It seems like only yesterday that Italian wines were cheap.
When a bottle of Bolla Soave cost only $3 or $4, it was easy to overlook the fact that it was as neutral as wine can be and still qualify as wine.
But almost overnight -- OK, so the process did in fact span a couple of years -- Italian wine went upscale in price. That $3.99 Bolla Soave mutated into a $7.99 Bolla Soave, and neither the quality of the wine nor the consumers' income had budged much at all.
The purpose of this is not to beat up on poor Bolla. The company makes a decent commercial product. Bolla's Valpolicella would actually be a pleasant little quaff if it cost $5.
But in fact it costs about $8 in Maryland stores. It's a price-quality disparity that has become all too common with Italian wines.
Some of this is a result of higher federal taxation -- but that accounts for only about 25 cents per bottle. Some is attributable to a weakened dollar.
Whatever the reason for the increase, the bottom-line result is this: Within about five years, Italy has gone from being one of the world's best sources of wine values to one of the worst.
For the high-end reds -- Barolo, Barbaresco and the great vino di tavola blends of Tuscany -- quality soared, but prices rose to levels that would make a Bordeaux chateau owner blush.
The whites were even worse. Here's a country that had virtually no reputation at all for white wine, except for a few odd rarities. Then, in the 1980s, it begins to produce some whites of more than passing interest. And in a blink of an eye, Italian winemakers are deciding their pinot grigio is classic wine that should fetch at least $15 on the American market.
No way. Bring me the best pinot grigio you can find, and I'll round up a dozen California sauvignon blancs and dry chenin blancs that will put it to shame. And I'll throw in a few Alsace pinot blancs just for fun.
Are there any values left at all? Yes, there are. But you'll have to look hard and shop the best stores. Reds are still the best values, though you are unlikely to find many with familiar names.
The following wines were all found for under $10 in Maryland stores. Each lends encouragement that some Italian producers and their importers are trying to provide good value for the consumer. Unfortunately, an equal number were bitter and appallingly mediocre.
*1985 Salice Salentino Rosso, Cosimo Taurino ($7.99). There was a time when Italy was full of values like this -- full-bodied, smooth-textured wines with exhilarating flavors of rosemary and blackberry. This exceptional bargain, a perfect match for grilled lamb, bears a strong resemblance to a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
*1986 Grumello Valtellina Superiore, Rainoldi ($9.69). Fine, complex black-cherry and tar flavors of the noble nebiolo grape. Leaner than its cousins in Barolo and Barbaresco, but with a fine, steely backbone. This wine is just into maturity and could continue to improve another two years or so.
*1989 Fattoria di Lucignano Chianti, Colli Fiorentini ($8.99). A lush, full-bodied Chianti, one of the best values from this frequently overpriced district. None of the lean, woody flavors you find in many Chiantis. Instead it offers ripe black-cherry and anise flavors.
*1989 Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Remo Farina ($8.39). Only cents more than Bolla's Valpolicella, and it's like the wines came from two different planets. The Farina is hearty, chewy, spicy and racy -- obviously made from old vines with low crop yields. Not for long aging, it's a delight right now. Too bad it's not as easy to find as the Bolla.
*1989 Rosso di Montepulciano, Polizano ($10). A pleasant, light, racy wine luncheon with charming cherry-raspberry flavors, well suited to go with a light tomato sauce. Moderately overpriced, but likable.
*1988 Chiavennasca Vino di Tavola della Provincia di Sondrio, Negri ($10). A white wine from Lombardy made from the red nebiolo grapes. Well-structured, bone-dry and complex, with hints of pear, minerals and nuts. A very pleasant surprise.
*1990 Soave Classico Superiore, Remo Farina ($7.79). Even at its best, Soave is not great wine, but this is about as good as it gets. It has bright flavors and a light mineral character. Light-years better than Bolla, and it costs less.
Finally, there was this hopeful note. Two wildly overpriced Italian whites, marked down by their wholesaler, were found at prices that now are quite reasonable.
The 1987 pinot grigio and 1986 chardonnay from Abrazzio di Rosazzo in Friuli were downright ridiculous at their original prices of $18 and $25 respectively. But marked down to $9 and $10, they all of a sudden begin to make sense.
The pinot grigio, a full-bodied wine that remains perfectly fresh at 4 years of age, is better than the chardonnay, which needs to be drunk up soon. But both wines have character and offer moderate complexity proportionate to their new, more realistic prices.
Is this the beginning of a trend? Perhaps. One major importer, Marco di Grazia, is lowering his prices, and with a worldwide glut of good wine, more are likely to follow.
When that happens, look for retailers to start cutting the prices of slow-moving stock already on their shelves. Slow-moving Piedmontese and Tuscan 1986s and 1987s -- decent but unexciting vintages sandwiched between the excellent 1985s and 1988s -- are especially strong candidates for price reductions.
A new wind of realism is beginning to blow through the marketplace. Italian wines might soon be a value again.
Maryland's wine industry gets its annual chance to strut its stuff the Maryland Wine Festival next Saturday and Sunday at the Carroll County Farm Museum.
The festival, which runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, offers tastings, seminars, entertainment, crafts and grape-stomping. Admission for adults is $10, which entitles fairgoers to 10 1-ounce samples and a souvenir tasting glass. Children accompanied by adults can enter free.
For information, call (301) 848-7775, 876-2667 or (800) 654-4645.