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San Marino: Pint-sized nation makes magnum bucks from booze
The Miami Herald / January 3, 1993

By Larry Luxner

SAN MARINO -- Arriving in the Republic of San Marino one morning after a 45-minute bus trip from the Italian beach resort of Rimini, I walked into a convenience store, still shivering in the chilly mountain air.

There, over a cup of espresso, I asked the friendly-looking proprietor where I could find Gabriele Gatti, the tiny country's foreign minister.

"Gabriele Gatti?" he shot back in heavily Italian-accented English. "You an American? Yeah? You think I can go inna Washington and aska for the president? Of course not. Well, you're inna San Marino, and it's the same thing."

I laughed all the way to the tourist information office, but never did locate Gatti. On the other hand, walking through the streets and backroads of this independent nation one-third the size of Washington, D.C., I did find three medieval castles, hundreds of colorful stamps, the largest collection of classic Ferrari racing cars in Europe, and a surprising assortment of wines, spirits and flavored liqueurs.

In fact, at least 20 shops in San Marino's ancient "downtown" peddle everything from peach-fruit whiskey to San Marino piņa colada mix. In addition, dozens of bars and restaurants outside the city walls offer cut-rate liquor to the estimated 3.5 million tourists who pass through this mountainous little country every year.

San Marino (population 24,000) didn't always lure tourists, though, and up until a few decades ago wasn't much more than an isolated, fog-shrouded curiosity known only to philatelists for the beautiful commemorative stamps that brought the country most of its revenue.

Founded in 301 A.D. by a Dalmatian stonecutter, San Marino claims to be the oldest independent nation in the world. It organized itself into a city-state in the 11th century and survived numerous invasions throughout the Middle Ages.

After World War II, San Marino was left impoverished, and thousands of its jobless citizens immigrated to New York and Detroit. By the 1970s, many of these Sammarinese were returning wealthy, and the country began evolving into a tourist mecca. Its stamps were already legendary, and local executives hoped to duplicate that fame with San Marino wines and liqueurs.

As a result, in 1986, San marino passed Law No. 127, establishing the Marchio ad Identificazione d'Origine (Mark of Origin). This mark has been used ever since to distinguish wines produced in compliance with strict regulations.

The local wine cooperative in Borgo Maggiore, one of San Marino's nine villages, makes wines exclusively from local grapes using the most modern equipment and under the careful control of expert wine-makers. Wines produced by the cooperative include Cantastorie and Sangiovese Superiore (red table wines); Rosato and Biancale (white table wines); Grilet (a dry and sparkling wine); Gran Moscato and Montale (sweet spumante) and Riserva del Titano (dry spumante).

But what really catches visitors' eyes is the outdoor displays of flavored liqueurs lining San Marino's main shopping arcade.

Mary Graham, a native of Scotland, helps manage Fred's Spirits -- a quaint little shop off the Piazza della Liberta that advertises free drinks on the back of its business cards.

"San Marino's not duty-free, but most people think it is," she said, explaining that San Marino liquor-makers pay only a 14 percent tax on their products, far less than the 19 percent assessed over the border in Italy. "A one-liter bottle of Teacher's sells for 15,000 lire here, compared to 18,000 lire in Italy and $25 in Scotland."

Among the unusual products found at Fred's is "Captain Cook Black Label Rum," whose bottle bears a pirate's map of Jamaica and sells for only 8,000 lire -- about one-third the price of a real Jamaican rum such as Myers's or Appleton Estate.

Across the street from Fred's is an establishment named The Smugglers. Manager Sergio Fabbri, a native sammarinese, says liquor production is one of the republic's biggest industries, along with furniture, leather bags, ceramics and postage stamps.

"We buy alcohol from Italy, cognac from France and whiskey from Scotland and produce our own liquors here," he said. "If these products were made in Italy, they'd have to pay tax."

Fabbri estimates that 75 percent of the tourists who walk into his shop are Italians. The rest are Eastern Europeans, Japanese and -- very occasionally -- Americans.

"If Americans come to San Marino at all, they come for only half an hour," says Mimmi Marcucci, an official tourist guide who for 2,000 lire will stamp a San Marino visa into foreign passports. That's a turnaround from 10 years ago, when according to Graham, "the need for people who spoke English was very great, since most of the customers at that time were Americans, British, Scandinavians, Germans and French. But it's dwindled since then."

The Italians who visit San Marino come mostly on package tours from the Adriatic Sea resort of Rimini; the Poles, Russians and other Eastern Europeans come to buy liquor for resale back home. Incidentally, there are no immigration or passport formalities upon entering San Marino; the border sign at the country's main entry point is less obvious than the Volvo dealership directly across the street from it.

San Marino boasts 30 hotels, the two best of which are the Grand Hotel San Marino and the Titano, where rates run about $80 to $100 a night. The republic also has a dozen or so bed-and-breakfasts starting as low as $26 a night.

Besides the shopping and the novelty of visiting the world's smallest independent nation are the three famous castles atop Mount Titano, the ancient wine cellars built into caves at Borge Maggiore, and of course, the Ferrari museum.

Here, exhibited on four levels of display space complete with mirrored walls, subdued lighting and "Chariots of Fire" piped quietly into the background, are 27 of the most famous automobiles ever built by Enzo Ferrari.

"In one year, we've had over 100,000 visitors," said Stefanie Ercolani, secretary of the Collezione Maranello Rosso, which is housed in a modern gray building fronting Villa Piana, one of San Marino's main thoroughfares. "There's another Ferrari museum near Paris, but ours follows a specific theme."

Ercolani speaks fluent English and Italian, thanks to a bilingual childhood in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights. The cars featured in her museum, however, are anything but made-in-Detroit. These include a bright red 1951 Ferrari 195S that ran in the Miglia Milla race to a 1988 F40, whose 478-horsepower engine made it the fastest sports car in the world, with a top speed of 201.9 mph.

Since 1992, San Marino has had an even more impressive claim to fame: it's now the smallest country ever to be admitted into the United Nations. The Security Council's decision to upgrade San Marino's observer status to full membership came in response to the tiny republic's growing interest in international issues.

But that new status won't affect the average sammarinese much.

As liquor retailer Fabbri says: "Joining the UN doesn't give us anything, but people will know us. When you're part of this club, everybody respects you."

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