SPARKLING WITH LIFE

All the talk among champagne lovers over the last year or so has been about the expected demand for bubbly in the weeks and months before the Millennium parties on December 31, 1999. Only two things are wrong with all this chatter:

First, the Millennium actually starts January 1, 2001, so most “Millennium parties” will be held a year too soon. And second, champagne sales are already on the rise, and the major champagne firms know they’ll have to hustle to keep pace with sales.

This last fact in itself is a rare sea change for a product that typically sells predictably slowly for 11 months of the year and then leaps into the stratosphere as people ready themselves for the onslaught of partying that accompanies the changing of calendars. One bottle of bubbly of every three sold in the course of the year is sold in the month of December.

Champagne sales — that is, sales of sparkling wines that emanate from the cool, elegant region north of Paris — have been fairly even over the last decade. In 1987, nearly 1.4 million cases of French champagne were sold in the U.S. It was a time when the U.S. economy was on the rise, there was optimism in business, and lots of celebrations. In 1996, after a decade during which champagne imports never again reached the 1987 figure, sales of champagne actually rose over 1995 to 1,125,000 9-liter cases.

Jean-Louis Carbonnier, head of the Champagne Wines Information Bureau based in New York, points out that U.S. sales of champagne actually declined through 1992, and have slowly been on the rise since then. Optimism reigns in the import houses. In the last two six-month periods, champagne sales have experienced 6.5% and 6% increases, according to Carbonnier. Even better for the major champagne houses, sales of prestige brands are up and sales of lower-end products are down. Indeed, for the first five months of 1997, shipments amounted to 360,000 cases, showing growth over the same period in 1996 of 12%.

“People seem to be willing to spend money on champagne rather freely,” said Carbonnier. “The economy is doing very well and there is a growing sense of confidence among consumers. But also, we are in a situation where the prices of champagne have not increased over the past three or four years, and today champagne represents a very good value-for-money ratio.”

Illustrating the success of higher-end brands, Moët & Chandon registered a substantial 25% increase in sales in 1996, hitting 625,000 cases, and Veuve Clicquot sold 135,000, reflecting a 23.9% increase. Interestingly, another major import, Martini and Rossi Asti from Italy, rose from 550,000 cases to 610,000 cases, up 10.9%. Perrier-Jouët also recorded a substantial increase, up 5.3% to 100,000 cases. Overall, sales of imported sparkling wine increased 1.7% in 1996.

Carbonnier said that in the Champagne region of France, there are new and vibrant people gaining positions of responsibility at the major houses, which is having a major impact. “A new generation is becoming active, especially growers,” he said, “and many of these people are very savvy, and they understand that quality is the key. There is a current of excitement that we hope will lead to continued interest in all quality sparkling wines, and we hope that carries over into the next century.”

Leading Brands of Domestic Sparkling Wine
(Thousands of 9-Liter Cases)

Brand Supplier 1995 1996 % Change
André E & J Gallo Winery 2,800 2,660 -5.0%
Cook’s Canandaigua Wine Co. 1,600 1,600 0.0%
Korbel Brown-Forman Beverages 1,035 1,040 0.5%
J. Roget Canandaigua Wine Co. 680 680 0.0%
Ballatore E & J Gallo Winery 690 655 -5.1%
Domaine Chandon Schieffelin & Somerset 400 432 8.0%
Tott’s E & J Gallo Winery 290 276 -4.8%
Eden Roc E & J Gallo Winery 250 238 -4.8%
Mumm Napa Valley Seagram Chateau & Estates 200 220 10.0%
Domaine Ste. Michelle Stimson Lane 215 210 -2.3%
Great Western Canandaigua Wine Co. 125 125 0.0%
Total Leading Brands 8,285 8,136 -1.8%
Others 699 738 5.6%
Total Domestic Sparkling 8,984 8,874 -1.2%
Source: Adams WIne Handbook 1997.

The only real downside to the bubbly enthusiasm is that much of it has been reserved for higher-end products. Sales figures for under-$7 wines were flat in 1996, no pun intended, or significantly off. In fact, all of E&J Gallo’s sparkling portfolio (André, Tott’s, Eden Roc and the sweeter Ballatore), which accounted for about 3.8 million cases of sales in 1996, was off 5% from the year before.

