The most extraordinary development in the wine industry last year involves a a soft-drink company. Coca-Cola moved into the wine business in highly dramatic fashion, gaining three significant subsidies. A merger with the giant Taylor Wine Co. of Hammondsport, N.Y., was announced in January. In August, Coke gained control of Stirling Vineyards, a Napal Valley showcase. Then, in November, another quality-oriented California winery, The Monterey Vineyard in Gonzales was bought.
The Atlanta-based firm has left management and wine-production teams largely unchanged so far. But those who fear the potential effect of "the corporate mentality" on standards of quality will be watching future vintages with interest, expecting "pop-top" 12-ounce wine cans to hit the market at any moment.
Inflation aside, 1977 was a good year for table wine drinkers. For one thing, there are more of us, or at least more table wine is being drunk in this country. Total consumption gains appear slight, but the statistical picture is clouded by slumping sales of "pop" and sweet (dessert) wines. White and red table wine sales for the past 12 months should show a yearly increase well in excess of 10 per cent.
Imported wines from Europe did well, though the vast majority of wines sold (in excess of 80 per cent) continues to be domestic. The French, for example, boast of a 21-million gallon increase in wine shipments to the U.S. in the first nine months of the year with a dollar value of nearly $100 million, a jump of nearly 25 per cent.
Locally, 1977 saw a continuation of the healthy rivalry among local wine shops (health for both consumers and merchants, as far as anyone can tell). While claims that Washington is the country's (or the world's) best wine town have to be taken with a glass of Montbray Seyval Blanc, there is no question that an intelligent group of local merchants have been responding to - and even anticipanting - consumer demands and that local wine sales personnel are increasingly more informed and enthusiastic.
If one were to nominate a local "wineman of the year," however, it probably would not be a retailer, nor would it be a man. Instead, the choice might well be Gabriella Cantoni, a self-styled "wine adviser" whose imaginative choice of imports thorough her Alseca Corp. has enlarged the repertory of Italian wines in local restaurants as well as wine shops. Most recently she has introduced two wines from Torgiano in Umbria, the red Rubesco and Torre di Giano, a dry white.
It was also a year that brought increased 'recognition of American wines and of the states surrounding Washington as wine production areas.
The Vinifera Wine Growers Assn. sponsored a second annual festival in Middleburg that included a tour of several local vineyards. The American Wine Society held a stimulating three-day conference attended by more than 300 members plus families and guest at Crystal City. The Maitres de Tastevin's ambitious International Wine and Cheese Fair at the D.C. Armory brough an international array of wine authorities to town for a demanding competition among American wines. Eastern wine growers met at Lancaster, Pa., at the beginning of December.
So, as 1978 begins, one can lift a glass of 1977 nouveau (the excellent Mirrasou gamay Beaujolais from California or somelight and surprisingly agreeable Beaujolais from France - both available locally) in toasting wine and wine drinkers. It's a pastime that's rapidly coming of age.