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Planet of the Grapes: Back to 1980s with Lambrusco

Or Hiltch

Today is a beautiful, festive day.

It's the first day of summer and the last day of school for my kids.

And in the world of wine, today is the kickoff for the oh-so-cool Summer of Riesling, in which the cognescenti will once again try to convince the average drinker to welcome riesling into their lives. That may seem a tall order, but today I will undertake an even more difficult task: I am going to suggest that you drink fizzy red lambrusco.

That's because today marks another — significantly less hip — date on the wine calendar. Yes, let me be the first to wish you a Happy Lambrusco Day!

I can hear you now: Lambrusco?! Didn't we leave lambrusco behind in the 1980s, along with those cheesy Riunite commercials — with the jingle "Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice!" and with mustachioed Tom Selleck lookalikes courting bleach blonde Cheryl Tiegs lookalikes over chilled lambrusco?

Well, as I see my college students rocking the neon, the cutoff mom-jeans, and the shoulder pads, I can tell the 1980s are back. Or more precisely, the 1980s never leave us, since they come back just about every other year. But let's be honest, this 1981 Riunite ad looks pretty much like a hipster picnic in 2013 — though these days the lambrusco would be ironically paired with hot dogs.

Riunite, of course, was just one example of lambrusco, but it was the number-one imported wine in the U.S. from 1976 until 2000, hitting its peak in 1985 with 11.5 millions cases sold – unfathomable in today's market. Even Yellow Tail, at its peak in the mid-2000s, sold around 7.5 million cases, in comparison.

I grew up watching those Riunite ads and, as my parents' Baby Boomer generation educated themselves more and more about wine, lambrusco steadily gained a poor reputation. Not that it mattered to sales. "Yeah, 'poor' Riunite. 'No one' drinks it anymore, yet it still, in 2013, somehow sells 2.5 million cases a year," says (archly) Lars Leicht, director of communications for Banfi, which has always produced the wine. "It's still the number-four imported wine in this country."

We all know, of course, that market success does not equal a good wine, and Riunite lambrusco was, and is, a cloyingly sweet, almost-cherry-soda-like drinking experience. You need the ice to suck it down, and even then I wouldn't call it nice. If that's what you like, have at it. But the real problem of Riunite is that it's unfairly prejudiced American wine drinkers against all lambrusco. Which is what I'm trying to undo.

So let me be clear: Good lambrusco is amazing, dry, fizzy, and surprisingly complex. Slightly chilled, it is the perfect summer red wine. Sure, it's fruity, with tangy, lively acidity, but good lambrusco will also have a bit of earthiness and a bit of muscle, and will be "rustic" in the best sense of the word.

The good stuff is produced in low-yield vineyards, with an attention to winemaking, in Emilia-Romagna, near the city of Modena. In cities like Parma and Ferrara and Bologna — which many consider to have Italy's greatest food — people pair lambrusco with hard, sharp cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and meats like prosciutto on a sunny late afternoon. Purple lambrusco with its frothy pink foam, sipped like this, is the very definition of la dolce vita

The good, dry stuff is always at least 11% alcohol by volume or higher. Stay away from anything under that ABV. Also, look for two specific DOCs, or denomination of origin (otherwise known as the really long Italian place name on the bottle): Lambrusco di Grasparossa di Castelvetro or Lambrusco di Sorbara. Grab a bottle that meets those basic criteria, toss it in the fridge for an hour, and you will likely not go wrong for a hot summer night.

Wine geeks might sniff that lambrusco isn't a "serious" wine, but I mean…do you really care what wine geeks think? Anyway, if it bothers you to drink an "unserious" wine, then just tell yourself you're doing it…ironically. For those purposes, put on your neon headband and mom jeans and watch this classic Riunite commercial, set at a ski resort.

Here are my Lambrusco Day recommendations:

Francesco Vezzelli Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC 'Rive dei Ciliegi' 2012. Emilia-Romagna, Italy. 11% abv. $16 at Moore Brothers in Pennsauken, on sale for $14.98 at WineWorks in Marlton.

Cavicchioli Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC 'Col Sasso' 2011. Emilia-Romagna, Italy. 11% abv. $15.99 in Pennsylvania.

Cavicchioli Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC 'Vigna del Cristo' 2011. Emilia-Romagna, Italy. 11.5% abv. $15.99 in Pennsylvania.

Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco di Sorbara Secco DOC 'Vecchia Modena' 2011. Emilia-Romagna, Italy. 11% abv. On sale for $13.98 at WineWorks in Marlton, $13.99 at Canal's in Mt. Emphraim.

Fiorini Becco Rosso Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC 2011. Emilia-Romagna, Italy. 11.5% abv. On sale for $13.98 at WineWorks in Marlton

Jason Wilson is the editor of His new series of digital wine guides, Planet of the Grapes, will launch in August; see it here. Follow him @boozecolumnist.