How many brands does Constellation Brands need, anyway?

Constellation, the world’s largest wine producer — $5.22 billion in sales from February 2006 to February 2007 — announced consellaionlogo.gif Monday that it paid $885 million for the wine business in the United States of Fortune Brands. Constellation, headquartered in Fairport, N.Y., gets five well-known wineries: Clos du Bois, Wild Horse, Buena Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell and Geyser Peak. Fortune is not selling its spirits brands, which include Jim Beam, Courvoisier, Canadian Club, Maker’s Mark, Dekuyper, Knob Creek, Laphroiag, Vox and lots more. Constellation also acquires some 1,500 acres of vineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties.

There seems to be no stopping Constellation, which appears to own everything that Fosters Wine Estates, E. & J. Gallo and The Wine Group don’t own. Constellation startled the wine world in late 2004 by buying Robert Mondavi Winery and by acquiring, in 2006, the Canadian beverage giant, Vincor.

So that you wine consumers understand the scope of Constellation, let me provide a partial breakdown of the mammoth company’s wine holdings, which are concentrated in four divisions: Centerra Wine Company, Inc.; North Lake Wines; Pacific Wine Partners; and Icon Estates.

Centerra (Canadaigua, N.Y.) includes these brands: Alice White, Arbor Mist, Cook’s, Covey Run, Inglenook, Monkey Bay, Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, Talus Collection, Almaden, Manischewitz, Papio, 3 Blind Moose, Paul Masson Brandy, Rex Goliath, Toasted Head, Paul Thomas, Hogue, Vendange, Ste. Chapelle and Turner Road.

The portfolio of North Lake Wines, also based in Canadaigua, consists of more than 30 brands includes Farallon, Great Western, J. Roget, Marcus James, Paul Masson table wines, Taylor California Cellars, Vina Santa Carolina and Kelly’s Revenge.

Pacific Wine Partners (Monterey County, California) goes slightly up-market with its roster, which includes Blackstone, Black Box, Hayman & Hill and R.H. Phillips. This division imports from Australia Banrock Station, Hardys wines, Leasingham, Barra Valley Estate, Yarra Burn, Chateau Reynella and Starvedog Lane. From New Zealand it imports the popular Nobilo line of wines.

The big dog is Constellation’s Icon Estates, based in Napa Valley. Here the line-up of notable wineries — or brands — includes Franciscan Oakville Estate, Mount Veeder Winery, Robert Mondavi Winery, Estancia Estates and Ravenswood in California; Columbia Valley in Washington; Ruffino Estate in Tuscany; Drylands and Kim Crawford in Marlborough, N.Z.; Tintara in Australia’s McLaren Vale; Veramonte in Chile; and the dessert wine makers Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs in Ontario.

These lists encompass only about half of the wine brands in Constellation’s stable, and we haven’t mentioned beer and spirits.

How does Constellation’s acquisitive nature affect the structures of the properties it buys and the quality of the wine?

That’s an open question. Hundreds of employees lost jobs after the Robert Mondavi acquisition. Mark Martin, a Constellation spokesman, was quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle as saying that it’s too early to know about job cuts that might occur because of the Fortune takeover, but said, “One of the things we look for is whatever synergies we can gain from the operations.” For huge corporations, of course, “synergies” depend on potential profits.

It will be interesting to see, for example, what happens to Sonoma County’s Clos du Bois. Founded in 1976 by Frank Woods, the winery now produces about two million cases of wine annually. It’s a popular restaurant brand for inexpensive chardonnay, merlot and gewurztraminer, though its upper-tier Alexander Valley red wines, Marlstone (a Bordeaux-style blend) and Briarcrest (100 percent cabernet sauvignon), have long lost the luster they displayed from about 1978 through the late 1980s. Will Constellation engineer a revival of Marlstone and Briarcrest while expanding the exposure of the moderately priced tier, or write them off as lost causes?

The redoubtable Dan Berger posted an essay on the Constellation acquisition of Fortune’s wine brands to the Appellation America website on Tuesday (here), in which he discusses the issues that occur when large companies swallow up wineries. His conclusion? Sometimes it helps; sometimes it hurts. It depends on the companies involved.