As on the soccer field, so on the dinner table. Italy, the world beaters? Bruno Ceretto kicked the idea into the air: "I want to see Italian wines at the same table as the great French wines." A defensive step back: "Eventually. Italian viticulture is really only 20 years old." Sweeping forward again: "We have one advantage: We have the drive to get there."

Who is Ceretto, this man who champions Italian wines? The name is familiar in the Piedmont, where Cerettos have grown grapes for generations. This generation, Bruno and his brother Marcello have spread it elsewhere in Europe, to New York and now to Washington.

It was they who modernized the winery in Alba some 20 years ago and then -- like another Piedmontese reformer, Angelo Gaja -- put their money on the smaller-is-better idea. They own or buy grapes from estates in Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba and Asti. The wines of the individual vineyards are vinified, matured and labeled separately.

It is through this, the estate principle, that Ceretto believes Italy will climb to the pinnacles of France.

Unlike Gaja, Ceretto doesn't age his nebbiolos, the only grape permitted for barolos and barbarescos, in small oak barrels. "I want fruity, not woody, tannins for my wines."

If Ceretto nebbiolos don't have the power and length of Gajas', neither do they have the here-today-gone-tomorrow lightness of some others. They are aged in large, matured Slovenian oak, aiming for both an early elegance and enough body to develop for "another 15 years."

A range of '77s (Barbaresco Asili and Barolo Zonchetta Brunate, both at $7, and Barolo Prapo, Bricco Rocche estate, $8.50) are drinkable now. Of more long-term interest are the younger and better vintages of '78 and '79:

'79 Barbaresco Bricco Asili, $12.50: a nose showing richness, and body on the soft side. It supports Ceretto's argument that the wine can be drunk now and will age well.

Barolo Brunate, Bricco Rocche, $18.50: firmer nose and taste; again, smooth finishing, but more granular texture than the Barbaresco Asili. At this price, it's worth waiting for it to develop fully.

On one point, Ceretto the reformer becomes Ceretto the conservative. He's opposed to the introduction of "foreign" grape varieties into traditional Italian wines. "After the commercial success of Tignanello (Antinori's blend of cabernet sauvignon with standard chianti grapes), some Piedmontese are experimenting. I'm allergic to fake marriages."

Not having tasted a nebbiolo and cabernet blend, I'm sitting on the sidelines, but I will tackle him on the blending of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon. Tignanello is an attractive wine, and I recently tasted another successful example from central Italy: San Giorgio, from Lungarotti, in Torgiano, Umbria. With 20 percent cabernet, it's well balanced. I look forward to its release here.