The year is 1995 and we are at a blind tasting sponsored by a national organization of connoisseurs -- Les Amis du Soda-Pop. The man sitting at the table clears his palate with a handful of Cheez-its, pours from an unlabeled one- liter plastic bottle, sips and makes the mouthwashing noises appropriate to these occasions.
"Definitely pre-1985 Coca-Cola," he says. "A touch less fructose, slight taste of cherries with undertones of Hershey bar and a distinctive caffeine finish. Needs a few more years in the bottle."
"Au contraire," says a colleague after tasting. "A 1981 Pepsi -- perhaps one of the suburban northern New Jersey bottlings. Still a little rough, I'm afraid. A good soda-pop, but not a great soda-pop."
Welcome to the era of vintage colas. It was inaugurated yesterday by the Coca-Cola Co., which announced "the most significant soft-drink development" in its history: a new taste for Coke. It is "smoother, rounder and bolder," said Coca- Cola Chairman Roberto C. Goizueta. According to other sources in the company, it is also a little sweeter. Whatever it is, Coke hopes people will look on 1985 as a very good vintage, the first of many.
The change was made because Coke, while still the No. 1 soft drink, was losing ground to the company's own Diet Coke and to rival Pepsi, which had a sweeter taste than Coke. Pepsi greeted the change as a sign of panic on the part of its adversary, and took out ads that said, "After 87 years of going at it eyeball to eyeball, the other guy just blinked." (That "eyeball-to-eyeball" business was coined right after the U.S.-Soviet nuclear missile crisis in 1962 and continues to be reserved for world-altering confrontations.)
Bill Cosby will be promoting the new, sweeter Coke in a series of television commercials, and never mind that you might have seen him recently on TV promoting Coke on the grounds that it was less sweet. Apparently less sweet is not what most young people want, and what young people want, you may have observed, they are getting.
Some will cling stubbornly to the old, however, storing away Coke from what they consider to be the good years, pre-1985, in temperature-controlled cellars, bringing it out in dusty bottles for special occasions. Fine restaurants will maintain leather-bound cola lists, and people will seek to impress their dates by sending back inadequate bottles. Eventually a rare 1956 six-ounce Coke in the distinctive thick green bottle will be auctioned at Sotheby Parke-Bernet for $50,000 to a man who will keep it in a place of honor on his mantle until one night, tired of looking at it, he will drink it with a bag of potato chips.