From Tuscany via New York, CRISTINA MARIANI-MAY tells GERRIE LIM about her beloved estate
SOME MIGHT SAY she’s leaning in while heeding a clarion call, a New Yorker paying tribute to her Italian roots. Cristina Mariani-May runs a wine company once beset with uncertain beginnings, given how the modern incarnation of Castello Banfi in Tuscany began in 1919 as the risky brainchild of ambitious New York wine merchant John Mariani, Sr, whose son John F, Jr remains the company’s chairman emeritus today at age 82.
The elder Mariani originally named it Banfi Vintners, after his venerable aunt Teodolinda Banfi (also known, for those interested in Vatican trivia, as the household manager and wine steward of Pope Pius XI), and youngest granddaughter Cristina heads it today as co-CEO alongside her cousin James Mariani. It was the family’s astute purchase in 1978 of 2,830 hectares of rolling hills and lush valleys nestled between the Orcia and Ombrone rivers in Montalcino that spurred the winemaking, later augmented by a new vinification complex in 1982 aimed at perfecting its real claim to fame – the wine called Brunello di Montalcino, widely considered the highest expression of the indigenous Sangiovese grape.
“We were selling Brunello back then in the late ’70s in the United States through Poggio alle Mura, which had a little, little vineyard on the property,” Mariani-May recalls. Poggio alle Mura was an ancient castle bought by the Mariani family in 1983, restored and renamed Castello Banfi. “That’s how we got to know the estate and the territory, and we saw the potential. We make Chianti, too, but this is the crème de la crème. Chianti Classico is beautiful but John chose to do Brunello. He was a wine merchant in the United States and he had a customer say, ‘I want a Brunello di Montalcino,’ and so he talked to [the Brunello pioneers in Tuscany] Biondi-Santi, but they didn’t have enough to ship to the United States. So he went to Poggia alle Mura, and this was in the 1950s, you know, and they went, ‘To the United States?’ There was no market then in the United States; it was all French.”
Freshly arrived in Hong Kong from her home in Old Brookville, a village in New York’s Oyster Bay, she tells me all this at the China Club over a meal featuring several Banfi wines, of which I particularly like three: the Poggio alle Mura Brunello 2007 and its Riserva version of the same year (paired respectively with steamed chicken and Yunnan ham and then braised pork belly in a vegetable casserole), and the Belnero 2010, a powerfully structured Sangiovese with small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (paired with barbequed pork and honey-flavoured roast eel).
While Sangiovese is commonly associated with Chianti Classico, depths of taste and texture prevail with Brunello, which is legally required to be 100 percent Sangiovese with extended barrelageing (at least four years, five for Riserva). Chianti Classico needs one year minimum ageing (two for Riserva) and has to be at least 80 percent Sangiovese. Some estates admit to adding other grapes to their Sangiovese to enhance the Chianti taste, and Mariani-May concedes to some exceptions, such as for the easy-drinking Rosso di Montalcino. But never for Brunello.
“Not ever,” she insists. “The Brunello is a classic. The challenge is not so much for us because we have a lot of other wines, so if we don’t have a great Brunello vintage, we can blend it. But why would we blend our Brunello when we already have other wines like Cum Laude and Summus?” Those are her Super Tuscans, made from parcels of Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, grown amid the southern hills of Montalcino, where Banfi is fortunate enough to own several single vineyards of varying elevations and exposures, with no fewer than three dozen subsoils.
So what then, I ask her, about that infamous scandal of 2008 called “Brunellogate”? Several Montalcino vintners were accused of fraudulent production, allegedly using grapes other than Sangiovese and corrupting the fermentation process with wood chips and chemicals, tainting the supposed purity of Brunello. The wine writer Hugh Johnson famously wrote, during the investigation, that “the world awaits while the Brunello people try to forget.” Did she herself forget?
“It has made us all stronger, as a family of people who work together. That was dirty play, if you’re talking about 2008. There’s no way to prove it, none of us ever did it, and it all made a big blast and then it went away. They found nothing wrong. In business, as in life, when you do something well, there’s always going to be somebody trying to take you out of that position. So it was a good lesson – to keep your eyes open, to keep focused on what we do best, which is Sangiovese and Brunello, and don’t lose the path.”
Her own path is certainly unique, for a woman in wine. She is also a long-distance runner, having completed the New York, Chicago and Boston Marathons several times, and one can discern the qualities of endurance and determination in her character, which she also applies to business. “Yes, it’s about discipline, and I think this does play into what I do,” she says. “It really takes stamina to stay in the wine business. Nothing happens overnight, whether you’re talking about production or sales or markets. I find that the reward is there. When you’re a marathon runner, there’s a goal, a finish line, and when you finish you might want to keep on going and do better next time, and that’s why I still do this.”
Well then, I suggest, alcohol isn’t necessarily the best thing for a fitness regime. Does she not see a contradiction? “When I was in the wine business, I started running because there was a lot of food and wine, and also I wanted to keep my husband and wanted to keep my figure!” she quips. “I also like doing it because I get to see the cities. When I travel, this is a great way to do some sightseeing.” The converse applies, for she sees her beloved Montalcino as a “wine destination”, hence the opening in 2007 of her pet project, the 14-room luxury hotel Castello Banfi – Il Borgo, a brandextension exercise handsomely encased inside picturesque castle walls. Banfi wines are now found in 85 countries, thanks in part to this kind of wine tourism.
“Yes, Banfi really represents an international brand,” she says. “We’re American but we’re also global. That’s how I would like us to be distinguished. We’re selling not just wine but a way of life, something slower, calmer, and I want my wines to be remembered for their longevity, quality and sense of place – the terroir of Montalcino, the uniqueness of it. I would like people to say, ‘It’s a delicious wine that brings me to a beautiful place.’”