They were picking at the end of October in Alsace. The vine leaves had turned golden and, in the chilly morning mist, picking started at 7:30 a.m. and went on to 5 p.m., by which time the light had all but gone.

The 1982 crop is the largest since the war. With rain in August and again in early October, the quality is good, without being considered outstanding. In general, however, the growers are pleased with the balance in the grapes, comparing the crop with that of 1973 and, in some cases, 1979.

The village of Kientzheim closed at noon. At Paul Blanck & Fils, lunch vignerons was a family affair. In Kientzheim, everybody is a Blanck, one way or another. Brothers, sons and nephews worked in the cellar and vineyards. And in a refectory above the storage cellar and tasting room, wives and daughters were cooking lunch.

Coming out of the cool, crisp day, the refectory was warm with the rich smells of a casserole, a "pied de cochon" that included virtually every other tasty part of the pig. To drink, there were liters of red wine, and, for the visitor, an '81 Klevner (Pinot Blanc) to match the stew and an '81 Gewurztraminer for the munster. The Blanck style is fuller and fruitier than most '81s.

Blanck, whose estate wines are labeled Domaines de Comtes de Lupfen, is one of a growing number of viticulteur-manipulants (grower-producers) exporting to the United States. Last year, the U.S. was only seventh in the list of importers of Alsace wine, Germany being by far the largest.

Despite the increase in the number of small, good quality producers exporting to America, the credit for the development of our market belongs to the larger negociants. Not coincidentally, they are also responsible for improving the image of the wines of Alsace in France itself, by supplying the starred restaurants.

The house of Leon Beyer in Eguisheim is one of the finest of the negociants. Its wines are lean and aristocratic, retaining freshness and fruitiness. While the lighter wines and lesser vintages should be drunk young, Marc Beyer proved the longevity of his reserve and estate wines by opening a '66 Tokay (the grape that the EEC has dictated is to be called by its other name, pinot gris), a '74 Riesling Cuvee d'Ecaillers and a '64 Gewurztraminer Comte d'Eguisheim. Maturity had given the wines a complexity of bouquet and taste, losing fruitiness and gaining a richness and long aftertaste.

Dopff & Irion, another fine house, while continuing to export the wines of individual sites in and around Riquewihr (riesling "Les Murailles"; muscat "Les Amandieres"; and gewurztraminer "Les Sorcieres"), has recently taken an interesting initiative. To underline the French identity of their wines, they have launched D & I Crystal, an inexpensive range, including a blended wine and the more Gallic varieties of Alsace, pinot blanc and pinot gris.

In any list of the best of Alsace, there is always a Trimbach wine. The family firm in Ribeauville is the largest exporter to the United States. Its estate riesling, Clos St. Hune, served at the Elysee Palace, is an excellent example of the rewards of aging an Alsace wine. The '76 has a fine delicate balance and a long future.

And a long future on the American market is exactly what the Alsace producers want. Their wines deserve it.