Introduced in the middle of 1998, Arbor Mist, from the Canandaigua Wine Company, qualifies as one of the most successful — if not the most successful — product launches of last year. The line of three wines reached initial sales of 1 million 9-liter cases within the first 100 days it was on the market, far outpacing the company’s original projections, and its phenomenal sales have continued right through the early part of 1999.

Arbor Mist is made with white zinfandel and chardonnay, blended with fruit flavors and lightly carbonated. It comes in three varieties — Peach Chardonnay, Strawberry White Zinfandel and Exotic Fruits White Zinfandel — and retails for approximately $4 per 750 ml bottle. Positioned somewhere between wine coolers and table wine, Canandaigua has clearly found a previously untapped consumer niche with Arbor Mist. If nothing else, it certainly confirms the fact that there is plenty of room for other than standard wines in the American marketplace. And at least one other winery, Sutter Home, has taken serious notice.

Soon after Arbor Mist’s introduction, Sutter Home debuted its own line of fruit-flavored wines — Portico — all made with white zinfandel. The three versions are Strawberry-Kiwi White Zinfandel, Peach-Mango White Zinfandel and Zinfandel with Raspberry. Portico’s wines are 99.8% wine and 0.2% fruit flavors, according to the company, with its alcohol content varying between 8% and 9%. The wines are not lightly carbonated, as Arbor Mist is, and retail for approximately $5 per 750 ml bottle.

So, what is the attraction of these popular-priced fruit-flavored wines? “These are varietal wines with natural fruit flavors, and they fill a void in the marketplace,” said Rob Vlosky, Canandaigua’s brand manager for Arbor Mist. “As consumers mature, they usually follow the pattern of moving from coolers and sweet, fruity wines to varietal wines, but there is that transitional middle ground that can be daunting to a lot of consumers. Arbor Mist, with its fruit flavor, light carbonation and varietal taste, serves as that transitional product. Consumers can feel comfortable with the attributes of both wine worlds.”

Vlosky noted that the company did two years of consumer research before it ultimately created Arbor Mist. “We set out to identify an area that wasn’t addressing consumers’ needs and develop a product to fill that need. We did thousands of flavor and packaging tests. In the end, it has been very well accepted by consumers.”

In fact, the frosted bottle has turned out to be the number one draw for consumers, according to Vlosky; however, the brand is obviously succeeding on its own merits. “During Christmas week alone, ACNielsen scans show over 30,000 cases — in just food and drug channels. That translates to about 100,000 cases when you count liquor stores and all the other outlets. That’s pretty good for one brand for one week.”

Sutter Home’s Portico developed from a different perspective. “The idea for Portico arose from research we did indicating that 60% of white zinfandel drinkers — millions of consumers — drink no other wine,” said Gary Glass, Sutter Home’s director of business development. “We wanted to provide variety for those consumers. Also, we couldn’t help notice the strong sales among younger adults of the fruit-flavored craft brews and upscale spirits like Absolut Citron Vodka.”

Sutter Home is the granddaddy of white zinfandel, actually inventing the wine back in 1972, and now more than 100 wineries sell the wine type. White zinfandel is now the second best-selling variety in America, selling more than 21 million cases annually, narrowly trailing chardonnay.

For decades, Gallo’s Boone’s Farm has served as the staple for inexpensive fruity wines, but it has not carried the cachet associated with a varietal wine that Arbor Mist and Portico do.

Indeed, the varietal wine character of these wines is causing some controversy in the wine industry. Several premium wineries voiced concern about terming these wines as varietals when they include fruit flavorings. The response by Canandaigua’s Vlosky is that Arbor Mist and new fruit-flavored wines like it are “expanding the wine market and wine consumption. They are good for the industry.”

Sutter Home is launching three more fruit-flavored wines beginning in April as part of its tremendously successful Soleo line. Billed as “a fruitful blend of California grapes,” the three new Soleo flavors are Orchard Peach (made from grape wine, natural peach and apple flavors), Raspberry Harvest (grape wine, raspberry and other natural flavors) and Vineyard Berry (grape wine, strawberry, cranberry and other natural flavors). The wines are made with a blend of varietal grapes — in the case of the reds, zinfandel and gamay are blended together, and the white is a blend of muscato and chenin blanc — but they contain less than the necessary 75% of a grape type that would allow them to be designated with a varietal name.

“I think these new wines address a very important issue in the wine industry,” said Rob Celsi, Soleo brand manager, “that of attracting consumers under the age of 35. Table wine usage is declining among these consumers; in 1996, consumers under the age of 35 comprised 16% of table wine usage in the U.S.; in 1997, that same group comprised only 12%. And these wines appeal to that very demographic.” Celsi added that the brand’s website address — www.soleo.com — is printed right on the bottle, forming another bond with younger, internet-savvy consumers.

The new flavors are available in 750 ml bottles for a suggested price of $3.99. They are also available in 1.5 liter bottles and 187 ml four-packs. And Sutter Home is featuring a full lineup of in-store point-of-sale materials to support the launch. “The in-store materials are targeted at every type of outlet, from convenience to grocery stores to liquor stores,” Celsi said. In fact, in August, the company is planning a special promotion featuring a Soleo tumbler on-pack attached to the 1.5 liter packages.

“From the retailers’ standpoint, these wines will bring renewed excitement; they can revitalize this area of the wine market, which has been declining in recent years,” Celsi said.

Clearly, the fruit-flavored wines already on the market are making their case on the shelf and with the consumer. It’s pretty safe to assume that other wineries are not going to leave this burgeoning market to Canandaigua and Sutter Home and will be introducing their own fruit-flavored wines — sooner rather than later. In fact, though it could not be confirmed at press time, there was serious talk that Gallo was on the verge of launching its own product to compete with Arbor Mist.


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