An interview with Banfi Vintners CEO, Cristina Mariani-May

The president and CEO of New-York based Banfi Vintners represents the third generation of the Mariani family at Banfi

Words by Adam Lechmere

Cristina Mariani-May is president and CEO of New York-based Banfi Vintners, importers, distributors and owners of Montalcino’s Castello Banfi, Banfi Piemonte, and wine properties in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Banfi is celebrating its 40thanniversary. It is the largest contiguous vineyard in Europe; a third of the property is under vine, with the balance taken up with olive groves, wheat fields, plum trees, truffle stands, forest and scrub.

You represent the third generation of the Mariani family at Banfi and you’ve worked there since the early 1990s. What changes have you seen over those years?
I’ve seen changes in the growing knowledge and the sharing of research among producers all over the world. We created the estate from scratch in 1978 as a research property; then it seemed as if wine communities didn’t have the open mindset we have today, when everything is shared. Back then it wasn’t. But we’re now thinking: let’s share research, open up the books, and open our doors to the public. Forty years ago you didn’t have people just showing up at the door – it was a different mentality.

CEO of Banfi Cristina Mariani-May, photographed by Gianni Rizzotti
Cristina Mariani-May, photographed by Gianni Rizzotti
Banfi Piemonte, photographed by A. Brookshaw
Banfi Piemonte, photographed by A. Brookshaw

As an American in Tuscany you must have imported a few foreign ideas…
Yes, and part of that was an understanding that guests should be welcomed. Wine is such a special part of agriculture, but the average person doesn’t understand it – you have to educate them by showing them how it’s made.

Winemakers have also been at the forefront of sustainability…
We pay very serious attention to sustainability and the environment. We’ve been at the forefront for years but now it’s more urgent. As vintners we are protectors of the land, and there’s now a new generation and a new awakening. People admire and look up to the wine industry, probably more than they do grains or pastas – you have to be seen to be responsible. So if the leading vintners like Torres and Jackson Family Wines and ourselves do it first it will help lead the way for others in agriculture.

Banfi is a US distributor as well as a winery. I see you have a few unexpected English products on the list, like Stone’s Ginger Wine. Have you thought about listing English sparkling wine?
It’s very important to pay attention to the countries north of us and I have been watching the English wine industry very closely. Climate change predictions for the next 50 years show that the swathe of viable vineland through the middle of the continental countries is moving north. I think English wines are stunning and we definitely have an opportunity there.

How important is the Piemonte part of the business?
Banfi is the jewel in the crown because the property is so diverse. We do so much research there, plus there’s the hospitality, the 12th-century castle… it’s definitely the jewel. But Piemonte, with its 18th-century cellars, is very special – we actually bought it before Montalcino. The wines we make there are predominantly whites and sparklings so it’s an estate that complements the big red noble wines of Montalcino.

Banfi Piemonte, photographed by A. Brookshaw
Vineyard in Novi Ligure, photographed by A. Brookshaw

Apart from Italy, which do you consider the most exciting wine regions in the world?
I get very excited about cool, northern climate wines. I love Burgundy – who doesn’t get excited about Burgundy? – but it’s wonderful to see the Pinot popping up in other regions. As a general wine lover there is so much to love. People are now talking about Georgian wines – I tasted them in Russia recently and thought they were magnificent, those incredibly bold tannic whites.

How much do you personally get involved in winemaking?
[spreads out beautifully-manicured hands] Well, you can see my nails aren’t dirty… I don’t get out into the vineyards much because I’m running a global company and it’s tough to find the time. I have three children and I’m up at five every morning. I get more involved in the theory: how we’re going to plant for the future, for example. We have to be thinking about 10 years from now, plantings, investments, which grapes and clones, where we want to take our property.

And there’s your research as well…
We’re working with the universities and the leading agronomists, to make sense of what we see happening internationally, and where consumers will want to go in the coming generations. Forty years ago we thought the future would be for sustainability, and natural, healthy living. Now we’re thinking, how do we cater for today and the next generation?

Going to Tuscany is on everybody’s bucket list. What we hope to do is put in that person’s mind that little bit of escape: to say, here is Tuscany, here is your chance to visit us in a glass

On top of all this you still find time for a lot of running…
I do marathons and ultra-marathons. In Croatia last fall I did an 80k marathon. It took 12 hours.

What’s your fastest marathon time?
My fastest is three hours 20 minutes. That’s not uber fast [it is: it puts Mariani-May amongst the elite runners for her age]. I’m taking to the trails now – off-road – and most of my runs have been 50k. That’s an easier race than 80k.

Do you do half-marathons as well?
My half marathon time is about 1:40. I don’t run halves really – I either go all out, or not at all.

What does running do for you?
It brings peace. It’s a time both for thinking and not thinking. I think, but it’s free flow thoughts because of the endorphin rush (obviously I’m an endorphin junkie). I don’t like to be in my head for so many hours at a time so when I run I listen to books and podcasts, TED talks, historical books; I’m not necessarily thinking but I’m absorbing information which triggers thought processes. I see it as my opportunity to grow mentally. Oh, and it helps keep the gelato intake under control.

Finally – what is it about Tuscany, and Tuscan wine, that is so compelling?
It’s all context. Going to Tuscany is on everybody’s bucket list – it’s God’s country, it’s so incredibly beautiful, it’s what people dream of. So what we hope to do is put in that person’s mind that little bit of escape: to say, here is Tuscany, here is your chance to visit us in a glass.

Shall we taste some wine?
Yes! Great idea.