Constellation bills itself as having the "largest wine business in the world," thanks to decent internal growth and numerous acquisitions. Its portfolio now includes Robert Mondavi, Ravenswood, and Blackstone, as well as a number of spirits brands. It also imports and markets beers such as Corona, St. Pauli Girl, and Tsingtao. Back in June 2006, the company acquired Vincor, adding exposure to the lucrative Canadian marketplace.
That sounds impressive, but Constellation just qualifies as a large-cap stock with its $5 billion market capitalization -- its share price multiplied by shares outstanding. In comparison, rival Diageo
By itself, company size doesn't mean much, but product and geographic diversification can be an advantage. Constellation posted a decent fourth quarter but continues to struggle in its wine business, because of an oversupply of grapes in Australia and pricing pressure in the U.K. from rising duty costs and other challenging conditions. During the company's year-end earnings conference call, it estimated that the U.K. accounts for roughly 10% of profits.
So while a couple of markets torpedo Constellation, firms like Diageo benefit from global scale, distribution savvy, and marketing clout to ride out individual market volatility. Additionally, in the spirits business, rivals control more premium brands, which carry higher margins. Over the last 12 months, Diageo and Brown-Forman posted 22.4% and 18.5% net margins, respectively, compared to 6.4% at Constellation.
Constellation is admittedly seeing lower profitability from the wine challenges I mentioned above. It's also digesting Vincor, struggling with acquisition-related charges and higher interest expense from debt taken on to make the purchase.
Add it all up, and there are just too many moving parts at Constellation to discern what its longer-term growth and profitability trends are. It's a leader in wine, but I'm not so sure that sector represents the best investment option in alcohol, and it's hard to argue against Anheuser in the beer space. I've been leaning toward the premium spirits space for exposure to more stable, higher-margin opportunities, which can currently be had for similar valuations to Constellation.
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Fool contributor Ryan Fuhrmann is long shares of Diageo, but he has no financial interest in any other company mentioned. Feel free to email him with feedback or to discuss any companies mentioned further. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.