IT is the opinion of wine drinkers new to Hongkong that whenever they buy wine, whether it be in a bar, a restaurant or a supermarket, they are paying too much for this simple pleasure. To prove that point, a drinkable bottle of wine bought from a wine shop in the UK now costs about $34.50 (GBP3). In the US and Canada, it might be a little higher at $40 (US$5.50), as would wine bought from other New World winemakers in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and South America. Even in France, where the price of all wine is controlled and generally believed to be excessive, the average wine drinker fares better than his counterpart in Hongkong. European vin de table (the cheapest style of house wine in Europe) retails for between $25 to $35 per bottle while a bottle of mid-range quality wine can be bought for between $60 to $80. Compare this with the experience of the wine drinker in Hongkong, particularly if the weekly budget is modest, and the result is odious indeed. Passable wine in a price range comparable to the above mentioned countries is impossible to purchase. And, it is more than likely it would be avoided like the plague if it was available. Any kind of wine, even the sort that strips the membranes from a drinker's tonsils, has to cost more than $50 in today's inflation-infected Hongkong. It's a sorry state of affairs, especially when the changing habits of Hongkong's consumers are taken into account. During the last four years, consumption of the bedrock earners of the liquor importers, brandy, cognac, and to a lesser degree, premium, mixed blend and single malt whiskies, have fallen by 14 per cent. Conversely, the market for all wines, both still and sparkling, is increasing but at a very gradual rate. Last year, in the 12 months to November 1992, total sales of wine rose by 1.5 per cent to 3,712,826 litres or 412,538 cases compared with 3,657,984litres or 408,220 cases for the same period to November 1991. To the liquor importers this trend is both good and bad news, depending on where you are placed in the market and whether the bedrock earners of your business are spirit sales or wines. At present, there are about 10 large liquor importers in Hongkong, with market leaders such as Jardine Riche Monde Ltd, Remy Nicholas Fine Wines and Spirits Ltd, Jebsen and Co Ltd and Martell Far East Trading Co. They sell to the supermarket chains, andthe major department stores such as Seibu who have large wine portfolios, but some of the companies have been caught short by the change in drinking habits. Usually they buy the wine from the cellar door, pay the freight and shipping charges and attach a mark-up of between 16-25 per cent per bottle of wine retailed. In the lowest price range category of $72 this breaks down to $27 duty and taxes, shipping and freight charges of about $27, storage and retail mark up of $18. Recently, however, a new group of wine merchandisers have recognised that marketing is opening up and they have stepped in with a more entrepreneurial approach to selling wine, offering it at more competitive prices. Diane Bolton who operates Pacific Wine Sellers in the Seibu department store in Pacific Place buys her wine at special prices from the cellar door, operates a bar in her outlet and conducts frequent tastings. Her latest find, a still red wine acquired at the French cellar door at a very competitive price, is being sold for $68. During the last 18 months, a third marketing practice has emerged. Supermarkets chains are negotiating wholesale wine purchases from bulk producers, particularly in Europe. A recent example of this practice is the budget priced wine sold in Park 'N Shop under the Tesco label. This wine is bought by the English supermarket group in France, bottled under the Tesco label and sold throughout the United Kingdom. Recently, its market has extended to Hongkong, where the still red and white wines are sold in the $60-$75 price range. But to the expatriate wine drinker, and the many local Chinese who have become used to drinking wine when they have studied or worked overseas, these prices are still not good value for a product they know they can buy for at least half the price outsideHongkong. What then converts that same very average bottle of wine, imported from Europe or the New World, into an expensive bottle of wine in Hongkong? To those in the industry, there is only one answer to that - the Government. Ten years ago, when the drinking community in Hongkong was small and based on sales of spirits, the Government introduced more onerous duties and taxes on imported alcohol. This set of taxes costs the consumer approximately $27 per bottle of wine sold for $72 retail and up to $46 for a mid-to top-end wine, sold at $250. To arrive at these figures, the Department of Customs and Excise charges a specific duty (the tax on the alcoholic content of a spirit, still and sparkling wines) of $31 per litre, which translates to approximately $23 per 75 cl bottle. Added to this is an ad valorem tax based on the CIF (cost of wine to importer, insurance and freight) value of a wine shipment, of 35 per cent. On a $72 bottle of wine (see table) these taxes of $23.25 (specific duty) and $3 ad valorem tax account for 36.6 per cent of the retail price. The same size bottle of wine which retails for about $250 attracts the same specific duty but also attracts a higher ad valorem tax of $22.62; bringing total taxes for the top end wine to $45.87. By design or coincidence, this set of taxes acts against the interests of the modest earner with a taste for wine in an environment where the consumer is increasingly looking for value for money. ''By international standards, I agree that the absolute cost of wine is very high,'' the chairman of the Liquor and Provisions Importers Association, Paul Hewitt, said this week. ''And price is a factor,'' donning his other hat as the marketing director for Jardine Riche Monde for a few seconds. ''But I would caution you that it is not the only factor in the choice of wine. ''As people develop a taste for wine they also consider the grape type, country of origin and the vintage. In Hongkong particularly, where drinking wine, as opposed to beer and spirits, is relatively new, consumers are not as price-conscious as they might be in other places.'' Remy Marketing director Louise Hargadon said that in Hongkong, where the local market for wine is still small, most of the wine imported into the territory is sold in bars, restaurants and hotels. Prices vary considerable but on average the cost price of the $39 glass of wine in a bar such as Mad Dogs in Central would be $5 per glass. The remainder of the $34 is taken up by overheads and a mark-up that can range from 25 per cent to more than 150 per cent. John Nielson, the manager of the Tiffin Lounge and the Champagne Bar of the Grand Hyatt, said his prices follow much the same trend. His hotel attempts to find good wines for the prices they charge. In his experience, a good new world wine from California will cost $120 but will be sold at $350 at the table. A similar French wine will be bought wholesale at $180 and sold for around $400 per bottle. With these sky-high bench marks in place, what hope does the average wine drinker, with a limited budget and less time to shop for bargains, have in finding a value-for-money wine in the lower end range of $70 to $120 per bottle? Mr Hewitt was asked. ''It is difficult but there are definitely products there. We are aware of the price issue. The association has met with the Financial Secretary, Hamish Macleod, and said that the duty and taxes on alcohol should be reviewed, especially as the revenue earned from the taxes has dropped to well below one per cent of total government income,'' he said. The association's solution is to tax imported alcohol on the amount of alcoholic content. As brandy and whisky have an alcoholic content of 40 per cent they would pay the maximum duty, while wine with a 12 per cent content would attract lesser rate and make wine cheaper by up to 50 per cent at the lower end of the price range.