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Family, territory, world and wine quality: the future according to Cristina Mariani-May

Face to face with the guide of Banfi, the winery that opened the world market to Brunello di Montalcino. “Passion and continuous confrontation are needed”

Working with passion and courage, always listening and comparing oneself with others, giving value to merits (which in wine territories is not always the case, even when they are “objective” and historical) and acquiring great professional and international experience in order to have an entrepreneurial vision always turned to the future. This is the vision recounted, “face to face” with WineNews, by Cristina Mariani-May, among the most influential businesswomen in Italy and in the U.S., owner and guide of Banfi, the family business, leader of Brunello di Montalcino, talking about the future of a territory-symbol of Made in Italy in the world that becomes that of Italian wine. Beginning precisely with the fact that a new page has already opened for Banfi, with the third generation of the family represented by Cristina Mariani-May, who is increasingly a protagonist, and who sees her at the head of a governance renewed and redefined in roles, to unite more and more the Italian soul with the American soul of the company, sustaining its leadership and continuing on the path of cultural continuity and family ownership. “It is our goal, now that we are a full-fledged “company”, we want to unite Italy and the U.S. with a new integrated and synergistic organization, through a new board, and new ideas also in communication, without other producers in distribution as we had in the past. For a future that will be increasingly focused on Banfi and our family with Italian roots”.
A future that, as said by Cristina Mariani-May herself, sees as fundamental elements experience mixed with an open vision to what is happening in the world and in the territory, in order to evolve and improve continuously. “I consider myself to be still “quite” experienced”, says one of the wine world’s most prominent managers, who embodies that “legacy of American thought” that Cristina Mariani-May, a “daughter of the art”, carries on and seeks to pass on in the role-guide she plays today, just as Banfi’s “founding fathers” did before her when they arrived in Italy over 40 years ago, at the dawn of the Brunello di Montalcino “phenomenon”, bringing with them in their suitcases their culture, quite different at the time from the Italian one, but which was decisive in opening the territory’s mind, triggering its economy and its growth. Because deep down this is its true “cosmopolitan” nature, as recounted by the very invention of Brunello by an “enlightened” bourgeoisie of Montalcino who, in dialogue with the great scientists of Europe and against the grain of the rest of Italy, had the intuition to bet everything on Sangiovese, limiting its production to the Montalcino territory alone, in the past centuries. “Today we are no longer closed to the outside world, those who arrive no longer encounter the difficulties of the past”, observes Cristina Mariani-May, “thanks also to the new generations who are more open. Banfi, my family and myself, “think positive”, because, in this area, we see a great future, and not only looking at the U.S., but at markets around the world. Otherwise, we would not still be here ...”.
A new beginning, then, for Cristina Mariani-May, and for Banfi, which starts, of course, also from profound and focused reflections on Montalcino and its future, in strictly wine and oenological terms, but also talking about hospitality and the enhancement of assets, not only wine, agri-food and food and wine, obviously dominant, in an area that owes its fortune to wine, but where sometimes there is a risk of forgetting everything else. Reflections that arise from those who today represent the link between history and the future. Founded by the Italian-American Mariani family between the 1970s and 1980s and one of the biggest investments in Italian wine, together with the genius of oenologist-manager Ezio Rivella, Banfi, in fact, gave a decisive boost to the Brunello market, exporting it first to the United States and then all over the world, making it a wine with an international scope, even though it is tied to Sangiovese alone and its terroir.
