Banfi, Emiliana expanding U.S. offerings


James W. Mariani is fond of analogies.

He likens his family's Banfi wines to writing, the basics available to anyone but the finest expressions of both created only through imagination and meticulous efforts.

He also likens the differences in those expressions to the differences in dance styles, comparing the impact of one bold wine to Gene Kelly's muscular style and the nuances of another to Fred Astaire's etheral moves.

If that sounds like a charming fellow who gives much thought to his craft and products, it is. Mariani, a New York-educated (Colgate and Cornell) Long Islander who is co-CEO of Castello Banfi with cousin Cristina Mariani-May, spends much of his time traveling from market to market to proselytize for their wines.

In the industry, of course, not a lot of proselytizing is necessary. Castello Banfi has been named "International Winery of the Year" an unprecedented four times at VinItaly's International Enological Concourse, which also named it "Italy's Best Wine Estate" 11 times since 1994.

I spoke with Mariani before a wine luncheon for the trade at Tuscan's Grill in Clifton Park last week.

"I'm as proud of our certifications as I am of our wines," Mariani said, displaying certificates attesting to Castelo Banfi's completion of rigorous international examinations in the areas of sustainable agriculture, environmental responsibility and, unique among wineries, social accountability.

The Mariani family can accurately use the word "unique" in a number of instances.

After living in Italy during his teen years, John Mariani Sr., born in Torrington, Conn., founded the company in New York in 1919 as a wine importer, just before Prohibition hit. He and his partners were able to maintain some income during those years by bottling and selling a 20-proof "laxative."

He named the company after an aunt, Teodolinda Banfi. She was the hospitality manager to the cardinal archbishop of Milan, Ambrogio Ratti, and, to the consternation of many clergy, maintained that position when he was elected Pope Piux XI, the "between the wars pope" who served from 1922 to 1939.

"She was the first woman given Vatican City citizenship," Mariani said, "and in 1938 was the first woman to be buried in the Vatican. She dealt with all the Pope's banquets, special events, and hosting dignitaries. My grandfather took his inspiration about food and wine and hospitality from what he learned from her while he was living in Italy."

When Mariani's sons, Harry and John, took over the company, they became the importer of Riunite Lambrusco, the top import to the U.S. market for a remarkable 26 years, thanks in great measure to a taste for Italian wines developed among GIs during World War II. But, they wanted to upgrade the quality of wine they thought would sell even better. Unable to interest Italian winemakers, they bought land in Tuscany, broke ground for their first plantings in 1978, and in 1984 dedicated the Castelo Banfi Estate.

Extensive research into various types of grapes and a planned reduction of the many clones to a core of three helped the company's development. It now is run by John and Cristina, although their fathers serve on the firm's advisory board.

The business has expanded to include Castello Banfi the castle, as well as at Castelo Banfi the brand. The castle, located on a hilltop in Montalcino, Tuscany, is used as an upscale hotel with restaurants and a glass museum, and the winery is nearby. The company's world headquarters, however, are located in a 60-room manor located on a 127-acre estate and vineyard in Old Brookville, Long island.

Castello Banfi's signature wines include the likes of single-vineyard reserve Poggio all'Oro and cru Poggio alle Mura Brunellos, three proprietary cuvees -- ExcelsuS, SummuS and Cum Laude, and single vineyard varietals Tevernelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Colvecchio Syrah and San Angelo Pinot Grigio. I particularly enjoy their Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva, a sangiovese-based, elegant oak-matured wine.

However, several wines new to the American market are quickly winning me over. Mariani is banking on both wines from Banfi and from the Mariani family's partnership with the Guilisasti family -- who have been involved with Concha y Toro -- in the Emiliana winery in Chile. Emiliana, like Banfi a very eco-conscious company, has been marketing wines to the U.S. under the Walnut Crest brand name but is expanding its line.

Although I enjoyed virtually everything tried at the lunch, I was particularly taken by one wine from each winery.

2001 Brunello de Montalcino DOCG: Any wine that can hold its ground with steak forno is a big, bold wine. This 100% sangiovese is such a beast. It is aged at least two years in wood, primarly French oak but also Slavonian oak, then further matured in the bottle for an additional 8-12 months before release. Deep garnet color, soft and velvety mouthfeel yet intense and alive with spice, stone fruit notes and a hint of licorice that melded with the spices, tomatoes and cheese in the bold steak dish.

2005 Emiliano Coyam: I am normally skeptical about any blend of more than four grapes. It takes a wonderful palate and a deft hand to make such a marriage work. Winemaker Alvaro Espinoza has both as shown by this blend of 45% syrah, 27% cabernet sauvignon, 14% merlot, 11% carmenere and 3% petit verdot. Both French and American oak is used to mature the wines ("coyam" means oak in the language of Chile's indigenous Mapuches people), The finished product looks syrupy with its bold color, but flows cleanly and wraps the tongue in a pleasant coverlet of fruit flavor, the wood nuances subtle. Coyam has been selling for three years in Europe and South America but is new to the U.S. market this year, at a suggested retail price of $30.

Go here for a full rundown on the Banfi and Emiliano wines samples at the luncheon.

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