Markets

Solid Liquid Assets

Quench your thirst for shares of an obscure seller of beer, wine and booze.

Think of beverage giants Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola, and you mentally picture their products. Constellation Brands may make you think of your horoscope, but you probably won't think of anything in a bottle or a can. The company purposefully flies beneath consumers' radar so that the brands it owns or distributes -- including Paul Masson, Effen Vodka and Corona Extra -- remain in the spotlight.

Despite its relative obscurity, Constellation is a major player in the world of alcoholic beverages. It sells about 91 million cases of wine annually, more than any other company. It employs 8,000 people worldwide, and it generated an estimated $4.7 billion in sales in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Fast-growing segments

Constellation manages its portfolio of more than 200 brands by staying nimble, with separate business units for production and for marketing in each niche. Its involvement in the fastest-growing parts of the industry -- wine, spirits and imported beer -- should help it exceed the industry's sales growth rate of 4% to 5% a year, says chief financial officer Thomas Summer.

The company traces its roots to 1945, when Marvin Sands founded Canandaigua Industries. Today, the company's Canandaigua Wine unit offers a wide range of labels, from super-premium Robert Mondavi to Richards Wild Irish Rose (named after Sands's son Richard, who is the current chief executive). Constellation emerged as a wine powerhouse with the acquisitions of Australia's BRL Hardy in 2003 and Robert Mondavi Corp. in 2004.

Constellation's markets are the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It plans to make a big push this year to expand its wine business into mainland Europe and the Pacific Rim. Summer says the company, based in Fairport, N.Y., near Rochester, also wants to expand its premium-spirits offerings. "This is an area with great growth potential where we are somewhat underrepresented," says Summer, whose home bar and wine cellar contain 1,000 bottles of Constellation beverages.

Meanwhile, Constellation's stock (symbol STZ) appears attractively priced. At $26, it trades at 15 times the average of analysts' earnings estimates of $1.78 per share for the February 2007 fiscal year, according to Thomson First Call. The price-earnings ratio is not much above the 13% annual earnings growth that analysts expect from Constellation over the next few years.

The bulls' case

Morningstar, which tends to value stocks conservatively, thinks the shares are worth $32. Analyst Matthew Reilly says Constellation benefits from consumers' growing interest in wine and spirits and their desire to indulge in premium brands. "People are trading up," he says.

Constellation earns points among some professionals for its disciplined approach to growth. "The company has a long history of making savvy acquisitions," says Charles Norton, co-manager of Vice Fund. He thinks the shares can rise at least 20% over the next 18 months. That's something we can drink to.

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