From its iconic Tuscan vineyard estate, Castello Banfi, to its sparkling wine cellars in Piedmont to its domestic properties in the Pacific Northwest: Pacific Rim, Rainstorm, Silver Totem and Thick Skinned, Banfi has grown into a global wine giant with some of the most admired wines. At the helm is CEO and president, Cristina Mariani-May.
The youngest daughter of Banfi Chairman Emeritus, John F. Mariani, Jr., Ms. Mariani-May, represents the third generation of family leadership in the company founded by her grandfather, John Mariani, Sr. in 1919.
We sat down with Cristina Mariani-May to discuss her upbringing in wine, Castello Banfi, and how she’s turned Montalcino into a destination for wine lovers.
Spirited Zine: Just to start, what is your first memory of wine and how does that memory impact the way you approach your craft?
Cristina Mariani-May: It has to be Italy. It was probably as far back as 1978 when my father first broke ground in Montalcino, starting to build what is now Castello Banfi. Even then I realized how special a place it was; I remember being in awe of this vast land. It reminds me of what a visionary my father is and how his respect for the territory and pioneering spirit spurred a renaissance for not just Brunello, but the community of Montalcino.
SZ: You’re part of the third-generation of Banfi family leadership. Did you feel like there was pressure to go into wine or was it something you felt naturally drawn to from the beginning?
CMM: More so that I grew up in it, with it – it was always there and such an important part of my family. One distinction I make is that being born into a family business doesn’t guarantee you a seat at the table. That part is a choice – and yes, I definitely choose Banfi!
SZ: Can you tell us a bit about Castello Banfi vineyard estate… the terroir, the grapes you grow, and the wines you make?
CMM: At just over 7,100 acres, our agricultural estate in Montalcino, Tuscany is more like a collection of single vineyards – there are 29 different soil types and dozens of microclimates, making it a truly unique place for grapes to grow. Brunello di Montalcino has been our focus from the start – in fact Banfi spearheaded decades of Sangiovese clonal research and today has Sanguis Jovis, a permanent research center dedicated to Sangiovese. We grow other varietals, too – Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah for our SuperTuscans. Believe it or not, we were the first to plant Pinot Grigio in Tuscany! We have our Castello Banfi San Angelo as well as our Centine Pinot Grigio and I love to say that the Pinot Grigio we grow is kissed by the Tuscan sun – it’s what sets it apart from its northern counterparts.
SZ: You were the guiding hand behind the development of new hybrid fermenters, comprising a unique combination of a steel base and head and a wood middle section. How do these fermenters impact wine differently than the usual steel tank or wood barrel?
CMM: The combination of the two achieves the best of each and it’s what makes the winery truly “state of the art.” The stainless steel allows for optimal temperature control and the wood allows for oxygenation, enhancing character, all with the goal of achieving Brunello that captures the balance of softness and complexity.
SZ: Since you’ve become involved in Banfi, you’ve seen Montalcino begin to transform into a destination for wine lovers. In your eyes, what makes Montalcino unique among all the other wine regions in the world?
CMM: Yes, Montalcino is absolutely a destination for wine lovers – and really all travelers who appreciate landscape, food, and culture. First and foremost, there’s the sheer beauty of the countryside. Then, of course, the charm and history of the hillside towns. Incredibly, Banfi’s own Poggio alle Mura is a 12th century castle that has only been in 3 families. And the wine itself of course, how Sangiovese grows and develops here in Montalcino. It truly finds a home here unlike anywhere else in the world. An actual whale fossil weighing several tons was discovered in the vineyards on our estate and excavated, so we really mean it when we say the terroir is special – rich in complexity and history.
SZ: Can you tell us a bit about the development of the Castello Banfi Il Borgo hotel and what visitors can expect from a stay there?
CMM: There are the luxury accommodations of Il Borgo, a Relais & Chateaux property and also Michelin starred dining at Sala dei Grappoli and that is only the beginning. Castello Banfi is a true oasis of food, culture, and discovery. Before grabbing a picnic basket and an electric bike for a day of exploration, you might treat yourself to an outdoor holistic massage overlooking vineyards and a private garden. Whether you opt for an intimate lesson sketching the vineyards alongside a local artist, or horseback riding through the countryside, an award-winning, delicious glass of Brunello is never far away, and Castello Banfi ensures you have the ultimate authentic Tuscan experience.
There’s an incredible balance when it comes to spending time in Tuscany. You can be out truffle hunting in the day, part of a small group cooking class in the evening, and the next day discovering the pristine beauty of Val d’Orcia, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s exactly what many of us could use right now – a healthy dose of culture, fresh Tuscan fare, delicious local wine, and plenty of space to spread out.
SZ: How would you describe your philosophy when it comes to wine?
CMM: More than anything is that it brings people together. It might sound cliche, but it’s the sharing of a glass of wine with someone that just makes it all click and you feel grateful to be in this business.
SZ: What’s something that people generally don’t think about when they think about making wine, but it’s essential to the business?
CMM: Farming! There is so much work to do in the vineyard way before there are even grapes to harvest. The challenges of climate and weather are real – there really isn’t any such thing as a typical harvest. Banfi recently received Equalitas certification in recognition of sustainability achievements. Equalitas recognizes the environment, social and even economic aspects of sustainability, so it’s an important recognition for our team.
SZ: If you had to choose, other than your own, what are your three favorite bottles of wine that you’ve ever drank?
CMM: One of my most special and memorable wine experiences was sharing a 1945 Borgogno Barolo with my father – still such vibrancy and freshness and overall, just unbelievable to think of it as a moment in time, what the world looked like and was experiencing. I must also say, Veuve Clicquot’s La Grand Dame is always a favorite!