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Interview: Cristina Mariani-May, CEO, Banfi Vintners

January 11, 2022

New York-based Banfi Vintners has reshaped its portfolio in recent years, parting ways with the Riunite and Bolla brands after a 50-year partnership and sharpening focus on its core Italian wines led by Castello Banfi Brunello, as well as Washington state label Pacific Rim and Natura from Chile.  More change appeared likely over the past year, as Banfi owners the Mariani family reportedly held discussions with LVMH toward a sale of Castello Banfi. In the end, the deal never came to pass, with the Marianis opting to retain the Tuscan jewel and invest their U.S. marketing efforts with renewed vigor. The company’s volume now stands at around a half-million cases. SND senior editor Shane English spoke with Banfi CEO Cristina Mariani-May to get an update on the agenda moving forward.

SND: Last year, you were in talks with LVMH to sell Castello Banfi and join their portfolio. That deal never happened. How did you decide to remain independent?

Mariani-May: It really was a conscious decision by the family and my executive team. We said: we can do this, we’ve got this, we own it. We’re not being put in a portfolio with tons of other products, including spirits and sparkling. We want to keep this. It’s 7,100 acres in the prime of Tuscany for Castello Banfi with our hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant, and Brunellos and Super-Tuscans that as a category remain a darling of the wine world. I like to think that Banfi is among the best. It was the best decision I think we’ve ever made. Coming back to being focused, knowing what we’re doing, knowing who we are, and who we’re going to be for the next many years gave such clarity to us in the decision.

SND: With the LVMH negotiations in the rearview mirror, how has Banfi’s portfolio performed lately?

Mariani-May: 2021 started off kind of unbalanced. The brands that did well during the early stages of the year were those that consumers knew and trusted. They weren’t experimenting as much. But as the market started reopening we saw a lot of our core business go up and up. So we’ve been up double-digits, particularly on the Tuscan portfolio and the Brunellos. We’ve been seeing these luxury price points grow very rapidly. By the end of the year, we started seeing a more balanced mix between the luxury and the more volume-oriented brands like Centine, which is our everyday offering from Banfi. Later on we saw a real pickup in some of our other SKUs, even outside of Italy, such as Pacific Rim from Washington state and Natura from Chile.

SND: Where in the U.S. do you see your strongest sales?

Mariani-May: In the U.S., our strongest market is Florida. We’ve got a great distributor partner in RNDC. We’ve got good relationships with the chains as well as the restaurants, plus the population is booming. Texas and Florida are two of our biggest markets followed by, of course, New York. We’re more east coast based than we are west coast, but we’re starting to see pickup through the west coast, where we aligned with RNDC. Pennsylvania has been doing really well for us, too. It’s Rhode Island, it’s New Hampshire, it’s Vermont, Massachusetts. That whole Northeast quarter is heavily influenced by Italian culture and cuisine, so we keep a lot of emphasis in that area.

SND: How was the 2021 holiday season for Banfi?

Mariani-May: Amazing, it exceeded our expectations. Our Brunellos, like Poggio alle Mura and our selection of classic Brunellos closed the year strongly. We have a new single vineyard Brunello we launched called Vigna Marrucheto. It’s a very limited production—just a few hundred cases globally—and we’re really focusing on the terroir and the Sangiovese clones. We sold out of everything and could not have been more pleased.

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