Wine Notes – Walking the Streets of Gold
My grandparents on my mother’s side were poor immigrants who left Italy in their teens. My grandfather would say, “They told me the streets were paved in gold. I was disappointed to find cobblestones,” but this was still a better life than the one they left behind.
Nanna and Nonno shared with us many of the traditions of Italian culture and cooking, but not wine. So, when Easterseals hosted its annual Winter Wine Spectacular in Manchester this January, I was totally focused on learning more about Italian wines.
While I was there, I was able to spend some time with Cristina Mariani-May, the president and CEO of Banfi Vintners. Her family entered the wine business in 1919 as wine importers. In 1984, Banfi Vintners was born as they began winemaking operations.
I expected a thick Italian accent from the leader of this renowned producer of Brunello di Montalcino. However, Banfi is an American company that’s headquartered in the village of Old Brookville on Long Island. Banfi controls nearly a third of the wine production in the Montalcino DOCG. Now, the company’s holdings include a 7,100-acre agricultural estate, Castello Banfi, in Montalcino, Tuscany.
Mariani-May alternates her time between Long Island and Montalcino, where she manages the company’s winery, which produces 300,000 cases a year. The wine is distributed in 90 countries, but sales remain strongest in Italy. “We are very proud that the local Italian consumers endorse our wine,” Mariani-May says.
Mariani-May’s grandfather, John Mariani Sr., was born in Connecticut but partly raised by Teodolinda Banfi, his aunt, in Milan. Upon returning to the U.S., Mariani opened a successful wine and food importing business in New York, that Mariani-May’s father, John Jr., joined in 1959 after graduating from Cornell University and subsequently studying viniculture in Italy and France. Then, in 1978, when many Italian American families were putting down roots in California to make their mark in the wine business, John Jr., along with his brother, Harry Mariani, orchestrated a bold move. They teamed up with an old friend, winemaker Ezio Rivella, and began purchasing contiguous land and single vineyards in the sleepy town of Montalcino, which at the time had only 10 wine producers.
Mariani and Rivella experimented with the various clones of sangiovese grapes and how they responded to the 29 different soil varieties and microclimates on their estate. Together, they established Banfi Vintners and began winemaking operations in 1984.
Banfi also successfully petitioned the government to reduce the requirement for oak barrel aging of the wine from three to two years. This change enabled the company to produce an approachable style of wine that was ready to drink when released. Nearly all of the other Brunello producers followed suit.
“We are the pioneers in Montalcino,” Mariani-May says. “We document all of our research so that it can be shared. We host educational classes and open our doors to the winemaking community two times per year. We bring in winemakers from all over the world, but particularly in Italy, and primarily focus on the cultivation and vinification of the sangiovese grape. We host think tanks and scholarships, and have great relationships with the other Brunello producers, allowing them to see exactly what we are doing. This is an evolution.”
Patented 4,600-gallon hybrid fermenters are the most recent innovation under Mariani-May’s guidance. Most winemakers need to choose between fermenting in oak for flavor and aeration or fermenting in stainless steel for freshness and sanitation. After seven years of experimentation, Castello Banfi now operates 24 of these composite fermenters — one-third stainless steel and two-thirds oak — in the production of its estate wines.
It would seem that the Mariani family found those streets paved in gold that my Nonno was looking for. All of the wines tasted great at the Winter Wine Spectacular, but to experience what makes Banfi special, try serving their Brunello di Montalcino at your next Italian American dinner. Salute!