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Moet-Hennessy V.P. Affords a Whimsical Touch

October 15, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

Only a confident, secure executive would advance the idea of discontinuing one of his firm's best-selling products.

As a passing notion, Count Frederic Chandon, vice president of Moet-Hennessy, did just that when he suggested eliminating the popular Moet White Star Champagne. He faulted the bubbly for its universally appealing sweetness, a style that breaks tradition with the company's drier, more elegant wines.

Chandon was being a little flip in his comments during an interview at The Times, especially considering that the United States represents 70% of all White Star sales. But he can afford a touch of whimsy considering that his tenure with the Paris-based beverage and luxury goods company extends back to 1956.

As important as his employment longevity is Chandon's genealogy: His family joined with another, the Moets, in the early 1800s to form what is now France's largest Champagne house. Subsequent mergers and acquisitions led to the current corporate name.

Today's Moet-Hennessy also includes several top-shelf subsidiaries such as Hennessy Cognac, Christian Dior perfume, Louis Vuitton leather goods and the Napa Valley's Domain Chandon.

White Star, the object of Chandon's fleeting concern, carries a suggested retail price of about $23. Even so, it is the one of Moet-Hennessy's lowest-priced Champagnes. More to the count's liking are several other vintage wines from the company's impressive portfolio: Moet Brut Imperial ($32), Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blanc ($41) and Dom Perignon ($61).

"I always fear that we will get bad comments about (the White Star) from wine writers or the public," he said. "I would be pleased to remove it from the United States, but we will give the public what they want. Eventually, people will move on to other (drier wines) such as brut. Then, viola. "

Chandon, who also functions as a director of Moet-Hennessy's American operations, made it clear that he was not questioning anyone's taste.

Once introduced to something pleasurable, such as sparkling wine, he says, people eventually trade up to the next, presumably more expensive, category--whether it be wine, perfume or luggage. In fact, Moet-Hennessy's future is partially dependent upon Americans trading in their coolers, beers and spritzers for sparkling wine or Champagne. At least there is hope that the U.S. penchant for carbonation will unmistakably lead in that direction.

"Sales of French Champagne are increasing, especially those of our company," said Chandon. "And the United States is a very good market. Actually, sales are better in the United States than in Europe for one reason: consumption in Europe is static, but in the United States it is up, absolutely. There is also more room for growth here because per capita consumption of Champagne is almost nothing."

Chandon also offered a range of views on activities in the sparkling-wine world.

The grape harvest in France's Champagne region is under way and should continue until about Oct. 26. But this year is not expected to be a particularly good one, he said, indicating that no Dom Perignon will be made from 1987 grapes. This disappointment should be partially offset by what Chandon anticipates will be a superb 1982 Dom Perignon, which may be released late next year.

He also has high hopes for a sparkling dessert wine, Petite Liqueur, that is the Moet's first new product in more than two centuries. The rich, almost chocolate-like beverage, packaged in 200-milliliter bottles, is a blend of cognac and five different white wines.

Finally, Chandon expressed concerned about the storage conditions for Champagnes in wine shops, restaurants and homes.

"When I travel, and this is throughout the world not just in the United States, I will order vintage Moet Champagnes. Many times these wines have passed their peak and the deterioration is usually the result of improper (hot) storage temperatures.

"Poor (wholesale and retail) storage conditions are a pain in the neck for us," he said.

There's no doubt that buying a bad bottle of expensive Champagne would be even more disconcerting than getting a good one that was a touch sweet.

Jug Update--The Robert Mondavi Winery recently announced a reformulation of its low-end wines. The change involves adding varietal-grape designations to what had been simply called red, white and rose.

The move comes at a time when analysts project that much of the future growth in California table wines will be in the premium and super-premium categories, areas where Mondavi is well represented. Greater attention to their mass-market product, though, is likely to trigger other image improvements by competitors in the overall jug wine segment.

First introduced in 1977, Mondavi's 1.5-liter bottles were an attempt to offer a better-value jug at a price competitive--but not in step--with the stalwarts in the category such as E & J Gallo and Sebastiani.

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