October 2009

Constellation's Astronomer of Commerce

By: Deborah Parker Wong


Canadian-born Jay Wright, Constellation Wines U.S.’s newest C-level star, is a newcomer to the company only in the sense that he moved from Toronto, Ontario to live and work in New York State, where he now heads up sales, marketing and channel management for Constellation’s U.S. portfolio, reporting to Jose Fernandez, CEO of Constellation Wines North America.


In 2001, Wright found himself “at the top of the food chain” when, as SVP and GM for Borden Foods USA, he was named President of Vincor, Constellation’s Canadian subsidiary. Now, as Chief Commercial Officer and Executive Vice President for Constellation Wines U.S., Wright is charting a course for growth and keeping a close eye on the horizon for signs that consumer confidence is eclipsing the current pace of economy.


Navigating by the Stars


Six months into his new role, Wright has navigated Constellation Wines U.S. through the initial stages of a company-wide reorganization designed to streamline the sales and marketing structure and consolidate its wine and spirits business into one operating company. Adopting a move-to-premium strategy—one that focuses on wines in the $5 and above range and mid-premium spirits brands—in 2009 the company acquired Clos du Bois and Wild Horse wineries, while it sold off Almaden and Inglenook, along with 60 of its value and regional U.S. wine and spirits brands.


With fewer brands competing against one another and new, multi-year distributor agreements in place, the company’s refocused portfolio of domestic and imported wine and spirits is now supported by a network of companies that includes Southern Wine & Spirits, Republic National Distributing, National Wine & Spirits and Johnson Brothers Liquor Company.


“Managing change in an uncertain economy is easier when the goal is apparent,” says Wright. “The changes we’ve undergone in the last few months put Constellation among the top two alcohol beverage companies in the U.S. And more importantly, this structure allows us to focus on our powerful portfolio, and gives each of our wineries the resources they need to continue creating distinctive quality wines that represent their region and style .”

The Constellation line-up includes high-visibility brands from far and near, including Kim Crawford, Ravenswood,
Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Clos du Bois.

 Visionary Collaboration


Under Wright’s leadership at Vincor, Constellation’s success with Canadian wineries like Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs wasn’t confined to products that were already likely to perform. Wright’s vision also included projects that required faith—one of which is one of Vincor’s star wineries, Le Clos Jordanne. Located on the Jordan Bench of the Niagara Escarpment, the winery was launched in 2006 as joint venture between Vincor Canada and Boisset France.


 Jean-Charles Boisset, Vice President of Boisset, La Famille des Grands Vins, joined forces with Wright as part of the French company’s first investment in Canada. “I've worked with Jay on our La Clos Jordanne project from his earliest days at Vincor,” says Boisset, “and I've been extremely impressed with his ability to understand the quality of fine wines, the importance of terroir and the long term vision of winemaking.”

In the near term, the winery’s 2005 Claystone Terrace Chardonnay recently took first place for white wines in the “Judgment of Montreal” blind tasting, and winemaker Thomas Bachelder was named Winemaker of the Year at the 2009 Ontario Wine Awards. With Le Clos Jordanne’s super-premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines raising the international profile of Niagara wines, Boisset foresees U.S. distribution in the near future. “As a leader, Jay has exceptional people skills,” remarks Boisset; “he’s both very positive and a great listener. He knows how to keep his team focused, energized and, above all, motivated.”


In Good Spirits


While spirits make up only a small percentage of Constellation’s U.S. business, the company has a hit a sweet spot with Svedka, a mid-premium Swedish vodka that has grown by 50 percent in 2009 to become the third-largest imported vodka in the U.S. and the fastest growing major spirits brand in the world.


“The growth is two-fold,” notes Wright, “spirits consumers are trading down from ultra-premium products to Svedka, and the brand’s unique marketing has been a hit with consumers looking for quality and value.” The bottom line, “We’re on track to sell more than three million cases this year.”  


Growing Expectations


With its world-class portfolio and renewed routes to market, Constellation’s sales projections for 2010 are in line with the industry’s four percent growth in value. With the emphasis on established brands that have a high quality-to-price ratio, Wright points to value growth by the company’s largest brand—Woodbridge—which continues to see heatlhy growth, and to super-premium brands such as Estancia, Simi, Kim Crawford, Wild Horse and Clos du Bois.


“Our industry has always been more recession-resistant than others,” Wright explains, “and we are well positioned to bounce back quickly. Not only are we seeing signs that consumers are starting to get back out and spend on-premise again, indicators for wholesale purchases and housing are rebounding, making us hopeful for the upcoming holiday season.”


The Sky Is the Limit


In addition to overseeing channel management, Wright has the strategic support of his business insights team to help guide the direction of sales and marketing initiatives. In a follow-up study to the company’s Genome Project, proprietary research that looked closely at the habits and preferences of domestic wine consumers, there are a few surprises. Millennials (defined as age 21–32 by the Wine Market Council) are responsible for more growth in wine consumption than any other age group, and they consider it the most fun.


The biggest departure from conventional thinking looks at who’s doing the buying—and men are outpacing women by almost ten percent in this group. “The evolution of the Millennials is very exciting; we’re watching closely to see where this group is going with their brands over the next five to ten years,” says Wright. “Millennials are open to experimentation, much like Baby Boomers were in the 1960s. They are the first generation that doesn’t view wine as intimidating; they view it like an everyday product. It is with them that Robert Mondavi’s vision of seeing a bottle wine on every table has a chance to become a reality.”

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