Frank Corr meets Banfi Ambassador
It’s a small world.
When I met up with Banfi Wines brand ambassador Dante Cecchini, in Bray this week, we went for a coffee to Carpe Diem, my very favourite coffee shop just off the seafront.
Before we even sat down, Dante was chatting in animated Italian to the barista . It turned out that they were both from the same town in Italy.
Eventually we got to talk about Banfi, one of the most interesting of American-Italian wine businesses, best known as the producer of ‘Reunuite’ Lambrusco, which has, for many decades been the biggest-selling imported red wine in the USA.
The business was founded in 1919 by John F Mariani Snr, just as New York went ‘dry’ under Prohibition and it was named after his aunt Teodolino Banfi. Almost out of business before it started, the fledgling wine importer survived Prohibition by importing spices but then got around to importing quality Italian wines. Sons John Jnr. and Harry expanded the portfolio by adding German, Swiss and French wines to the list, but with the launch of ‘Reunite’ the emphasis turned back to Italy.
‘The brothers realised that almost no wine was consumed across large tracts of Mid West America and saw a huge opportunity. They distributed Lambrusco which is sweet and light in alcohol and ‘Americans loved it’, says Dante.
The enormous success of Reunite provided a cash pile which enabled the Mariani family to return to its roots and to produce some of the finest wines in Italy. In 1978 they bought two castles in Montelcino, creating one of the largest wine estates in Tuscany and launched them as Castello Banfi. Here they invested heavily in viticulture, growing high quality grapes and making some outstanding Supertuscan wines. Banfi funded extensive clonal research designed to optimise the quality of the flagship Brunello di Montelcino, producing wines that are low in sulphites and histamines. They also achieved accreditation to the ISO 1401 (Environmental) and 9001 (Quality) standards.
The company’s distribution network enabled them to bring these wines to market across the USA, but interestingly they also developed the home market in Italy. Dante says that Tuscany and especially the town of Montelcino remains one of their strongest markets.
Back across the Atlantic, the Marianis acquired the agency for Chile’s Concha y Toro wines and introduced millions of Americans to the wines of Chile.
The highly successful family supports wine education in many countries including Ireland where it sponsors a class at the Shannon College of Hotel Management. It also endows the Banfi Chair of Wine Education at Cornell University.
Its other long-standing Irish connection is with Febvre and Company which has distributed Banfi wines for more than 20 years. Newcomers to the list this year are a Chianti Classico Reserva and a Chianti Classico Superiore while a splendid Gavi, a fresh and fruity Le Rime Pinot Grigio and the flagship Brunello di Montalcino DOCG are also listed.