wine has taken three years. Tenimenti Castelrotto, founded in 1910 in the Oltrepo Pavese area, has 30ha of vines. Torti will not say how much Hello Kitty wine is produced, only that “it will increase” and that they are looking to sell the wine into the UK.
Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in 2009 in Meininger’s Wine Business International magazine. Hello Kitty wine is apparently still going strong.

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