Banfi: Winery of the Year, Europe

Cristina Mariani-May is the co-CEO of the Winery of the Year, Castello Banfi. She took about half an hour out of her schedule a couple weeks ago to speak with me and my co-writer about her beloved winery. If you’ve not heard of Banfi, a) you must go out right now and get your hands on their Brunello di Montalcino and b) just know that they won Europe’s leading wine competition, 2015 Winemaker Challenge, an international competition organized by syndicated wine columnist Robert Whitley.

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What is your favorite part of the winery?

The wines. Drinking them. I think there’s one part of the winery that is the most special part for me, and that is our Horizon… we call it the Horizon micro-vinification area. It is an area in the winery where we microvinify our finest red wines. But what is so special about it is the fermentation tanks we have are actually patented by Banfi and they’re hybrid tanks that are half stainless steel and half wood and they’re really innovative. We created these tanks working with both the stainless steel fermenters and the traditional barrel producers. So the part I love about the winery is when you see these hybrid tanks that our team created and patented—and now the patent’s released on the open market—but we have about 25 of them, and they are quite inspiring because they’re really technologically advanced, but they blend perfectly the old techniques and the traditional techniques with the new. And it really is a part of the winery where people stop and they go, “Oh my gosh, that’s fascinating.” It’s the tour—wow, we get about 80,000 visitors a year that come through the winery and the estate, and every time they go through that, they are so impressed by the advancement and that’s really one of the parts of the winery I’m most proud of. And I’m also very proud we have a castle too, so that’s not a bad thing. The castle is pretty magical itself.

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The barrels you’re talking about kind of sound like the way the winery is with the tradition and the innovation all tied into one.

Bingo. Exactly. It’s an embodiment of that philosophy. And that’s why it’s so special when we show it because it gives us the ability to tell our story which is, we’re not a 30th generation of Italian wine makers. We started in America as wine importers in 1919 and hence that’s why we have the larger portfolio. And we became producers in 1978. But what is fascinating is we have this respect for history because we’ve been in the wine business for a hundred years, but there’s a new edge to the winemaking and a new generation and that’s really the story of who Banfi is in Italy. And that’s why these tanks are quite fascinating in that sense. It gives the impression of who we are and who we want to be.

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What do you think contributed to Banfi’s naming as Winery of the Year?

I really have to go back to the research and the experimentation that we’ve done on the property and how we continue to do that. How we not only continue to make advancements in the winemaking and in the grapes and how we grow them but also in the aspects of the environmental and social awareness. Castello Banfi was the first winery in the world to receive the triple ISO certification for exceptional environmental, social and ethical responsibility. So what we’re very proud of is that we not only try to produce the most beautiful crafted great value wines, but at the same time we’re constantly on the cutting edge of how to do it in a much more socially and environmentally aware method. And I think for that reason we’ve been recognized as winery of the year. And also, lastly because we try to get the wines that we produce out to consumers in about 90 different countries around the world. So on top of it, we’re not just making—we’re not a tiny little winery just making it for just a handful of consumers to enjoy, we’re really trying to bring it around the world to consumers everywhere. That’s something that I think makes us more special.

If someone has never tasted wine, which varietal (be as specific or general as you like) would you suggest they try first?

Mm. Probably something a little sweeter. Probably our Rosa Regale… it’s like a red sparkling, slightly sweet wine that tastes of strawberry and raspberry. I would definitely say that’s a great place to start because it’s soft on the palate. It kind of dances and it goes excellent with chocolate or lighter foods, so it’s lively. But then I’d move after that—and it would depend if you wanted to move somebody to red or white, and again it depends on the season—but I would try to encourage them to move to a red after that, because our Centine Rosso, which is a baby super Tuscan blend of Cabernet, Sangiovese and Merlot is just one of those wines that’s so drinkable. It’s so soft and so fruity and approachable. I would steer them in that direction.

Tell me the one thing you want people to know about Banfi.

Luxury. I would say two things: an affordable luxury. It is luxury. Castello Banfi is an estate that is dedicated to producing outstanding wines; it’s an estate that has hospitality that’s some of the best in the world with a hotel that’s just stunning—it was just rated by Conde Nast as the sixth best hotel in all of Italy. The place itself is magical. Castello Banfi is truly magical. It’s the beauty and the embodiment and the land, the passion, the rolling hills of Tuscany—it’s a place where you can sip a wine and you can look at the person across from you and realize how gorgeous they are and how stunning and you just fall madly in love with people and such when you’re there—you know when you come home and you see your same spouse and they’re standing in the kitchen and the kids are screaming and the garbage has to go out and they don’t look so good? Castello Banfi is one of those places where anybody can look good and you just fall in love with life. And that’s kind of what Banfi is all about. In every bottle you’re going to hopefully be experiencing the richness of Tuscany, the luxury and beauty of Tuscany. But at the same point, we want to do it in a style where people can afford it and can enjoy it on a daily basis. There’s certain luxuries in this world—not everybody can afford to go over to Italy and travel to Tuscany. But everybody can pretty much afford to have a Tuscan meal at home and invite friends over and do it on an open table and have an experience like you’re going to Tuscany, like you’re in Italy. Anybody can do that. So that’s why I say it’s kind of an affordable luxury—it’s a way of bringing a sense of the beauty of Tuscany to your daily life. And if somebody gets a chance to come visit us because they can afford the luxury, then please tell them we welcome you with open arms. We’re very proud of having people over as well, and experiencing it firsthand.

Tell me something about the winery most people do not know.

Okay, I was going to say they don’t know where we keep the key to the wine cellar that has all the ancient bottles of Brunello in it, so I will not tell you where that key is.

I will not tell you—I’m a pretty open book. I’m an Italian-American at heart, so you probably get to know me by now. There’s not much I don’t talk about. We’re a pretty open family, so there’s not a lot of secrets. I mean, we did all of the research on the winery, we shared it with the Italian government; we let visitors in from all over the world, and winemakers and academics and oenologists—we love sharing our work, so there’s not a lot we don’t love to share, except for our really good, old vintages of wine that we don’t always have a ton of—that I’ll hold on to.

The full interview with Cristina Mariani-May will be in our Dec/Jan issue of Wine Journal! Keep your eyes peeled for that issue when it becomes available on December 1st

Allie Smallwood and Meghan Guarino, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits marketing copywriters

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