Among the premium domestic sparklers, both Mumm Napa (which now is selling about 220,000 cases a year) and Domaine Chandon (432,000 cases) were up significantly, 10% and 8% respectively. And neither house sells below $10 suggested retail.

Overall, sales of domestic sparklers decreased 1.2% in 1996, but preliminary sales figures for the first six months of 1997 reflect a significant turnaround, with total domestic sparklers up 1.8%. Indeed, Cook’s, from the Canandaigua Wine Co., the second best-selling sparkling wine in 1996 with sales of 1.6 million 9-liter cases, had a 2.5% increase for the first half of 1997. Another Canandaigua sparkler, J. Roget, is up 2.7% through June of ’97. And sales of E&J Gallo’s sparkling portfolio is flat during the same time period. Even more impressive is the growth of Domaine Chandon, up 15%, and Mumm Napa Valley, with an increase of 14%.

Positive Feelings

Optimism about all premium bubbly sales abound. John Lindsay, owner of Vintage Wines Limited in San Diego said two things have triggered this confidence in sparkling wine sales.

“At least here in San Diego, people seem to be more upbeat this year than in a long time,” said Lindsay. “People are in a more celebratory mood, and that’s going to help sales. The other thing is, several years ago champagne took some very serious price hikes, and during the last few years those prices have settled in with the consumer.

“I think the days of $15 Laurent-Perrier are gone, and you won’t see Roederer Brut at $20 anymore, but there are still some great champagnes at fair prices out there.”

Lindsay pointed to the fact that he can carry such highly rated items as non-vintage brüts from Perrier-Jouët and Mumm’s Cordon Rouge and sell them for $19.99 each. “They are two of our largest sellers,” he said. “And Veuve Clicquot always sells on its own.”

He was also high on the improving quality of the Spanish sparkling wines. “The cavas are always a steady thing in our shop, and their quality has been going up. We like Paul Cheneau and the Aria Brut from Segura Viudas. In the $6 to $8 price range, you’d be hard pressed to find anything of that quality.” Other retailers pointed to the popularity of Freixenet, which has maintained its spot as the best-selling sparkling wine in the U.S., with case sales well over 800,000.

As for the domestic market, Lindsay said Mumm Napa’s stylish, copper-hued blanc de noirs is among the highest-rated and best-selling of the bubblies. “At about $11, it’s hard to beat and it has become the backbone of our domestic sales. And don’t forget the great job Domaine Chandon always does.” He also praised Codorniu Napa for its quality-value relationship.

Barry Herbst, wine manager for Vendome Wine and Liquor in Beverly Hills, CA, also was optimistic about champagne sales.

“I think the French have wised up,” said Herbst. “They’re not taking any further increases in price and three brands, Veuve Clicquot, Laurent-Perrier and Taittinger, now represent particularly good values. Laurent-Perrier is the most aggressive, with really excellent wine and good pricing. Veuve Clicquot is the best-marketed brand, and Taittinger is just an excellent product at a fair price.

“By not raising their prices, the French are offering a positive sign to American consumers and I think the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. We’re selling more champagne than we did two years ago.”

Herbst also said California and Washington State sparkling wine is better than it’s ever been. “Think of what you can get in the $6 to $12 market. I’m getting married next Saturday and I’m pouring Domaine Ste. Michelle because it’s so good and so reasonably priced. And then there’s excellent quality from Piper-Sonoma and Mumm Napa.”

Leading Brands of imported champagne & Sparkling Wine
(Thousands of 9-Liter Cases)

Brand Supplier Origin 1995 1996 % Change
Freixenet Freixenet USA Spain 838 816 -2.6%
Moët & Chandon Schieffelin & Somerset France 500 625 25.0%
Martini & Rossi Asti Bacardi-Martini USA Italy 550 610 10.9%
Tosti Asti Tyfield Importers Italy 390 300 -23.1%
Veuve Clicquot Clicquot France 109 135 23.9%
Codorniu Canandaigua Wine Co. Spain 125 115 -8.0%
Mumm Seagram Chateau & Estates France 115 108 -6.1%
Perrier-Jouët Seagram Chateau & Estates France 95 100 5.3%
Gancia Asti Paterno Imports Italy 90 80 -11.1%
Paul Cheneau Remy Amerique Spain 70 65 -7.1%
Taittinger Kobrand Corp. France 55 55 0.0%
Piper Heidsieck Remy Amerique France 55 50 -9.1%
Total Leading Brands 2,992 3,059 2.2%
Others 385 377 -2.3%
Total Imported Sparkling 3,377 3,436 1.7%
Source: Adams Wine Handbook 1997.

