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Foster's Picks New Leader for U.S. Wine Division

Stephen Brauer brings valuable experience to struggling company

Mitch Frank
Posted: March 26, 2009

After months of turmoil, Australian beverage giant Foster's Group is moving to shore up its American operations. After unveiling a company restructuring in January that affirmed its commitment to the wine business, the firm announced this week that Stephen Brauer, general manager of Pernod Ricard USA Wines, will take over its American wine division.

In his first interview since taking the job, Brauer told Wine Spectator, "Having viewed Foster's from afar as a competitor, they have a very strong presence and are extremely well-positioned. The quality and the significant potential of the portfolio combined with Foster's renewed commitment to the wine business attracted me to it."

Foster's owns dozens of wine labels, including Beringer and Chateau St. Jean in the U.S. and Penfolds and Lindemans in Australia. Brauer will oversee the production of the California wineries and sales of all of Foster's wine brands in the U.S.

The London-born executive is a respected figure in the trade, with almost 21 years of experience in the U.S. drinks industry, including a stint at Beam Global Spirits and Wine and 16 years at Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines. He was in charge of Pernod Ricard's U.S. wine business, and has close connections with many of the distributors and retailers that will be crucial for getting the Foster's American wine division back on track.

Brauer will need those assets. Last summer, Foster's took a $517 million write down on its global wine business, just two months after its CEO resigned. After conducting a top-to-bottom review, the firm announced in January that it would not sell off the wine division but would restructure, shift some of its production in California and sell 36 vineyards, five of them in California. That led to speculation that some California wineries might be up for sale soon.

Brauer refuses to talk about his plans before he starts on April 13. But he views his task as rebuilding the image of his wines and getting them in front of consumers as much as possible. "[Foster's has] compelling brands," he said. "They're all brands that consumers trust and they all overdeliver at their price point. But there's always an opportunity to enhance brand image with our target consumers."

Brauer doesn't think the recession will make his job impossible. "The wine business is proving quite resistant to the recession," he said. "All the latest trends show that consumers are still enjoying wine and view it as an affordable luxury. You don't need to take a loan out to enjoy a good bottle of wine. In today's environment, people want to treat themselves to affordable pleasure."

Despite the challenges he faces, Brauer is eager to get started and to relocate from suburban New York to Napa Valley. "I am delighted to be moving back to Napa. My family and I spent 16 years there and we consider it home."

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