SONOMA, CALIF. -- Only one of every six American adults now drinks even one glass of wine a week, and 70 percent of those who do can't recall what wine they last drank.
That may have been a bit hard to swallow for the brand-conscious vintners who gathered here at the 130-year-old Buena Vista Winery recently to assess the outlook for the year 2000.
While the new century may bring the "golden age of wine" forecast by Richard L. Maher, president of Christian Brothers Sales Co., he and other experts also pointed to obstacles that would have to be negotiated before reaching that promised land.
The setting -- ivy-clad buildings erected in 1857 by Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszth but no longer used to make wine -- suggested some of the fundamental structural changes the future holds for the alcoholic beverage industry in the form of internationalization.
Moreover, the host of last month's Vintage 2000 symposium was Marcus Moller-Racke, the 31-year-old president of Buena Vista, whose German family firm, A. Racke, now owns the winery, which claims to be California's first producer of premium wines.
Aside from the bleak present state of U.S. wine consumption, as described by Donald E. Payne, a psychologist specializing in consumer behavior, the wine industry will have to contend with:
A likely increase in the federal excise tax on wine and beer, similar to that imposed two years ago on the already troubled liquor industry.
Continued efforts by anti-alcohol advocates to restrict television advertising and push for further warnings on beverage labels -- a campaign that has already succeeded in requiring wine labels to indicate whether the bottles contain sulfites.
A shrinking number of beverage distributors at the same time as wineries continue to proliferate, making it increasingly difficult to find a niche in an already thin domestic wine market.
The threat to growth of the wine business by anti-alcohol forces -- or "neo-Prohibitionists" as the industry calls them -- seemed foremost on the minds of most of the symposium experts. Robert Mondavi, chairman of the Napa Valley winery bearing his name, lamented the lack of understanding of wine's role as a civilizing agent in society.
"Damn it, wine is liquid food!" Mondavi exclaimed.
Dr. David N. Whitten, a senior health consultant to Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., who supports wine consumption, urged the industry to seize the initiative by voluntarily making ita labels reflect current social concerns by adding, for example, the wording "Alcohol is harmful to your fetus."
"Don't make them cram it down your throats," Whitten advised. Rather than become defensive and inflexible, he said, wine makers should take the position that "we are the new temperance movement," and that wine is the beverage of moderation.
Consumer expert Payne later brightened his somewhat gloomy assessment of the current wine market by visualizing a potential high-growth market for premium wines among the nation's higher-income households. These are increasing with the rise of two-income families, he said, and higher income generally means more education and travel, among other things, which are elements that generally fit the profile of the wine drinker.
Indeed, U.S. wine consumption per person, though extremely modest compared to Europe, continues to grow even though beer sales have flattened and consumption of spirits has plunged more than 16 percent in the last five years, according to Bill Slone, director of New York-based Beverage Network, a group of trade publications.
"California wines have really come into their own over only the last 10 years or so," Slone said in an interview, "and sales should increase to reflect the growing familiarity of consumers with wines."
According to the Wine Investor, a Los Angeles newsletter, shipments of all table wines -- domestic and foreign -- within the United States grew 17 percent between 1982 and 1986 to top 600 million gallons for the first time. U.S. shipments of California wine increased 26.4 percent to 365.8 million gallons last year, commanding 86.3 percent of the national wine market (up from 82.8 percent in 1982).
Much of this growth has come from the popularity of wine coolers, but higher-priced wines are commanding a significantly larger share of the market, too, Frank M. Woods, who heads Sonoma County's Clos du Bois winery, told the Buena Vista symposium.
Woods predicted that by the year 2000 annual production of premium wine would triple, to 70 million cases, and account for 28 percent of total wine sales, up from 10 percent.
The number of U.S. wineries has increased, but, Woods warned, the number of distributors, both nationally and internationally, is shrinking.
Because of that, the number of wineries would begin to decline through consolidations and acquisitions by larger companies, predicted Buena Vista President Moller-Racke.
"The hobby viticulturists will disappear," Moller-Racke said in an interview. "In Europe, we used to have many family companies, but in Germany they have gone down from about 200 to perhaps 10. And the survivors," he added, "can no longer exist within just the European market; they have to get out."
That was true of his family's 132-year-old company, A. Racke, based in Bingen in West Germany's Rhine River wine country. It reached out and bought Buena Vista Winery in 1979 and named Moller-Racke president in 1983 at the age of 27. Buena Vista itself is now importing Racke-owned Bricout French Champagne.
Buena Vista is part of what Moller-Racke and other experts see as the internationalization of not just the wine market but of alcoholic beverages generally.
European and Japanese interests already are investing in California wineries in increasing numbers since Moet & Chandon, the French Champagne maker, established Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley more than a decade ago. It has since been joined by several other French companies as well as Freixinet of Spain.
British brewers and distillers -- including Whitbread, Guinness, Allied Lyons and Grand Metropolitan -- have been buying U.S. beverage companies as part of a strategy to become global beverage marketing firms. Grand Metropolitan's purchase this year of Heublein from RJR Nabisco instantly gave it control of 11 percent of the U.S. alcoholic beverage market and ownership of Almaden Vineyards in San Jose, Calif. A few months later, Majestic Wine Warehouses of London entered the U.S. retail market -- a first -- by buying Safeway's 105 Liquor Barn discount outlets, the nation's largest liquor chain