A company that, with its entrepreneurial vision, has contributed to making Brunello a world brand and Montalcino a successful district of made in Italy, to the benefit of the entire territory and the many businesses and wineries that have sprung up subsequently, and of its community, writing a new chapter in the history begun by the Biondi Santi family with the invention of Brunello at the end of the 19th century in the Tenuta Greppo, and by the most “enlightened” local producers, and which reaches up to the present day, thanks to wineries of absolute prestige that, betting everything on quality and strengthened by the markets opened by Banfi, have brought Brunello to the top of world criticism, and affirmed Montalcino among the territories-myths of world enology. And they have done so starting with a market like the U.S., which is now the most important for Italian wine and which Banfi knows well, “but where our strategy has changed since I became CEO”, recalls Cristina Mariani-May, “from exporting large volumes of Italian wine to labels from the territories in which we have invested directly with Banfi in Montalcino, Montalcino in Chianti Classico, Bolgheri and Maremma in Tuscany, and Piedmont, alongside Pacific Rim Estates in Washington State and Rainstorm in Oregon, where we produce Pinot Noir, and the organic “Natura” labels from Chile. We are much more focused on exporting quality and value to the market, because right now in the United States the more prestigious labels are more successful, while it is much much more difficult to sell everyday wines to the distributor. We made this strategic choice even before the pandemic, and we were right. Today I am very happy that we have bet on the path of quality and value for the price to the consumer”.
Wine quality that, of course, is the result of very specific production choices, but which reckons with constantly (and increasingly rapidly) changing climatic conditions. “Well, it has always been very important in Montalcino to understand the evolution of the terroir and its terroir, from year to year, from vintage to vintage. For us, for research, and to share these changes all together with local producers and new winery owners coming in from other territories. Each cru allows us to express the personality of Banfi and that of our wines, different from that of other wineries and producers, but with the spirit of always producing dynamic, energetic and complex wines that reflect the nature and tradition of Sangiovese in Montalcino. I myself represent a new generation of producers, the third in my family, and if this was not always the case in the past, today I am happy with the good relations and strong relationships we have among producers from a territory that is not closed in on itself, but has an open mentality that allows us to be present in the most “explosive” markets, combining the American and Italian mentality - which is by no means easy - on a single position and with the goal of being the “ambassadors” of Montalcino in the world. And to work together, from small to large wineries, to increase the value of our wines, which in this time of galloping inflation in the world, means making sure that we have a quality/price ratio that is reliable, affordable but also reflects their quality prestige. Because if there is no quality in wines, it's a problem for everyone, not just Banfi”.
A reasoning about the future that, moreover, sees more and more Italian wine territories moving towards zoning, a path that Montalcino has not yet taken - unlike other emblazoned territories such as Langhe, with Barolo, or Chianti Classico, but also others that are less quoted, also in terms of added value of vineyards and wines, but equally important, such as Soave, for example, with real consortium and territory projects - but where for some time now producers have been successfully focusing on the “vineyards” of Brunello, such as, in the case of Banfi, Vigna Marrucheto and Poggio alle Mura.
“The focus in Montalcino is on getting Sangiovese to express itself at its best in each vintage, not without difficulties related to vintages that are not easy, as in Burgundy for Pinot Noir. For Banfi, it is important to study each vineyard through our estate mapping, which is constantly changing due also to climate change, while, perhaps, for new estate owners other paths are”, Banfi’s guide explains.
A beacon of Montalcino, an area that, like much of Italy’s wine, owes much of its fortune to its relationship with the American market, which the Mariani family was among the first to open, and not only for Brunello di Montalcino. The love between Italy and America is growing stronger, always. In the United States, 75% of wine consumption is domestic, mostly from California, then Washington and Oregon, but right after that, Italy is the most popular producing country, not France. This is the time for Italian wine and Italian food, but also for tourism to Italy, and this is also very important for Banfi and Montalcino”. Because Banfi in Montalcino invested pioneeringly in wine, but also in tourism, among the first entities in Italy to have focused on high-level hospitality, from the construction of a winery conceived and designed to welcome visitors, to the restoration, immediately after its acquisition in the early 1980s, of the ancient Castello di Poggio alle Mura, also known today as Castello Banfi, into a jewel of Italian hospitality with the wine resort Il Borgo, which is part of the exclusive Relais & Châteaux circuit, a wine bar and two restaurants, La Taverna and La Sala dei Grappoli, which recently “rekindled” the Michelin star in Brunello territory, and fulfilled the “American dream” of the founders, brothers John, Cristina’s father, and Uncle Harry Mariani. Therefore, in the future, the will is to invest more and more in the “wine experience” as well. “Yes, and more and more”, explains Cristina Mariani-May (who, in the past, told WineNews about the excitement of her first time in Montalcino), “because making consumers live the experience in person and educate them about Italian wine and Brunello in particular is what we do at Castello Banfi, addressing above all the new generations, because, next to the wines, the magic and beauty of Montalcino are what most remains imprinted, and our communication strategy is based on this. An inspiring dream and today a common one with the territory’s most “enlightened” entrepreneurs, local or from other territories, who have made and are making their companies a “bon refuge” among the Brunello vineyards.
