It may be too late, but perhaps we could start a "sip a sauternes" campaign. The golden dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac have been endangered by two decades of drought: the international vogue for dry white wines. While producers of red bordeaux are getting viable, even profitable, prices, the Sauternais have been less fortunate.

The sadness is that a well-made sauternes is as expensive to produce, if not more so, as any wine. Consider these factors.

Risk: leaving the overripe grapes on the vine to develop--misty, warm autumnal weather permitting--"pourriture noble," or botrytis cinerea, the mold whose action on the skins of the semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes causes them to lose water and thereby proportionately increase their sugar content.

Labor: the cost of repeated pickings, to select only the affected bunches. Ch.ateau d'Yquem, the perennial exception to undervaluation, sends its pickers through the vineyards as many as 13 times.

Yield: the concentration of the juice means that the yield per acre is less than half that of a M,edoc commune. Yquem, again the extreme example, produces just one glass of wine per vine.

Maturation: top ch.ateaux use small oak barrels for up to three years. Even those who use other containers will hold their wines longer than comparably priced dry whites or reds.

There've been lean times. It's not too surprising that many producers have been cutting corners by not picking as selectively as they should. (One winemaker in Barsac told me that only 20 properties routinely select botrytised bunches. Others will chaptalise, or add sugar before fermentation, to increase the alcohol and give the impression of smoothness.) By not buying new oak barrels as frequently as they should. (Only Yquem, Coutet and Nairac, the fast rising star in Barsac, are reported to use all new oak every year.) And, quite frankly, some vineyards and "chais" look scruffier than they should.

There's a beauty to the gentle hills of Sauternes and to its golden wines, some honey-smooth, others lighter and spicier. It would be tragic if traditional sauternes were allowed to dry out or disappear. But not enough wine lovers are taking advantage of the wines' reasonable prices and adaptability.

Perhaps we could adopt a campaign slogan: Sweet wines are not just desserts. The sauternais drink their wines with or without food. The local recommendation that one drink them with rich appetizers, such as "foie gras," is well-known, but they also drink them with game and white meats. Roast chicken is traditional. Or, try a sauternes with blue cheeses, especially the salty roquefort from nearby P,erigord, or with a strong ch,evre.

Of those 20 reliable ch.ateaux, several are available in Washington, mostly from the younger vintages of '75 and '76. Both were very good years and, although the wines can be drunk now, will mellow in the bottle for several years more. Coutet, Climens, Filhot, Nairac, Doisy-Daene, Suduiraut and Lafaurie Peyraguey range between $10 and $15 a bottle for the '75s and '76s.

The communes on the opposite bank of the Garonne, Loupiac and Ste.-Croix-du-Mont, provide inexpensive alternatives. They may not have the same finesse, but usually mature earlier. A very good Loupiac is the '76 du Cros, at $8.