First, there was Gabriella Cantoni: the small woman whose energies on behalf of fine Italian wines have exhausted many a big man in the Washington wine trade. Next: Angelo Gaja, who looks tough enough to be a Marine but is the star producer of Barbaresco, in the Piedmont. His wines are sold locally by Cantoni's importing company, Alseca. Finally: Doug McNeill, executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel. tTake two volatile Italians, add one down-to-earth Scotsman and you have three determined people. Cantoni was determined that one of her suppliers should visit Washington. A firsthand visit was the only way to appreciate this competitive market.Gaja didn't need much persuading -- he's a born competitor, a determined man, full stop. This was his second extensive visit to the United States within three months. He's determined to ensure that Americans understand his wines -- and why they're priced above the rest of the field. Americans, he says, will buy expensive French wines, but expect Italians to be inexpensive, regardless of quality.

McNeill comes from Glasgow, where you have to be determined to survive. If Cantoni wanted him to list fine Italian wines, that was all right, but he wanted to know more about them. He wanted to meet someone like Angelo Gaja. And if he could host a tasting for Gaja, all the better.

The Determined Trio triumphed. Gaja came, he saw, we tasted. The visit was extended to other cities, and, as a result, much will have been written about Gaja's wines in the past month. If it's all been complimentary, it's all been accurate.

His single vineyard dolcetto, '79 Vignabajla, and single vineyard barbera, '79 Vignarey (both around $10), are superior examples of these pedestrian grapes. When it comes to nebbiolo, the finest red grape of Italy's north west, his wines at the Four Seasons' tasting ranged from very good for the '79 Vignaveja, $11, to marvelous for the '78 Costa Russi, a single vineyard barbaresco (about $35, available later this year).

If the test of a good tasting is how quickly the noise level goes up as the wine goes down, the Gaja show was a howling success. The noise didn't bother Gaja, as he gave technical information in his rapid, broken English. Part of the audience was delighted with his full replies, while the less committed gave in to the tannin of the younger wines and waited for the '61 Barbaresco.

It was worth the wait. I would have been happy to have waited longer. A smooth, rich wine now, it was still youthful. This was an old-style Gaja. Nowadays, there is a different style. Since a visit to California in 1974, he's been adapting traditional winemaking to modern techniques, with the intention of producing supple, rich barbarescos for medium-term maturation.

Cantoni and McNeill did their bit. Gaja's wines were shown to an appreciative audience. The wines did their bit, even if the bite was a shade harsh for some. It is Gaja who remains determinedly controversial. Can he persuade us to buy expensive, if potentially excellent, wines? I hope so. Quality does have a price.