AMERICA GETS READY FOR A CORKING EVENT

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As America ready for the great champagne rush?

All the early predictions were that the world would celebrate the end of the 1990s with a bang and a very resounding pop — a pop so substantial, in fact, that champagne and all sparkling wine sales would be so great as to dry up the worldwide supply, creating massive shortages and major price increases.

These stories carried such a scare message that they seemed too excessive. By early this year, cooler heads seemed to prevail. By January 1999, in a straw poll of wine merchants I took, only two of nine I chatted with said they believed that bubbly sales would rise to the heady level predicted.

“There is plenty of sparkling wine worldwide,” said one merchant. “Sure, people will party with bubbly, but a lot of folks are simply going to buy the less expensive stuff. I’ll bet you’ll have no trouble finding Dom Perignon and [Roederer]Cristal.”

Well, by early fall, all this laid-back, nonchalant attitude had abated. Merchants around the country, surprised at the early sales of upscale products, were in an agitated mode to get stocks of champagne and other sparkling wine that would satisfy the demand, which seemed to rise month by month.

Almost every category of sparkling wine and champagne has shown major increases. In the Nielsen Winescan ratings for the period ending August 7, the following wineries showed the following increases in depletions (based on supermarket scan data): Gloria Ferrer, 54%; Korbel, 14.7%, Andre, 1.3%; Ballatorre, 9%; Martini and Rossi, 11%; Tott’s, 8%; Domaine Ste. Michelle, 26%; Veuve Clicquot, 16.6%.

Moreover, Schramsberg, Gloria Ferrer and Piper Heidsieck all were reported on allocation.

Huge Demand At High End

“There’s a demand at the high end,” said Gary Fishman, wine buyer for Wally’s in West Los Angeles. “It’s not like a stampede — we’re more laid back here in Los Angeles. But people are really interested in Dom Perignon and Cristal.” About a year ago, some discounters carried Dom Perignon for $79.99, and magnums were $110. Today, Wally’s price is $129.99 for a 750 ml bottle. And magnums are closing in on $250.

Moreover, theft is now a real problem. With Cristal now routinely selling for well over $200 a bottle in most markets, many merchants have it under lock and key. But that’s occasionally not enough. Two days after taking delivery of a shipment of Cristal, Wally’s warehouse was broken into and 50 six-packs were stolen. “They knew what they were after,” said Fishman.

On the East Coast, one major retail player is Zachy’s in Scarsdale, NY. Champagne buyer Andrew McMurray was asked what items were selling. “Pretty much everything, especially the premiums like Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame.” Zachy’s price for Cristal, among the lowest in the country this year at $199, is in limited supply, said McMurray, and “when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

An All-Time Sales Record

The fact is, 1999 appears to be the year when French champagne will be in such demand that prices are expected to rise for even mediocre items by December 1. The Champagne Wine Information Bureau in New York released figures showing that 1,412,500 cases of French champagne were sold in the U.S. in 1998, an all-time record, exceeding the 1.3 million cases sold in 1987.

Moreover, Jean-Louis Carbonnier, head of the bureau, said that sales could reach 1.6 million cases this year, based on estimates of his office. This increase of “only” 213,000 cases in calendar year ’99 would be even greater, but importers interviewed pointed out that stocks simply aren’t there.

Carbonnier noted that French Champagne shipments worldwide in 1998 topped 24.3 million cases, an all-time record, and that 1999 will be even greater, and still there will be an shortfall in the US, in part because of huge worldwide demand, notably from Germany, England and the Netherlands. (Part of the demand from the Netherlands, one industry trade expert said, was re-shipments to other countries.)

As for the major bubbly players, both champagne as well as other imported and domestic sparkling wines, all companies interviewed estimated their sales would rise 10% to 15% this year, and all said a lack of product was a key reason it wouldn’t be any greater than that.

The largest French import, Moet et Chandon, had sales in the U.S. last year of 750,000 cases, and a spokesman for U.S. importer Schieffelin & Somerset said the increase for 1999 would likely be only 10%, though it could well have been more had there been enough product to sell. Sales through September were up 14% for the year, he said.

“The major reason [growth won’t be above 10% annually] is simply that we don’t have any wine to sell,” said a Moet spokesman. “We knew more than a year ago that there was heavy allocation going on, but you can’t rush this product. We can only make so much.”

Veuve Clicquot and G.H. Mumm, which sold 184,000 and 110,000 cases respectively last year in the U.S., each should rise by about the same 15%. Taittinger, which rose dramatically in U.S. sales last year, up 25% to 70,000 cases, could hit 100,000 cases in 1999, so great has been the demand for the product.

Cavas Moving Up

The leading Spanish house also seems poised to make a major move ahead. A spokesman for Freixenet said early indications are that U.S. sales of Freixenet cava could hit just over 1 million cases, a 40% rise over its 759,000 case sales here in 1998.

At Codorniu, however, brand repositioning is going on, and sales have declined significantly since 1995, from a peak of 110,000 cases to last year’s 50,000 cases. A company spokesman pointed out that Codorniu is repositioning itself into a higher price niche with the introduction of a new, classier product.

