The Associated Press In this Friday, Aug. 24, 2012 file photo the sun rises on the Villa Germaine vineyards of Ariccia, on the outskirts of Rome. Domestic wine consumption is currently at its lowest levels since Italy was unified as a nation in 1861, according to Coldiretti, Italy's main farmers' association.
TORANO NUOVO, Italy (AP) -- It's harvest season at the family-run vintner Emidio Pepe in central Italy and workers are wading into the vineyards, hand-picking grapes and pressing them under their boots in giant wooden vats.
The seasonal ritual has brought together generations of rural communities. But the final product, the highly-rated Pecorino white, is now more likely to be enjoyed in New York or Beijing than in the local village of Torano Nuovo, in the Abruzzo region. That's because wine-drinking in Italy, one of the world's biggest producers, is hitting record lows, forcing many vintners to seek buyers abroad.
Consumption is at its weakest since Italy was unified as a country in 1861, according to Coldiretti, the main farmers' association. The most immediate cause has been the economic downturn, which has pinched incomes. But that has just accelerated what has been a decades-long slide in consumption.
Italians are expected to drink 40 liters (10.6 gallons) a head this year, down from 45 liters (11.9 gallons) before the financial crisis began in 2007 and just about a third of the 110 liters (29 gallons) seen in the 1970s, according to Assoenologi, the main enologists' association.
In the past 25 years, wine "has become a hedonistic product, which is not part of Italians' basic diet anymore," said Michele Fino, law professor and wine expert from the University of Gastronomic Studies in Pollenzo.
That leaves it more exposed to short-term fluctuations in economic conditions. The two-year recession was like "the flu that arrives when one's defenses are already low," Fino said.
Italians' change of attitude is going hand in hand with the increasing popularity of other, more casual alcoholic drinks -- above all, beer, particularly among the young. While the average Italian's consumption of wine is only a third of what it was in the 1970s, beer drinking has doubled.
"We like beer because it's more refreshing, lively, soft and lighter," said Francesco Rizzo, a 30-year-old hanging out with friends one night in Rome's Campo de' Fiori, one of Rome's nightlife hotspots where beer is a top choice.
With interest ebbing at home, more than 50 percent of Italian wine is currently exported, up from 28 percent in 2000. The biggest buyers are the United States and Germany.