Wine savvy seems to be in the Mariani family’s genes. The proprietor of Banfi Vintners and Tuscany’s Castello Banfi, the family has been in the wine business for three generations, and it will be honored at the Cornell Hospitality Icon & Innovator Awards on June 3 with the 2014 Cornell Icon of the Industry Award for its achievements in hospitality education. Cristina Mariani-May, co-CEO of Banfi Vintners and the granddaughter of the late Banfi founder John Mariani Sr., chats with us about the what this award means to her family, her favorite amenities at the Marianis’ Tuscan hotel and which wines you need to pick up this spring and summer.
Congratulations on receiving the Cornell Icon of the Industry Award. What does this mean to you and your family?
It’s an honor because my family has always had a philosophy of really giving back. It has been something that’s been instilled in us for three generations as a family business. It’s just wonderful to be recognized for the work that we’ve done, predominantly in education. We’re really taking a lead in wine, travel and hospitality education. In that sense, it’s a great honor — especially being awarded by Cornell, which is the leading hotel school in the world.
How did your family get into the wine business?
The wine company was started by my grandfather down in Greenwich Village on Spring Street back in 1919. But it’s an interesting story. When he was a little boy, his aunt was living in Italy and was the head of the household staff for the archbishop of Milan, Achille Ratti, who was then elected in the early 1900s to become Pope Pius XI. So it was a great honor because my great aunt was really living with his family, and when the pope had to move down to the Vatican, he invited her to live with him and be in charge of running the entire household. It was a great honor also because she was the first woman who wasn’t a nun to be allowed to live within Vatican City. She was in charge of the entire food, wine, kitchen staff; she was really the right-hand person to Pope Pius XI. So when my grandfather was a little boy and his parents here in America were quite poor, they sent him over to Italy to be raised by her.
My grandfather came back to the States when he was 20 years old and started doing what he knew best, which was importing wine and products from Italy. He ended up naming the firm after his aunt who inspired him, Teodolinda Banfi. A year later, Prohibition came, so it wasn’t exactly the best time in New York. He ended up making bitters. He made amaro and sold it in the pharmacies as a mild laxative, and it boomed. Then my father, John, and his brother, Harry, followed in his footsteps.
How did Castello Banfi in Tuscany come about?
The estate in Italy came about in 1978. My father and his brother had been importing wines from around the world. The business grew. They had imported from the négociants [wine merchants] in Bordeaux, the first growths in Bordeaux and the great Mosel and Rhine [valleys], all the German wines. From Italy — this is now the 1950s — they had wines from Sicily, Frascati, Rome. But the biggest seller from Italy was actually the wine that came in ceramic heads — they’d make ceramic and porcelain figures like a Bacchus head or a Napoleon head — and it was vino di tavola [table wine]. So while they were selling [Château] Lafite [Rothschild] and [Château] Haut-Brion from négociants, at the same time, Italy was known for its table wine.
One product that my family recognized was called lambrusco, which we brought in under a label called Riunite. It was that product that really had the two brothers saying, “Look, this is 1960. People aren’t drinking wine in America like [they do in] Europe. They’re not drinking wine with food. They’re not drinking wine as an everyday part of life. We know that the great wines of the world only reach a certain audience, so let’s get a wine that more consumers will love, that will introduce Americans to wine.” And they brought lambrusco to America. It ended up selling more than any other imported wine in the history of the United States.
It was the success of that that allowed the two brothers to fulfill their dream, which was to be wine producers. With that, they went back. We’re talking 1978; you had a lot of Italians coming to California during that era. If you think of Mondavi, Sebastiani — all these big families — they were the ones populating the Californian wine scene and taking it to a whole new level. It was interesting because John and Harry did the reverse. They were really some of the few Americans to do that and join the ranks of the old Italian families that have been producing wine for generations. That really helped to elevate the standards of Italian winemaking now by doing it from the ground up.
Castello Banfi created the area’s first wine hospitality center. Can you tell us about it?
The wine hospitality center for Italy is not only just having an enoteca and doing the educational classes, but it’s really more of a research center. We have these programs that we constantly run with visiting winemakers, agronomists and students from around the world; so it’s more of the educational programs that we run. Then, of course, once they come to the winery, they can visit and see. We have this one area where we have these patented fermenters that are hybrid — half stainless steel, half wood — and really state of the art. What we then do is we bring people up to the Castello, which is just beautiful as far as a historical building, then we bring them down to the winery and do the technical education.