Italy, it is known, represents a model of wine tourism reception, but competition is very high, in Italy and in the world. For this reason, the entrepreneurial vision of the companies alone is not enough, because what makes the difference is the “governance” of the territory with an increasingly close and decisive public-private synergy at its base. In the long and important history that binds Banfi to Montalcino, there have been many strengths and huge investments in every field, but in order to continue to grow further and improve, the future does not allow anyone to sit on their laurels, not even the Brunello territory with its prestige. To do this, according to Cristina Mariani-May, “we must not be too competitive with each other: Montalcino must go united in the world, because, starting with Biondi Santi, we are one big community. We have to think more local, about our uniqueness and our history, and build personal relationships directly between the teams of companies and clients, because generalized marketing or aimed only at social media in the future will no longer suffice”. Therefore, investing in incoming, infrastructure and services is also crucial to allow wine lovers to have the unique and inimitable experience of visiting the area and getting to know the people who live and work there, “with a smile, otherwise ours is a wine like any other”, says Banfi’s guide.
But also continuing to invest in innovation is fundamental both for the development, including wine tourism, of an area and for a “territorial communication” that makes a difference, because if it is nice to be able to admire a restored monument, villa or castle, inside they must be filled with ideas and content that make the visitor live an unforgettable experience. “Yes, and this applies to Montalcino itself. I’m thinking, for example, of the new immersive museum of the “Temple of Brunello” in the ancient Convent of Sant’Agostino, in the heart of Montalcino, the “Jazz & Wine in Montalcino” Festival that Banfi has been organizing for 25 years at Castello Banfi and in the 14th-century Fortress, the “Eroica” or the “Brunello Crossing” in the white roads: all events that go beyond wine, integrating the territory to the city and vice versa and making the whole community participate, with great success with the public because they give unique experiences. Then come the wine, food, palaces and castles. But this is how you create new links with enthusiasts not only of wine, drawing them back to the territory from all over Italy and the world, making them appreciate its all-round beauty, building their loyalty, inviting them to return and encouraging word of mouth. And living this kind of experience is what the new generations especially want”, says Cristina Mariani-May. And because improving and making wine territories competitive also means this: investing in the relationship economy to keep them alive and preserve sociability for those who live there, the real cultural heritage of Italy’s rural territories and their communities, alongside the food and wine, beauty and natural biodiversity, with which those who come to visit want to come into contact, or the risk is to deplete them and make them just “showcases”. This is true sustainability, which is not only environmental, but also economic, social and ethical.
Montalcino, according to a study by the Cbre agency, is today the wine territory where the most purchases and transfers of companies are recorded in Italy, and, starting with Banfi’s investment and the choice, at the time against the tide in Italy, to focus on agriculture by the territory’s actors, this, too, has made it possible to build one of the most important and profitable wine “districts” in Italy and internationally, analyzed by WineNews, which revolves around the “Brunello economy”, and which attracts not only capital and tourism, but also high professionalism from all over the world, generating from beauty, which is its real wealth, income, employment and integration. “It is an interesting figure, and I am optimistic”, explains Cristina Mariani-May, “because in a fast-changing world, this brings new ideas, more energy, innovations and marketing actions in step with the times, which, working all together, must be integrated with the identity of the territory. This is the key to the success of the Brunello territory, allowing us to be increasingly competitive with wines from the rest of the world. Whether with Banfi we plan to invest again in this or other territories? In Montalcino, not in new vineyards, but in hospitality yes. In other territories, perhaps in the future: we are proud to be present in Tuscany and Piedmont, the most important regions of Italian wine, which, at this moment, give us great satisfaction ... but we are always looking around, from Sicily to Alto Adige”.

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