Banfi: America’s Gift to Italian Wine
Traditionally, Italians have emigrated to the United States, but for a New York family, that’s another story.
Cristina Mariani-May is the daughter of John Mariani, who together with her brother Harry founded the Banfi wine brand in the 1970s with the purchase of the former Poggio alle Mura estate in Montalcino. Today, Banfi is one of the most famous and recognized Brunello producers, and Mariani-May is the CEO and President of the company.
We recently interviewed her to learn about her family history and her own story as Americans who innovated in Italy. Other topics we discussed included the day-to-day work with her team in Italy, as well as the accomplishments she is most proud of as she continues to lead Banfi in the still competitive field of Brunello di Montalcino.
Tell us a bit about Banfi’s beginnings.
My grandfather brought his two sons, John and Harry, into the family import business, which flourished in fine wines and everyday wines. In 1978, after the success of this, they ventured to Italy and teamed up with Ezio Rivella (a renowned Tuscan oenologist).
They thought we could either buy a cellar or do something ourselves. When they looked at the wineries with Ezio, they thought this area is so steeped in tradition, you know, that’s how we do it here. I think as a New Yorker and wine importer, my dad thought, “Wait, we can do it on our own.”
They started Castello Banfi from scratch from virgin soil, and today we have 7,100 acres which are contiguous property. It’s big, but in 1978 there was nothing there. There were maybe 20 Brunello producers at the time, and most of them sold their wine locally. Even Biondi Santi, my father tried to import it, but they told him they didn’t have enough wine to export it to America.
My dad said there was great potential for Brunello, so let’s invest in this territory, and because we were also American, we understood wine marketing and global consumers, so we had a very holistic approach of a territory which was anchored in tradition and which had not yet flourished.
What was the reaction of the inhabitants of Montalcino?
The locals when we first moved in, and I’ll take the story – I’m third generation and I don’t feel it – but the thought was, ‘who are they? What do they do ? Are they crazy?
You know, those crazy New Yorkers coming up. But our whole team was Italian. Ezio was leading this team. What we did over time, we were doing all of this research, the clonal research. We reduced that number of 650 Sangiovese clones to 15. We registered this work, so we were the only producer in Italy to register our cloning work with the Italian government.
So what we basically do is share our research, share the methods, document everything, so that anyone can use it, and everyone can rise with the tide. When we started doing this and opening our doors to ongoing research, that feeling really changed.
It changed to the point where people were saying “Oh, thank you”. Because if Banfi had made a better wine in 1978, there was no way the world of Brunello would be put on a world map. The entire territory must produce exceptional wines. We were the catalysts, the rebirth. Biondi-Santi at first, then we went through decades later and I would like to consider this a rebirth. Everyone is prosperous now, everything is planted now, this is one of Italy’s most popular noble red wines, and we are all enjoying it in some way. So I think the tide has changed.
How often do you spend time in Italy?
Probably once a month. I am leaving for a week to 10 days. Now Covid has stopped this, which is weird. But I have already returned to Italy. This is my home away from home, but I won’t deny that I am not a winemaker, we have our team. I am the owner and we work with our team, and it is so easy now from a business and wine point of view to have good communication, but there is nothing in Italy like being face to face , especially in wine culture.
In wine, you have to stop and enjoy. You want to have a meal, you want to talk about strategy, philosophy, research, experiences in which you want to invest. It takes years to see them come to fruition. You need to be a long-term planner with a vision and a strategy.
© Banfi Castle
What do you think is your most important contribution to the business?
I try to bring just the passion and the inspiration, because I believe in it so much, the work that we do. Not only for the community but for the great world of wine. I really think so, in our little corner, our little niche, we put a lot of energy and investment and there are good times and bad times, ups and downs. My responsibility is to keep going and uplift the team and uplift us all. I like to think of myself as the greatest cheerleader. This is what I do, I love what I do. I am blessed that this was given to me by my father. I would like to pass it on to my children. It’s kind of what I do.
I represent the winery and take care of the most important management decisions, which is not the fun part of the job. I’m a female manager, I don’t dictate, I work with the team together, let’s decide what’s best for wines and brands.
Do you sit and taste mixtures with them and give them your opinion?
I do and it’s the fun part of the job. Every time I’m there, we sit and taste samples of barrels and fresh, fermented wines. Should I give my opinion on how I want the style to be? Absoutely. Do they know it now? Yes, but they are the experts at the mix. As a team, we all agree that this is the best version of a Super Tuscan or a Brunello.
We don’t make different wines for different markets. This is something we all agree on. I don’t want a sweeter wine for the United States and a drier version for Asia. It’s wine, we produce it on a global palate, and then we market it in different ways in different markets obviously.
What do you think of the 2015 and 2016 vintages, which were excellent consecutive years?
It’s a tough decision, but I have to say 2016 turned out to be calmer and better. We were coming out of such a great harvest the year before and our expectations were kind of lowered because you assumed a good harvest and then backed up and then jumped forward.
So I think we were pretty calm, thinking it wouldn’t be as exceptional, but as the season went on and it was consistent, then it got cooler, and the growing conditions were perfect. Honestly, everyone was so excited when the grapes were finally picked. We were happy because here we are releasing such a great vintage, another good one – it was like a blessing.
What are you most proud of, both in terms of your contribution and the history of Banfi?
I’m really proud of the foresight and vision my dad had to keep me going. From the start, he had a vision of pure and natural wines. I am so proud today that we are dedicated to sustainable development; we write a research and sustainability report every year which is very dense. It is shared in all universities.
I am so proud of our team. We have the Sangue di Jove Foundation, which is dedicated to Sangiovese research; both in winter and in summer, we get together and invite winegrowers, sommeliers, etc., and we organize a conference on the main discoveries of Sangiovese. This is a big deal, and for the community, we are so proud to continue this.
I am also very proud of the hospital’s vision of hospitality and welcoming guests. We now have a hotel, Il Borgo, which is Relais et Châteaux. We have a Michelin star in our restaurant. We host a jazz festival, with musicians from all over the world. It’s our way of doing things for the land and the community – I’m very proud of it.
What keeps you going? What drives you?
I love to travel and I love new people. I have a desire to travel, so that motivates me a lot. I like new experiences. I can’t stand still, I never have.
What keeps me going is this sense of adventure and learning something new wherever I go. It could be a new market or a place to visit or people I meet. I love it, I don’t want to stay home. I want to be in the world.