Merde #1. France’s Plonkgate has suddenly grown legs, with another US grog group revealed as a possible buyer of the dud vino. AFP this morning reported that Constellation Brands, the world’s biggest winemaker, “bought some of the fake French pinot noir sold in tanker-loads to the United States”. AFP said this was “was revealed in court documents seen on Thursday after 12 French winemakers and dealers were convicted on Wednesday of passing off cheap wine as pinot noir to US clients”. The wine was sold to the E&J Gallo for sale under its fast-growing Red Bicyclette brand. A French court this week was told that profits of more than $A10 million were made by seven people and several wine groups by selling lower quality red wine to Gallo to be sold as higher priced pinot noir. Now Constellation (which is seeking to joint venture its Berri Hardy business in Australia with local group Australian Vintage, which owns the McGuigan range and other brands) has been drawing the interest of US Government investigators.

Merde #2. The news comes at a very unfortunate time for the French wine industry, which has assiduously been protecting its global position over the years by pressuring the EC to force other countries to stop using French names and descriptions. That’s actually forced the wine industries in the US, Australia, Chile, South Africa, Argentina to develop their own brands and styles, which in turn has seen French wine sales fall. Then the GFC and recession hit, forcing sales down even further; especially Champagne and brandies. Now the French wine producers association has released figures showing exports dropped by 20% in 2009, with sales to the UK down very sharply. The UK is France’s biggest market, especially for bubble. Exports fell to €5.5 billion ($A8.3 billion) in 2009, while the volume dropped 8.7% to 12.5 million hectolitres. Exports of spirits fell 12% to €2.3 billion ($A3.5 ) billion. Double merde!

Fishy bubble. According to UK reports global salmon prices are soaring because disease has damaged the Chilean industry, slashing production. As a result, wholesale prices for Norwegian-produced Atlantic salmon are up more than 20% in the past few months. In fact since the problem emerged about a year ago, prices have risen by about a third. The disease kills salmon by damaging their blood supply. Chile was the world’s second biggest producer behind Norway. The UK reports say Norway’s share of the world market will rise to about 70% this year from about half the market normally (Making it the OPEC of salmon). The US and Canadian industries will also benefit. No one mentioned Australia.  But the Australian industry has long complained about cheap salmon from Chile and Norway. Now it can complain about expensive salmon from Norway and elsewhere. The short supply is expected to last into 2011. Just as the French champagne industry tries to boost sales by cutting prices and introducing more “budget” brands. Cheap bubble and expensive salmon sangers for the spring races.

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam. If the salmon’s too rich (price wise, that is), here’s a budget saver …  Spam, which remains a hot seller in the US where strong demand for the product continue to boost profits for owner, Hormel (which also makes America’s favourite chilli dish, in cans and packets). In fact Hormel overnight rolled out a 37% rise in first quarter earnings for the three months ending January. That was on a 2.3% rise in sales for the quarter and a 3% rise in volume: in fact Hormel is rolling in it. Helping the company boost earnings were cheap prices for pigs and turkeys (which are turned into various products, including, apparently Spam). Exports of fresh pork products fell, but exports of its signature Spam line to Korea, rose. The company also plans to aggressively promote Spam in Japan. Hormel said sales of its budget grocery lines, such as Spam, rose 8% in the quarter. The company continues to benefit from the recession forcing poorer US consumers to trade down (from salmon to Spam?).

Flat soup #1. But one US food giant that isn’t getting trade-down business is Campbell Soups. Ahead of its latest quarterly earnings report next week, Campbell overnight cut its 2010 sales forecast because people are still moving away from its “pricey” ready-to-eat soups (The “chunky” varieties), but not buying enough of its cheaper condensed soups. So Campbell has promised to spend more money revamping its soups, with a big rollout promised for August, to promote into the northern autumn and winter. Condensed soups are big for Campbell, which sells about $US1 billion worth a year (that’s a lot of cans ) out of annual sales of $US7.5 billion. US analysts say tomato soup is the biggest seller, accounting for 16% of annual sales of condensed soup.

Flat Soup #2. To try and boost sales (and profits), Campbell says it will redesign some of the labels of its condensed soups; it will use “specially roasted chicken meat” (But not Spam?). And it will go the patriotic route by emphasising its links to American farmers (roll cameras, start on sunrise, shots of dewy fields of corn, tomatoes, smiling farmers in bib and brace, driving American tractors, music from Oklahoma). But the biggest change will see Campbell reducing its dicings, yes, the dicing of vegetables. And how will this be done? It is going to change the number of dicing varieties for five vegetables to just 10, from 30. And it is going to try and cut the 225 bases it uses for its 250 varieties of soup. Just how many ways can you cut a carrot?

Dividend scrappage. First cars, now dividends? No dough for Daimler shareholders, despite the German car and industrial giant forecasting a much better 2010. The company reported a loss of €2.6 billion ($US3.5 billion) for 2009 as sales of its fleet of luxury models and high-end trucks sank 25%, cutting revenue by a nasty 20%. The company didn’t get a boost from the various car scrappage and other assistance schemes in Germany, and the rest of Europe, Japan, the US, Australia etc, because of their price. The schemes were aimed at boosting sales of smaller vehicles from major car companies and big employers, such as VW, Renault, Ford, GM, Fiat, Toyota (ha!) etc. The company said trucks would improve this year and car sales would also rise because its buyers would be more inclined to buy a new model this year after missing the scrappage schemes. Daimler is expected to be the only German car company to report a loss for 2009, except Opel, whose woes are linked to those of its parent, GM. Daimler expects to make an operating profit of about €2.3 billion this year. It had been expected to report a profit and dividend for the fourth quarter. Instead it was a loss and no dosh, almost like Qantas here!

Warren’s touch. There is a sign that the 79-year-old multibillionaire Warren Buffett is cutting back. He has trimmed time allocated to some shareholders at the AGM of his Berkshire Hathaway company in late April and early May. Buffett has dropped his meet-and-greet for Berkshire Hathaway shareholders from outside the US, which he started in 2004. He has instead added 30 minutes to his Q&A segment at the end of the meeting in Omaha, making it now five and a quarter hours. The meeting, or rather the annual Financial Woodstock is due to be held from April 30 to May 2. Tickets have been cut by 50% to two per shareholders instead of four and the Sunday steak dinner is now in two locations. Last year 35,000 people attended, this year it could be far more after he split Berkshire’s B class shares 50 to 1 as part of the takeover of Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Buffett is the same age as Rupert Murdoch. Can you imagine Murdoch talking to shareholders for 315 minutes, and over three days. After an annual meeting and after sending them a long letter in which he speaks his mind on many issues. Berkshire Hathaway’s annual results are due out late next week.

More Murdoch money. And speaking of the Rupster, he’s just quit is Bulgarian TV interests, raising $US400 million by selling them to CME, a central European media group. There had been talk News wanted more than $US600 million.