Wine or a soft drink? That is the dilemma winemakers would like to set up in the minds of consumers. By packaging it in soft-drink-size cans and making it more convenient for restaurants to sell, winemakers are trying to broaden the appeal of their product.
''The wine people are trying more and more to position their product in competition with soft drinks. Promoting light wines as a bridge from soft drinks to real wine,'' says George Hacker, one of the authors of ''The Booze Merchants, '' a recent study on alcoholic-beverage marketing.
Geyser Peak Winery Inc., at the forefront of new packaging concepts, has been selling wine in single-serving-size cans for about a year now.
''The whole approach of all of our packaging is to classify wine as a general beverage,'' says Geyser Peak president John Senkevich. ''Then it comes into competition with beer and soft drinks. If the consumer is packing a cooler, they might normally put in a six-pack of beer or a six-pack of a soft drink. We give them the added choice of a six-pack of wine.
''We want people to consume wine on an everyday basis with meals. Until we convince the public that wine is not just for special occasions, our current 2.2 gallons annual per capita consumption will not increase,'' Mr. Senkevich adds.
Winemakers hedge on where this increased consumption will come from - suggesting beer and liquor drinkers may switch over and increase wine consumption. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest alcohol-marketing study says creating new drinkers is inherent in the marketing approach. Either way, the Washington, D.C.-based research group points to the potentially ''devastating impact of [alcoholic] beverages that are portrayed just like soda pop,'' citing over 100,000 alcohol-related deaths a year.
The study states: ''The rising toll of alcohol problems has been paralleled in the last two decades by greatly increased alcohol advertising and by increased consumption of alcohol.''
Yet, in the competitive US wine market, companies are attracted by the concept of repackaging wine for mass appeal, since it has already proven successful in Australia. There, annual per capita consumption of wine has almost doubled from 2.3 gallons in 1971 to 4.5 gallons in 1982, according to an Australian Wine Board report. Two major factors affecting this rise were bag-in-box and keg packaging, according to Louis R. Gomberg, a wine industry consultant.
The bag-in-box package is a collapsible, metalized, polyurethane bag in a cardboard box with a spout on the front. Its operates somewhat like a baby bottle; the plastic bag collapses, keeping air out and preventing the wine from spoiling. It was created initially for restaurants and bars. But it is being increasingly sold in supermarkets.
''In 1975 we were the only company with the bag in box,'' says Mr. Senkevich, the Geyser Peak president. ''Now every major winery has a box. Why? Because it's convenient. Convenience sells products. Americans buy convenience.'' He validates the move by pointing to Australia: ''Their bag-in-box sales make up 67 percent of their total wine sales. It gives you an idea of what could happen in the United States.''
The Australia-proven idea of using beer kegs to sell wine has not been lost on the largest beer company in the nation. Anheuser-Busch is buying wine, pouring it in beer kegs, and test marketing it in San Francisco and Denver. Anheuser-Busch has some 950 distributors nationwide. If its wine-in-kegs program is successful, a large number of those distributors would probably carry wine, according to Russell Hopkins, president of the National Wine Distributors Association. ''That in itself could encourage more and better wine in restaurants,'' he says.
One of the goals of giving wine a general-beverage image, as winemakers see it, is to sell it alongside soft drinks in fast-food restaurants.
''It is a long-term mission of ours to see wine in the fast-food outlets by the end of the decade,'' Peter Sealey, vice-president for marketing at the Wine Spectrum (a winemaking subsidiary of Coca-Cola), told Business Week magazine.
This sort of marketing strategy prompts the Center for Science in the Public Interest to warn of the effort to ''whitewash the dangers of alcohol by imbuing alcoholic beverages with an image of total harmlessness and by reinforcing drinking as the social norm.''
E. F. Hutton's fast-food-industry analyst, Michael Culp, says: ''They [ fast-food outlets] have been experimenting with beer and wine for several years on a very limited basis, something like 10 or 20 outlets. Nobody's rushing to roll it out (on a national level). I'm not optimistic about it in the foreseeable future.'' However, there are more and more restaurants in the ''$4 -to-$5-per-meal full-service'' category - such as Denny's, Pizza Hut, and Ponderosa Steak House - which serve wine and beer, Mr. Culp notes.
Fast-food restaurants are hesitant about wine and beer sales because they entail a major image change - from families with young children to an older clientele. There are ''public relations dangers,'' says one analyst. An obstacle to beer and wine in national fast-food eateries is the state-to-state variation in alcoholic-beverage laws. And finally, most employees and patrons of fast-food establishments are under the drinking age.
Brian St. Pierre, a spokesman for the Wine Institute, the California wine-producers trade association, says wine in fast-food outlets on a national basis is ''fairly off base. If it happens, it will be great. But more likely, it's a nice little fantasy.''