If timing is everything, wine coolers have everything -- including the only growing market share in the alcoholic-beverage market, where sales of everything else are flat or falling.
Six years ago, wine coolers didn't exist. Now these bottled combinations of juice and wine are being produced by two major distillers, Brown-Forman Corp. and Seagrams; the nation's largest wine producer, Gallo; and the nation's largest brewery, Anheuser-Busch.
The wine cooler might be the perfect drink for the 1980s -- sort of an alcoholic soft drink with a health-and-fitness aura -- perfect for apres spa.
"In 1980, we were noticing a lot of trends that were occurring in the alcohol business and the beverage business," said Stuart Bewley, who was an international commodities trader at the time. Consumers wanted lighter and lower-alcohol products, and there was a trend toward real juice in drinks, he said.
Bewley and his partner, Michael Crete, a former beer and wine salesman, who had worked out a recipe with informal taste tests among friends on the beaches of California, thought they had just the product and began producing and bottling California Cooler, initially making deliveries from a pickup truck. Last September, Brown-Forman bought California Cooler -- generally credited with being the first in the market -- for approximately $143 million.
Wine coolers have been a hit with younger drinkers who grew up during the decades when soft-drink sales more than doubled, when getting drunk became declasse and when joggers took to the streets in record numbers. Sales have grown from 6.5 million gallons in 1983 -- the first year in which the Wine Institute kept numbers -- to 27.8 million gallons in 1984 and 57.1 million gallons in 1985. Based on estimated wine consumption for 1985 of 576.5 million gallons, that's nearly 10 percent of the wine consumed last year.
"It was the perfect marriage of a product and a time and a mood in the country," said John Oliver of Seagram Wine Co., which introduced Seagram's Cooler in November 1984 and this past Friday followed it with Seagram's Golden Wine Cooler. "The acceptance of the product was well beyond our expectations and exceeded all our consumer research predictions," he said.
"There's no question that the market will be around for a long time," said Perry Luntz, editor and publisher of the Beverage Alcohol Market Report. Estimates of growth in 1986 range as high as 60 percent. Retail sales might pass $1 billion this year, Bewley said.
"There's no reason for the coolers to cool down," said Luntz. "The kids who were brought up on bland, sweet products like Kool-Aid and Coca-Cola would love this."
"The facts are, people like sweet things, even though they may not say that they like them. Wine coolers are just very light. It's almost like drinking a soft drink," said Gary A. Hemphill, editor of Beverage Industry, a trade publication. Although coolers vary in alcohol content, they generally have less alcohol than wine or beer.
Cooler consumers are generally in their 20s or early 30s and generally white collar or aspiring to be, according to producers and industry analysts. They also say that coolers tend to be popular with men and women. Coolers tend to compete against beer or soft drinks for sales, they say.
The product's timing was good, and not just in terms of matching drinkers' changing tastes. Wine industry analysts note that it also came on line at a time when the wine industry was dealing with a glut of wine grapes.
Wine-grape growers, who had watched the market for wine expand during the 1970s, planted more stock, which takes about five years to mature, said Eileen Frederikson, a partner in Gomberg-Frederikson Associates, a wine-industry consulting company based in San Francisco. But while the vines were maturing, wine sales leveled off. "Suddenly there was a vast surplus of grapes, and this product came along on a very timely basis to utilize the surplus," Frederikson said.
"The growth has been terrific. The industry loves it," she said. "The embryo start certainly grew in four short years to an extremely competitive marketplace. Now it looks a lot less like a market segment where little people could find a marketing niche and survive. Now it's almost like the soft-drink industry, a battle among giants."
California Cooler still leads in sales, according to most accounts. In 1985, it held an estimated 32 percent of the market. E. & J. Gallo Winery's Bartles & Jaymes coolers, which hit the market last year, held an estimated 19 percent of the market, buoyed by an amazingly successful advertising campaign. Sun Country Cooler, produced by Canandaigua Wine Co., is the third-largest marketer with about 13 percent of the market, according to Frederikson, and Seagrams was fourth with about 11 percent. Anheuser -- Busch introduced a champagne-based cooler called Baybry's in late 1985.
Other coolers with substantial sales are the 20/20 brand and Calvin Cooler, according to Frederikson.