Wine is like life -- complicated, exasperating and quite wondrous. Studying it can be as emotional as it can be intellectual; sometimes the setting in which wine is drunk -- or the memory of drinking the same wine in a different setting -- proves more important than the bouquet or the length of the finish.

This summer, I returned to Italy after an absence of 20 years and was pleasantly overcome by the experience. I once worked for that great metropolitan newspaper the Rome Daily American, now defunct. I found that Italy had changed in more basic ways as well. For one thing, young Italian men have apparently discovered sex. This has relieved them of the necessity of following young women around and making comments about their bodies. Now, on the beaches, young Italian men act like young men elsewhere -- they sleep, listen to radios and talk to girls.

More to the point, Italian wine has improved, in many cases dramatically. I have to admit this, despite my nostalgia. I used to buy wine at Standa -- the Italian equivalent of Sears -- and the variation in quality among these inexpensive bottles was enormous. This time, the less expensive wines I drank were definitely better, and more consistent. The attitude of Italians toward wine is generally more respectful nowadays -- perhaps because some Italian producers have begun to get $20 and $50 and even $100 a bottle for the best.

Twenty years ago, my colleagues and I drank frascati -- the white wine made from trebbiano and malvasia in the hills outside Rome -- and the restaurateurs in the Trastevere district regularly mixed frascati with water before selling it to us. It never occurred to anyone to object. Now the frascati is unadulterated, and better, and many trattorie -- small restaurants -- have bona fide wine lists instead of wine served out of a barrel.

Paradoxically, Italians are consuming more soft drinks. Big bottles of Coke -- once unthinkable -- are often seen on restaurant tables in place of mineral water. Young people are drinking wine coolers, or the Italian equivalent of that American invention, and the absolute reign of plonk as Italy's universal beverage seems to have been shaken.

"Wine follows civilization," I was told by Antonio Mastroberardino, the maker of Taurasi and other famous wines in Avellino, near Naples. By that he meant that wine adapts to the demands of society, and in Italy's case the adaptation has raised the standards, in order to keep wine competitive.

He and other top Italian winemakers decided within the last dozen years to install stainless-steel fermenting tanks that produce cleaner whites, for instance, and to use high-tech grape presses that help preserve the freshness and cleanness of the juice. Mastroberardino's legendary white, Greco di Tufo, is an elegant and extremely complex wine made from a grape grown nowhere else in Italy. A little bit of it reaches this country and is well worth the relatively high price.

Taurasi, a red wine, is named for the town in the Sannio hills not far from the Mastroberardino winery. It is made from the aglianico grape, so named by the Greeks when they dominated southern Italy. Taurasi has a distinctive taste and, in good years, the depth and complexity to match the greatest wines made anywhere.

Many Italian winemakers are using French oak barrels -- called barriques -- to give extra character to their reds. In Chianti, just south of Florence, at the Castellare winery, a fine red called I Sodi di San Niccolo` is made from a blend of sangiovese and malvasia nera. They are both traditional grapes of Tuscany, but this is not a chianti.

Various types of French oak have been used to give the wine finesse and make it competitive with the best reds of Italy, France and California. Sodi refers to the stony plots where the best grapes are grown, under the discerning eye of Maurizio Castelli, the winemaker. The blend changes every year to accommodate the quality of the grapes, but -- judging from the various vintages I tasted at Castellare -- the standards remain extremely high.

I Sodi di San Niccolo` is available in small amounts in this country and is an unusual, distinctive and innovative wine that would not have been made in hide- bound Chianti a generation ago. It is just one indication of the changes that have made Italy one of the most interesting and rewarding domains for the American wine drinker. ::