Once upon a harvest's end, the people in Beaujolais said

"We don't want to wait until next spring to drink our

new wine. We want to drink it now." So they did. As

soon as the wine had stopped fermenting, they drank it,

fresh, fruity and grapey. It was so light and delicious, they didn't even bother to bottle it.

After a while, the smart people in Paris heard about it. As soon as the sign "Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arriv,e" appeared at their favorite bistro in their favorite corner of town, they'd order it by the pitcherful.

Well, in no time at all, everybody who was anybody wanted to be the first to sell nouveau. In London and Brussels and Amsterdam. And sometimes the people in Beaujolais entered into the race with such enthusiasm that they would send the wine before it had finished its malolactic fermentation. It would taste terrible.

So the French government said, "Finis. The wine will not be released to the public until midnight on Nov. 15 and only if we have tested it first."

Everybody was happy. The growers and producers in Beaujolais had found a way of turning some of their grapes into quick money. And the people in the cities of Europe could have a long party until New Year. Then they would stop drinking nouveau. Because it wasn't new anymore.

One day, America heard about these parties. "We want nouveau too," they said. It arrived in December, but that couldn't be helped. The Americans enjoyed nouveau, because they could chill it and drink it with hamburgers, or pizza, or on its own.

In fact, they liked it so much that some shops would go on selling it into spring. If the vintage was very good, the wine tasted light and fruity, even in December, but if the weather had been horrible, the wine tasted horrible.

Every year the Beaujolais people turned more and more of their grapes into nouveau. And every year the American importers ordered more and more. By 1982, 40 percent of production was Nouveau and America had ordered three times as much as in 1981. That was partly because it was a bigger crop --and partly because they wanted us to drink more.

So that we wouldn't feel left out, many importers arranged to have a few little barrels and a few cases of nouveau in bottles flown into America on Nov. 15. Some barrels arrived late, but that didn't matter. The parties were fun. That's what nouveau is for, they said. Fun.

The wine in the little barrels tasted fresh and fruity and grapey, so everybody was pleased. Some of the wine in bottles didn't taste as good, because it hadn't had time to relax. "When the sea shipment gets here in early December, the wine will be fine. And it will be the same price as last year, $4 or $5 a bottle."

Moral: from start to finish, beaujolais nouveau is a game. The large crop in '82 could produce some bland wines, too low in acidity to be refreshing. Try one bottle before you buy a case. If you trust a producer and like his regular beaujolais, chances are you'll like his nouveau.

At barrel tastings in the happy party week of Nov. 15, I liked the charm of the Robert Sarrau, fresh, lightly fragrant and easy to drink; the fuller David & Foillard, deeper in color and drier in finish; and the Nouveau-Villages of Georges Duboeuf, again on the firmer side.