Problems Remain

Sparkling wine has always had one problem: it is a beverage that winds up being used almost solely by consumers for celebrations, not for regular weekly or daily consumption and very rarely with food. Carbonnier and others agree that the balance of top-quality champagne works brilliantly with food.

Will any French champagne marketing organizations mount a campaign to educate consumers on the food compatibility of champagne?

“No,” said Carbonnier. “I don’t envision a major campaign such as this because such things are very costly. But we have been very successful with our Champagne Notebooks.” These are pamphlets that explain the details of champagne in simple, easy-to-understand terms. Some 30,000 copies of a first Notebook were distributed to consumers. A new one has just been published. (For a copy, call 800-64-Champagne.)

David Brown, vice president for marketing at Freixenet USA, sees enthusiasm from distributors for French champagne and high-end California sparkling wine, but is aware that sales in the lower tiers are soft.

“Above $7 there seems to be real life,” said Brown. “In that niche, we can talk about flavors and food pairings. And when restaurateurs talk about champagne, they know how to talk about it.”

Still, Brown realizes it’s hard to sell bubbly as a food companion. “We’ve done focus group research, and the $3 to $13 buyer refuses to admit that sparkling wine goes with food,” said Brown. “They have all kinds of reasons — it’s too acidic, it has too many bubbles…

“It’s really distressing to see this, and we all have to do something about it, but with a small budget, it’s hard to convince these people that sparkling wine goes with food. With Freixenet, we market it as a party bubbly. We’re not showing it next to a plate of anything.

“And we realize that sparkling wine is probably the 50th type of beverage that comes to mind when thinking of a beverage to go with barbecue. At the higher end, yes, sparkling wine is appropriate to serve with food, and above the $13 price point, consumers are knowledgeable that it works with food.”

Blanc de Noirs Doing Well

One category of sparkling wine that seems to be fast-rising in sales is blanc de noirs, a bubbly that is made slightly pink to capture the flavor of pinot noir. Brown said Gloria Ferrer can’t make enough of it, and sales are jumping 50% per year on Gloria Ferrer’s Blanc de Noirs. Mumm and Domaine Chandon, too, are experiencing rapid growth in this category.

One fact that Carbonniere pointed to is that champagne is a complex wine in a more delicate package than some of the rich, heavy table wines. “The best wines are not bigger and richer,” he said. “The better wines are delicate and they are more difficult to discuss.”

And if the optimists are correct, more and more consumers will be discussing sparkling wines of all types in the next few years.

Dan Berger’s wine column is carried by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and he also publishes a weekly newsletter on wine, “Vintage Experiences” (e-mail: RLLS92A@PRODIGY.COM).

Recent Vintages
Are Tops

Wine lovers who appreciate French champagne have a lot to choose from, especially if they like vintage-dated champagne.

Not every year is good enough for vintage champagne to be produced, but 1988 and 1989 were excellent, and some stocks of these mature vintage-dated champagnes remain in some inventories.

Better yet, 1990 was considered a great vintage, 1991 was rated very good and the first releases of the 1992s have shown style and class. It is rare indeed for five consecutive vintages to be rated this high.


KORBEL EXPANDS
ITS OFFERINGS

For the past two years, Korbel has expanded its sales beyond the 1 million 9-liter case mark, making it the largest-selling methode champenois-style sparkling wine in the U.S. Earlier this year, in an interesting twist, Korbel Cellars debuted Korbel Chardonnay Champagne. Made from 75% chardonnay grapes and packaged in an unusually-shaped 750 ml green glass bottle, the new brand is meant to entice the loyal chardonnay drinker to sparkling wine while also appealing to those sparkling wine drinkers who want to try something new. Korbel Chardonnay Champagne, marketed by Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide, has a $12.99 suggested retail price.

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