LONDON — Forty-six California wineries offered their products to British palates Monday in what was described as the largest tasting of American wines ever to be held here.
The event was the launching of a major campaign by California wine makers to enlarge their market share in Britain, already the largest customer for California wines outside North America.
"There is no doubt that California is today producing some of the world's greatest wines," said John De Luca, president of the Wine Institute of California, the industry association mounting the promotional drive. "But what we intend to prove is that, whatever happens to the dollar, we are serious contenders for a healthy share of the United Kingdom market and that we have the quality and values to make that contention work."
The California wine makers are involved in a joint campaign with the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which lends overseas marketing expertise to American firms.
In 1974, California shipped only 53,000 liters of wine to Britain. In 1983, that figure leaped to 4.5 million liters.
Last year's total was down slightly, to 3.8 million liters. The decrease was attributed to the strong U.S. dollar, which cuts into exports, and to competition from Common Market countries such as France, Germany and Italy, which are able to sell their products at favorable prices here.
Gary Ramona, vice president of the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley, said Monday that "we have a problem with the dollar because, to some customers, our wines may seem expensive. But good California wines belong in the same category as the first growth from the Continent--and by that standard we are not overpriced.
"We also have to get rid of the thinking of some Europeans that . . . California wine should be priced more cheaply. That can't be accomplished overnight because we are still the new kid on the block. We have to earn our way overseas, through education."
Currently, 27 of the more than 500 wine makers in California sell their products in the United Kingdom.
"We have a very strong foundation to build upon in Britain," the Wine Institute's De Luca said. "Not only is there the obvious advantage of the same language, but Britain has the most knowledgeable wine trade in the world.
"Ever since California began seriously exporting to the United Kingdom in the 1970s, there has been an enormous reservoir of good will to draw upon, and, with such a rapidly expanding wine market, consumers are becoming much more sophisticated and willing to experiment. We know these new wine drinkers are going to appreciate the quality of our wines."
Of the strong dollar and the discrimination in favor of Common Market wines, De Luca added: "The barriers may be formidable--but so are our wines."