When we work on these programs, as far as the schools, what we’re very proud of too is that it’s not just about the technicality of wine, but it’s about embracing the hospitality of wine. You just want to get people romanticized with the story of wine. A beautiful way to do that, of course, is sitting around the table.
Castello Banfi – Il Borgo is unique. The 14-room hotel was converted from a 1700s stone building and sits amid the vineyards. What can guests expect when they check in there?
What you’re going to experience when you check in is relaxation, a luxury treatment, but where it’s focused on appreciating the delicacies of the food and wine of the area. Most of the people that stay there are wine lovers. Most of the people that come truly want to embrace the countryside, but at the same time they want a casual elegance. I think that’s what Il Borgo really has to offer as far as its setting, which is so unique right outside the 12th-century castle. You want to experience a sense of history, a sense of place. You want to experience the beautiful vistas because the views are stunning. It’s decorated by one of the finest Italian interior designers named Federico Forquet, who has done all the rooms of all the Agnellis, the king and queen of Belgium’s homes. He’s just got this refined elegance. When you’re there, that’s what you sense. You sense it in the wine; you sense it in the food; and you sense it in the rooms.
What’s your favorite part about Castello Banfi – Il Borgo?
The big white beds. Lying in the bed with a good book, having a glass of wine — because we put a bottle of Brunello in all the rooms — and looking out with the windows open, feeling the breeze coming in and looking at the cypress trees, vineyards and rolling hills, to me, is paradise. And that’s what people are searching for, especially when they’re tired from touring the cities. People just want to unwind. I think that’s the best part of it. Then you can walk casually up to dinner. You can walk to the enoteca. Of course, we can arrange hot-air balloon rides, countryside tours, tours of the pecorino cheese producers. I think that’s what’s nice — you can do as much as you want or you can do as little as you want.
What are some great Banfi wines to drink this spring and summer?
We have this beautiful Tuscan pinot grigio called San Angelo. It’s the only 100 percent Tuscan pinot grigio in the U.S. and one of the few produced in all of Italy. Pinot grigio really comes from the northern climate, the Friuli-Venezia region. We were the first in Tuscany to produce pinot grigio. We changed the wine laws so that we could do it. We showed that, experimentally, pinot grigio can work. It’s got this beautiful crispness but also this richness and tropical roundness, a little more body. That’s one of our more popular wines in the springtime because people want something crisp and light. People love pinot grigios, but sometimes they can get too light and acidic. This is a beautiful, rich pinot grigio. It’s one of my favorites.
Also, the rosés, as summer comes. We have a wine called Centine Rosé, which is a Tuscan rosé. A lot of times people think of Provence when they think of rosés, but again, it’s wonderful to be able to taste a little more richness coming from a Tuscan. You’re getting a sangiovese-merlot-cabernet blend on a rosé, and it is lush and round, but it has a great structure to it because of the sangiovese. That’s the beauty of sangiovese. It’s a wine that has a lot of strength of character.
Those are two of my favorites to go into the warm summer months. But I also like lighter reds. From Banfi Toscana, we have a great everyday wine, which we love. It’s called Col di Sasso. It’s one of those sangiovese-cabernet blends — very simple and light.
But then when you get back to the classic reds, our Brunello is our flagship. I think there’s never a wrong time to have a beautiful Tuscan red. Even though the summer months are coming, there’s always that meal where you can have a simple grilled steak or a simple pasta, where white wines are great, but you still want that structured red because it stands up to the protein, the cheese and the food. I still always recommend a good Brunello — you can’t go wrong with that.
Do you have any tips for those new to wine?
Try to follow your own palate and what you like. A lot of times people will try to steer you — wine publications say, “Oh, you have to like this wine because it’s rated 95 points,” but then you look at it and it’s $300. Go with a style of wine you like. Go to your retailer and say, for example, “I like pinot grigio,” or “I like crisper whites, can you recommend something else for me?” Try to find a wine for every occasion — something you enjoy. One wine we have coming out is a vermentino, which is a very popular [white wine] from Tuscany, but it’s not as prolific in the United States. It’s a really fun wine to explore with, and it’s not an outrageous price point.
Don’t be intimidated, have fun, explore, travel, experiment, dine out, try different wines by the glass and remember it’s not the end of the world — don’t take it too seriously. A lot of times people in the wine business can get very technical and serious about wines, but don’t. To be honest, it gets boring. Just follow your own taste preference.
Photo Courtesy of Banfi Vintners