THE YEAR 1961 was a fine year to be born if you were a claret -- or a magazine, for that matter. The '61 vintage in Bordeaux was the greatest since the war, and probably the best of the century, although there is a serious recent contender in the '82 vintage. Michael Broadbent wrote in The Great Vintage Wine Book that the '61s were "deep, rich, concentrated, long-lasting." Robert Parker writes in Bordeaux that the '61s have "sensational concentration, magnificent penetrating bouquets . . . prices for 1961s make them the equivalent of liquid gold."

Well, almost. I bought a '61 Pichon-Lalande, a Paulliac produced just across the road from Ch.ateau Latour (know ye your wine by its neighbors), for $100. MacArthur Liquors turned it up in perfect condition, ruby clear in bottle, with a good "fill." We let it stand for three days and then opened it one dreary winter evening. The bouquet became apparent before the wine rose in the decanter, a deep bricky red, fragrant beyond our expectations. We had eaten a little bread to prepare the way, and the wine followed with a double shock of recognition: just how good a claret could be, and how subtle the difference between it and the same ch.ateau from a merely good vintage. This one filled the mouth with a rich, cherryish persistence; my wife found a hint of chocolate -- both characteristics of some fine cabernet when exposed to wood and age. Also a touch of tannin, although the fruit had peaked. The varietal lushness lasted for five minutes after that first swallow.

As magnificent as the Pichon-Lalande was, thoughts strayed to other subjects, which is what happens with wine. In the 25 years this one had been maturing, wine in general had undergone both a technical and a social revolution. Improved vineyard practice and technical expertise now meant that decent wine could be made from poor vintages, and more uniform and less characterful wines from good ones, which is a pity. Much of that expertise was developed in California, where fortunes and reputations have been made that were unimaginable two decades ago.

The quality and variety of wine available has turned America into a wine-drinking nation. Although the percentage of wine drinkers here is still relatively small when we are compared with Europeans, it has grown exponentially in a quarter of a century.

The biggest change since '61 has been in the availability and appreciation of wine in America. Menus used to list just hard liquor drinks; now good wine comes by the glass in good restaurants. And in the liquor stores jug wine is better, more balanced and better for you, and the choice of good wine is so staggeringly broad that it includes something like a '61 Pichon-Lalande, with a long finish and a bouquet that just won't quit.