Arts & Entertainment

Dowd on Drinks: Coke Goes Back To The Future

When I was a kid, cherry Coke was all the rage at soda fountains across the country. I, however, drank to a different beat, getting my local soda jerk to whip up a vanilla Coke for me — a squirt of the pale yellow vanilla syrup, a long pull on the Coke lever and, voila!, instant heaven in a glass.

Thus, I was pleased when Coca-Cola began mass producing Vanilla Coke (at one time also called Coca-Cola Vanilla or just plain V) in 2002, particularly since soda fountains had largely died out and tracking down one of the survivors was a tedious process.

Eventually, Vanilla Coke was distributed in 30 countries. However, because it never really outsold its first-year figures, despite Coca-Cola humbly calling it "the greatest innovation since Diet Coke in 1983," it was phased out in the U.S. and many other markets in 2005.

Luckily for fans of the stuff, Coca-Cola is always looking to enlarge its share of the global soft drink market, so it was reintroduced in New Zealand earlier this year and did well. Now, both Coca-Cola Vanilla and a sugar-free version called Coca-Cola Vanilla Zero are being distributed across the U.S.

Welcome back. I feel like a kid again.

This isn’t the only reason Coca-Cola has been in the news of late. And, not all the reasons have been positive for the global image of the beverage giant.

On the upside, Coca-Cola should have its thirst for acquisition quenched for a while after agreeing to shell out $4.1 billion to acquire Glaceau, a maker of "enhanced waters."

The acquisition of Glaceau, whose bottled drinks include Vitaminwater, Fruitwater and Energywater, will instantly give Coca-Cola about 30 percent of the U.S. market in the category.

Glaceau was founded in 1996 by Darius Bikoff, a New York entrepreneur.

The deal should bring Coca-Cola back to prominence in a niche in which it had been surpassed by rivals.

Arch-competition Pepsi-Cola, for example, already has about 45 percent of the market with its Aquafina, SoBe and Propel drinks.

And, in the public relations/tourism arena, the New World of Coca Cola opened last week in Atlanta. The new facility’s 62,000 square feet of visitor area makes it approximately twice the size of the original World of Coca-Cola.

It features more than 1,200 artifacts from around the world that have never been publicly displayed before. It also has a fully functioning bottling line that produces commemorative 8-ounce bottles of Coke, offers tastings of more than 70 different products, and has a Pop Culture Gallery featuring works by such artists as Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell.

On the down side — for Coca-Cola, not for consumers — the company has settled lawsuits in three states that claimed two of its products, Fanta Pineapple and Vault Zero, contained ingredients that could combine to form benzene, a cancer-causing chemical.

The Atlanta-based beverage giant agreed with officials in Florida, New

Jersey and Kansas to replace drinks to anyone who purchased the beverages before September 2006. It also will pay $500 to each of four plaintiffs plus any legal fees deemed fair by an arbitrator. Other soft-drink makers, including PepsiCo

Inc., remain defendants in related lawsuits.

The company said it has reformulated the two drinks. The new versions bear a label with a best-before date of January 2008 or later.

Parting note: NPD Group, a New York consumer reasearch firm, says consumption of carbonated soft drinks with breakfast has been steadily climbing for two decades in the U.S.

According to its analysis, consumers eating breakfast outside the home order soft drinks with 15.1 percent of their breakfasts, compared to 7.9 percent in 1990.

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              (William M. Dowd covers the beverage world at BillDowd.com.)

© 2007 Hearst Newspapers