Constellation Brands Inc. said Thursday that Americans brought home more wine through the holiday season, taking advantage of more discounts to trade up to higher-premium brands.
The maker of Robert Mondavi wine, Svedka vodka and Corona beer posted a $279.8 million fourth-quarter profit, recovering from a year-ago loss as it saw a 17 percent jump in wine sales in the key North America market.
Its revenue in the December-to-February period edged up just 1 percent to $715.3 million as the bump in wine volumes was largely offset by the recent sale of much of its Australian and British wine business.
While alcoholic-beverage purchases at bars and restaurants remain sluggish, the Victor, N.Y., company is benefiting from an improved U.S. economy even though promotional activity at stores is still highly competitive.
"The consumer is definitely back, is definitely purchasing," CEO Robert Sands told analysts in a conference call. But the typical take-home shopper "remains extremely price-sensitive and is looking for a deal and, therefore, promotional activity remains robust. ... We see a lot of trading-up going on in the business."
This year, he added, "I don't think that we're anticipating a big change in consumer behavior."
The quarterly results beat Wall Street expectations and the company forecast improved earnings in the current fiscal year. In addition, its board of directors authorized a $500 million share repurchase program "to provide flexibility over a multi-year period."
Its shares rose $1.41, or 6.9 percent, to close at $21.79 Thursday. The stock is trading at the upper end of a 52-week range of $14.97 to $22.52.
"We believe (the company's) core business is improving, and is beginning to reflect the strength of the wine category," UBS analyst Kaumil Gajrawala said in a note to clients.
The company's brands include Clos du Bois, Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, Blackstone and Ravenswood. It also sells liquors such as Black Velvet Canadian whiskey, and its beer imports include Modelo Especiale from Mexico, Tsingtao from China and St. Pauli Girl from Germany.
Spirits sales rose 3 percent, driven by strong gains for Svedka, while sales of Corona and other imported beers surged 15 percent.
Boosted by volume growth, operating earnings from Crown Imports, its beer joint venture with Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo SA, rose 18 percent to $97 million on sales of $480.4 million.
Net income for all of Constellation Brands equaled $1.32 per share. A year earlier, the company lost $51 million, or 23 cents a share, on sliding sales of spirits and beer and lingering weakness in the U.S. wine market.
Excluding items, it earned 35 cents per share. Wall Street expected 26 cents a share, according to FactSet.
In January, Constellation Brands lost its eight-year-long status as the world's No. 1 winemaker when it sold 80 percent of its Australian and British wine business to an Australian private equity firm for $230 million. It recorded a net pre-tax gain of $84 million and a net tax benefit of $198 million related to the divestiture.
Despite the divestiture, wine sales still account for more than 90 percent of revenue.
The company has been shifting its focus to higher-priced brands and remains the biggest seller by volume of premium-category wines priced between $5 and $15. Investors expect the sale of foreign assets to create a smaller but more profitable business with less risk.
In the current fiscal year, Constellation Brands expects adjusted earnings will rise to between $1.90 and $2 a share from $1.91 in the fiscal year that ended in February. Analysts were looking for a per-share profit of $1.80 this year, according to FactSet.
For all of fiscal 2011, Constellation Brands earned $560 million, or $2.62 per share, up sharply from $99.3 million or 45 cents a share in the previous year. But sales after excise taxes eased to $3.33 billion from $3.36 billion.