The Banfi Story: From the Vatican to Castello Banfi to Pacific Rim

First of a series.

We caught up with Cristina Mariani-May, who with her cousin James is co-ceo of Banfi Vintners, shortly before she rang the closing bell on the NASDAQ stock exchange and just a few days after the Mariani family acquired Pacific Rim Wines.

The Banfi story really begins in the Vatican.  John Mariani Sr., who founded Banfi, had been born in Torrington, Conn. in 1895.  But at age 9, his father, a carriage maker, died.  His mother returned to Italy with her six children to live with Teodolinda Banfi, her sister, who at the time directed the household staff of Achille Ratti, the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, who would become Pope Pius XI.

Teodolinda apparently was like a sister to the Pope, since his mother had adopted her after she was orphaned, and the new Pontiff asked that she be in charge of his household.  That was a radical request — no woman other than a nun had ever lived in the Sistine Palace.  It took repeated requests before Vatican bureaucrats acquiesced.

“She was in charge of the entire household of Pope Pius XI,” Cristina told us.  “She selected his wines, ran his house staff.  And she had an amazing palate.  She knew all about the wines of Europe.”

She taught young John all about the culture of wine, of food, of Italy and how to set a great table.  John Sr. returned to America and in 1919 opened a wine importing business in New York’s Greenwich Village, naming the new business “Banfi,” in honor of his aunt.  She died in 1938, and is buried inside Vatican City.

So women in the wine business go quite far back,” Cristina said.  “They just didn’t have the recognition; they were in the back of the house.  But today, four generations later, there’s a woman running the business.”

“My grandfather’s business was tiny,” Cristina told us, “and as soon as he opened his doors, Prohibition came.  They brought in a lot of products from Italy, including sea salts, spices and other specialties.  They made medicinal bitters in their garage and sold them in the pharmacies as mild laxatives.  The bitters flew off pharmacists’ shelves during Prohibition.”

The Birth of America’s Leading Wine Import

After Prohibition, John Sr. lined up agency agreements with a number of European wineries.  They began importing “some of the great wines of the world in the 1950s, acting as negociants under the Banfi label.  French wines, not Italian, were the popular sellers.”

But in the 1960s, John Mariani Jr., Cristina’s father, developed a vision on how to get Aemricans to drink more wine – “not by drinking drier wines and the great first growths of France and Europe, but one that’s a little softer, one that can be served in informal setting, to make wine drinking an everyday concept,” Cristina said.
“That led them to bring in lambrusco under the Riunite label.”  Within a few years, Riunite had become the nation’s leading wine import, a position it held for 27 years.  “It was a phenomenal success for the family,” she said.

Tomorrow:  Creating a wine estate

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