Before there was Yellow Tail, the ubiquitous brand of Australian wine that has invaded the U.S. like rapidly multiplying wallabies, there was Mouton Cadet from Bordeaux.
Since its launch by Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1931 as the first branded premium wine priced for the middle class, Mouton Cadet has been the gateway wine for drinkers discovering Bordeaux. By 2002 it was selling 15 million bottles a year worldwide. But lately it has been collapsing in the U.S. Casual wine drinkers have been attracted to fruitier and better-marketed wines from Australia and South America. And retailers, for a brief time, cooled to featuring overtly French wines, considering the wave of anti-Gallic feeling that began in 2003 when France opposed the Iraq war. Rothschild sold only 2.9 million bottles in the U.S. in 2004, less than half its 6.5 million high in 1992, according to the annual study by wine and spirits research journal Impact.
Now the house of Rothschild is trying to reclaim its place in America as a trusted, sophisticated budget brand. It's designing blends that taste more like Napa and Aussie wines, recasting its labels, and wielding new distribution muscle through an alliance with Constellation Brands (STZ ) Inc. It also hopes to capitalize on buzz that 2005 may be Bordeaux's best year in a quarter-century. The trick for Rothschild will be to avoid dumbing down Mouton Cadet's esteemed product as it tries to modernize. That balance isn't easy to strike when success today derives as much from the label as from the wine.
When it comes to marketing, most French vintners move like escargots. But Xavier de Eizaguirre, president of the management board of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, has become a realist. Besides bending to the rounder flavors of upstarts lately more successful than Bordeaux, he is talking about such once- noxious notions as screwcaps and wine boxes. "France remains a reference for the world. But when it comes to marketing and packaging, we need to clean up our act," concedes Eizaguirre.
The attempt at restoration, fittingly, began with the wine, starting with the 2003 vintage. Priced at $6 to $8, Mouton Cadet rouge went from an oak- finished cabernet sauvignon-dominant wine to one that's unoaked and 65% merlot. The result is a fruitier, less tannic wine created in direct response to Australian and Spanish reds. The white wine has more sauvignon blanc than the old blend and a fruitier profile as well. Rothschild also uncluttered its label and tried to demystify the wine by putting the percentages of each grape on the back. And despite a rising euro, Rothschild has kept U.S. prices low.
Even so, critics aren't satisfied and say the vintners haven't gone far enough. "I'd be more enthusiastic if they put 'merlot' on the front label, dropped Mouton Cadet, and renamed it Smackamucko or something," says a skeptical Gary Vaynerchuk, owner of The Wine Library in Springfield, N.J., and winelibrary.com.
Given all the competition, though, the outlook for most high-volume wine from France remains bleak. That's why the country's top wine and spirits company, Pernod Ricard, passed up a chance to distribute Mouton Cadet and has no French wines at all, other than Champagne, in its portfolio. "The French market is so fragmented, and there is such an oversupply of wine, that we don't see the profit," says Pernod Deputy CEO Pierre Pringuet.
Constellation had no French wines either until it agreed to distribute Mouton Cadet. Rothschild had impressed the company by doing some consumer research of its own. "They listened to consumers, which was refreshing, especially coming from a French company," says Leslie Joseph, vice-president for consumer research at Constellation.
Rothschild's research meshed with Constellation's: American consumers still believe the best wines in the world come from France, even though they aren't drinking them as much. "That it sold 240,000 cases with zero marketing since 2000 smells like opportunity to us," says Bethany DiSanto, marketing chief at Constellation's North Lake Wines unit.
Indeed, Constellation has been ogling the success of French wines marketed according to the new school. E. & J. Gallo Winery's Red Bicyclette is essentially a French jug wine, successfully branded by featuring a cartoon of a Frenchman in a beret riding a red bike with a dog following behind him. The friendly label overcame the brief backlash against French wines. And Fat Bastard wines, from southern France, is a marketing phenomenon, selling 425,000 cases in the U.S. last year.
Since Eizaguirre isn't prepared to go the funky label route, Constellation is navigating a busy boulevard of French restraint and consumer targeting. The company has identified four kinds of buyers it must reach to make headway: the enthusiast (passionate and attentive to ratings), the image seeker (buys premium wine as a rule), the satisfied sipper (always buys the same stuff, e.g., merlot), and the traditionalist (likes familiar labels). The job would be easier, DiSanto concedes, if Rothschild had upped the merlot enough to flag the popular varietal on the front label. As is, buyers who don't read the back see only the information that it's a red Bordeaux -- along with a brief poem in French.
Rothschild and Constellation are putting just $1 million into promoting Mouton Cadet anew this year, mostly giving retailers advertising support to feature it. In addition, the company is prowling affordable U.S. equivalents of the niche sponsorships that it has recently taken in Europe -- the Cannes Film Festival and the Old Vic Theatre in London. Given Americans' liking for critters on labels, though, they might want to consider partnering with something like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
By David Kiley