The road from Siena to Montalcino was pleasant enough. It was early on a Saturday morning and my colleague and I had an appointment at Castello Banfi.
Banfi, the giant. Banfi, the interloper. Banfi, the preserver. What started out as a giant experiment to reclaim some land and lost glories has led to a revolution in Tuscany. And Italy.
Montalcino ~ Early 1980's
My first trip to Montalcino in the early 1980’s was a sobering experience. Montalcino wasn’t just a sleepy little hillside town back then. It was in a coma. It was depressing and dank, and it seemed that the life and energy of the place was hiding. I thought I had landed in some poor southern Italian hill town, not Tuscany. In fact, Montalcino was one of the poorest hill towns in all of Italy.
Now it is one of the wealthiest hill towns in all of Italy. It's alive and well.
What happened? The Mariani’s, that’s who. For starters.
Wine geeks and skeptics can stop here and surf on. That’s what I would have done in years past. Just as when I had been by the place a few times over the years, but was always scurrying from one tiny producer to another, and never quite making it inside.
At one of those small estates with a farmer friend, as he looked down over the valley which once had been unclaimed. Now it was row after row of tended vines, different clones, field research that was benefiting the whole community. “What are they doing down there, what kind of wine is that they are making?” he asked me.
When we arrived at the tasting room of the winery, our tour guide had been unable to make our appointment. A wedding in Florence called, but someone else would be our hosts. Wandering around the Napa-like tasting room, with self-guided displays and history of the project, it seemed so unusual in this place. This seemed more like what I had seen in California with one difference. The place was filling up with Italians and they were loving it.
The genius of this place isn’t that it looks like California, for the reality is, many places in California make their places look like this. The brilliance was in the dogged determination and vision by the Mariani family and all their team to pursue the marketing of Italian wine to America in this scale. And to be rewarded by the Italians with their admiration and yes, envy. The Mariani family is the template, and great hope, by those of us who toil daily in the pursuit of getting more Americans to embrace Italian wine and culture. They also are an inspiration to those of us who have battled with the Italian producer to try and get them to understand the American market, and to market to the Americans in a way that will be successful. In this way, Banfi and the Mariani family have shown Italy a better way, not the only way, but an extremely successful way to make it in America.
Our hosts showed up in a few minutes and to our surprise, it was John and Pam Mariani themselves. They live on the property about half the time, and they took the two of us, old sales dogs that we are, and showed us what we have been putting on wine lists and in wine shops all these years. My colleague (pictured above, with the Mariani's) has an even longer relationship “in the field” with these wines, and he is very respected for his hard work. John and Pam were wonderful hosts and a pleasure to be around, to hear the stories, to “get” a real sense of their vision and their plan, their fondest dream. Grazie, John and Pam, grazie mille.
After a complete tour, winery, vineyards, barrel room, even the balsameria, we headed to their trattoria, La Taverna, to taste the wines with food. Now I know not everyone has this kind of opportunity to taste the wines of an estate with the owners on a Saturday afternoon in their very own wonderful trattoria. But I have put some time in this field the past 30 years, so I'm not going to feel bad about it. And you can go to the winery and make a reservation in the Taverna for lunch or the Ristorante for dinner and have the wines from the Banfi estate. So, you can do it too.
The pleasure in all this is that wine and food and friendship and work and love all do weave together sometimes, on the wine trail in Italy, and this was one of those magical moments. It pretty much took me by surprise, and a good one at that. Some preconceptions and assumptions I’d had were carved away that day. I have a whole new respect and appreciation, not only for what the Mariani’s have done for Tuscany, but for how they paved the way, for folks like myself, to preach the gospel of Italian wine. They blazed the trails; we’re keeping the light burning.
John Mariani said it best, "We're leaving life a bit richer than when we entered into it, and we're giving more than what we're taking."