The new item, called Cuvee Raventos and first shipped to the U.S. this past August, sells for about $13 a bottle, higher than Freixenet and other Spanish cavas such as Paul Cheneau and Sigura Viudas. It contains a higher percentage of chardonnay and is more reminiscent of champagne in taste.

Domestics Doing Well

Most American methode champenoise sparkling winemakers have done well over the last three years, and sales in 1999 are expected to rise significantly. Led by traditional leader Korbel, which sold 1.25 million cases of sparkling wine in 1998, the French-method bubbly producers all appear poised to do rather well in 1999.

Bob Iantosca of Sonoma Valley’s Gloria Ferrer, which sold 94,000 cases last year, was all but sold out by mid-year this year. “Demand has been great, and last year we grew at the expense of this year,” he said. He pointed out that the company is now under strict inventory control, and he said prices for all producers are going to have to rise to slow down sales.

California’s second-largest methode champenoise producer, Domaine Chandon, topped 465,000 cases last year, and the company projected it would hit 600,000 cases this year, a 29% increase. One already-strong product for the company this year is Chandon Cuvée 2000, the millennium bottlings that sell for $30 each. Sales are brisk, report retailers, and the winery is all but sold out.

McMurray of Zachy’s said California’s Domaine Chandon, Pacific Echo (the former Scharffenberger), Mumm Napa, Domaine Carneros, J, and Roederer Estate’s l’Ermitage are really selling well. In California, retail shops have had success with Schramsberg, Iron Horse, Gloria Ferrer, and a number of smaller brands.

Taittinger’s California project, Domaine Carneros, remains small (some 30,000 cases), but is one of the more prestigious brands. Its launch a year ago of its new all-chardonnay La Reve sparkling wine, at $50 a bottle, has proven very popular.

The only category of sparkling wine that appears to have declined in the last year are the charmat-produced brands. Consumers appear happy with superior-quality products at $12 to $20 a bottle, and appear to be shying away from the $3.99 specials of the past. For example, the three major brands from E&J Gallo, Andre, Ballatorre and Tott’s, all declined in 1998, Andre down nearly 5%, Ballatorre by 4.3% and Tott’s by 1.7%. Only Gallo’s Eden Roc brand rose, 6.4%, to 250,000 cases.

Cook’s, Canandaigua’s entry to the category, is a 1.5 million case brand that has been flat at that figure for the last four years. However, a spokeswoman for Canandaigua said the company projects a 6% increase on an annual basis.

“We see a new category of users,” she said. “More people will be celebrating New Year’s Eve than ever before, and we don’t think they will be dropping $10 or $15 on their first champagnes. We think they’ll be looking for value champagnes.”

Asti Bubbling Up

One category poised for a banner year in 1999 is asti spumante and other similar wines. Martini and Rossi, the category leader, sold 645,000 cases nationally last year and brand managers are hopeful of a major increase. Through mid-year, sales were on pace to increase some 20% by year’s end. Tosti, the major competitor, declined from 380,000 cases to 322,000 cases last year, but hopes for a rise.

A new brand, Verdi Spumante, imported by Carriage House, has risen in sales rapidly from 100,000 cases in 1994. Carriage House president Stephen Karp predicts that, partly because of its low (under-$5) pricing, Verdi should top 500,000 cases this year, and perhaps hit even 600,000, rivaling Martini and Rossi.

One new import that has yet to even show up on the wine radar screen, but which could play a huge role next year, is Domaine Chandon’s new Argentinian bubbly, Brut Fresco, which has already shown great success in Texas, Maryland and Washington, D.C. National rollout is scheduled for next spring.

So, champagne and sparkling wine sales seem assured of breaking new records this year. And, who knows? If historians — and marketers — can convince consumers that the dawn of the new millennium is really January 1, 2001 (which it is, when accurately tabulated), then maybe we’ll be going through the whole thing all over again next year.

Dan Berger, wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, also publishes a weekly commentary and newsletter on wine, called Vintage Experiences. E-mail him at info@vintageexperiences.com, or call (888) 662-WINE.


It’s Worth The Risk

Prices for all wine vary from market to market, but also from store to store in the same market. Discount warehouses, with their huge buying power, always qualify for larger discounts, and smaller mom ‘n’ pop shops must struggle with smaller discounts.

This year, say insiders, the gulf between certain grande marque champagnes is so wide that the smaller shops must pay wholesale prices that are greater than the shelf prices at the warehouses.

One retailer, who requested anonymity, told me, “If I don’t go to [a well-known discount warehouse] for my champagne, I’d be out of business.”

He said many smaller retailers will be going to the discount warehouses for their year-end stocks, which is strictly illegal, but they are willing to risk it.

“I can’t compete any other way,” he said.


Compared To What?

Making predictions is never easy, and Gary Fishman, wine buyer for Wally’s in West Los Angeles, says predicting what this year’s champagne and sparkling wine sales will be is nearly impossible for one good reason:

“We have nothing to compare it to, since the last time the change of a century occurred, we weren’t around, and market research was very poor back then.”

Good point.

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