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Wine & family

10:02 AM  Dec 30th, 2010
by Thomas M. Columbus

The pope trusted her. She taught the family. And now they teach us.

Most of those in the room in South Korea were young Americans, still in their 20s. Their beverage of choice was more likely to be beer than wine; their emphasis, more on quantity than quality. But the commander of those F-16 pilots of the 80th Fighter Squadron planned to do something about that.

“I wanted to broaden their education,” said Lt. Col. Jack Sine ’90, an engineering grad, of his pilots stationed in November 2009 about 150 miles south of Seoul at Kunsan Air Force Base, on the west side of the Korean peninsula by the Yellow Sea.
“I wanted to make them into officers, not just pilots.”

He knew the man for the job.

Sine’s senior year college roommate was Bill Whiting ’90, one of 10 grandchildren of John Mariani Sr., founder of an import company by the name of Banfi Vintners, which grew into the leading wine importer in the U.S. as well as into a producer of some of the world’s finest wines. Whiting, a marketing major while at UD, now serves as Banfi’s director of wine education, lecturing at schools, coordinating events such as winemaker dinners, and educating Banfi’s sales force and its distributor network. “I work the market,” he said.

“I’d seen Bill the last time I was in Washington,” Sine said. “Squadrons and their families look for social things to do together. I told Bill, ‘If I ever command a squadron, I’m going to make you come out and do a wine tasting for the squad and their families.’”

Sine got his command. But since it was in Korea, a remote assignment, and squad members were away from their families, Sine told Whiting, “You don’t have to come out here.”

But Whiting said he was coming, and he did. Banfi’s distributor in Seoul provided the wines. Food to pair with them was another matter. Olives and cheese in Korea are about as rare as kimchi in Italy. But with a little help from their friends, Sine and Whiting put together the ingredients for a tasting.

Sine marveled at his old roommate’s ability to connect with his audience. “This wasn’t,” Sine said, “a culinary institute or a fundraising event” — more typical venues for a director of wine education. Nevertheless, Sine observed, the young pilots did not focus on how much they could drink but sat and listened and learned.

“One of the men was getting married and going to honeymoon in Thailand,” Sine added. “He asked Bill about getting him one of the wines; he wanted to have it in his hotel room in Thailand. But, when Bill didn’t get back to him, he assumed he was too busy.”

Whiting is indeed busy, on the road 200 days a year. “Sometimes when I wake up,” he said, “I don’t know whether I’m home or in a hotel room, whether, when I try to get out of one side of the bed, I’ll hit a wall.”

But when the young pilot and his bride arrived at their Thailand hotel room, there waiting for them was a bottle of the wine.

“Bill’s just a class act,” Sine said.

Whiting is one of four sons of Joan Mariani, the only daughter of Banfi founder John Mariani Sr., whose sons, John Jr. and Harry, built a successful import business into one dominant in its field. One of Whiting’s cousins (one of Harry’s four children), Katy Mariani Goodrich ’85, is a UD commercial design grad who now has her own interior design firm. At UD she introduced her future husband, marketing major Marc Goodrich ’84, to wine. Today, he is executive vice president and chief operating officer of Banfi Vintners. The company’s executive committee comprises Goodrich and co-CEOs Cristina Mariani-May (a daughter of John Jr.) and James Mariani (one of Katy’s brothers).

Whiting likes to say, “Facts tell. Stories sell.” Banfi sells a lot of wine. And it has a very good story, beginning with why the company is named Banfi and not Mariani.

 

John Mariani Sr., who established the firm in 1919, was born in 1895 in Torrington, Conn. He had an aunt. But Teodolinda Banfi was not just any aunt.

Mariani’s father died when John was 9; his mother — with her six children — returned to Italy. They lived with John’s mother’s sister, Teodolinda Banfi, who took an active interest in educating the children. At the time, Teodolinda directed the household staff of the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Achille Ratti, whose mother had adopted Teodolinda, orphaned at an early age.

In 1922, following the death of Benedict XV and a conclave that voted 14 times, Cardinal Ratti was elected pope and took the name Pius XI. History recognizes his concern for social and economic justice, his condemnation of racism, and his urging of the involvement of laity in the church. During his papacy, in 1929, the Lateran Treaty established the Vatican as a sovereign nation. Pius XI’s attitude toward Italian secularism and the rise of the dictator Benito Mussolini appears to be represented in the pope’s establishing the feast of Christ the King.

Among Pius XI’s early appointments as pope was his selection of a manager for his household. His request that Teodolinda be appointed was, according to the telling of the story on Banfi Vintner’s website, “viewed with amazement — and ignored for months — because never before had a woman, other than a nun, lived in the Sistine Palace.” The pope repeated his instructions. And he kept repeating them until Teodolinda arrived to head his household staff. As in Milan, part of her responsibility in Rome was the selection of wine for the pope’s meals.

During his days with his aunt in Milan, the young John Mariani Sr. had received an extraordinary education on fine wine. He returned to the United States to found in 1919 in New York City’s Little Italy a company that bears his aunt’s name. Since 1919 also saw the 18th Amendment to the Constitution bring Prohibition to the U.S., the Banfi firm imported olive oil and other Italian foods until the 21st Amendment in 1933 repealed Prohibition and allowed John Mariani Sr. to make use of his knowledge of fine wine.

 

Despite a major interruption caused by World War II, Banfi established itself as an importer of fine wine. The company took a step beyond that in 1967 when John Sr.’s sons, John Jr. and Harry, went to Italy in search of a new product. They met with a growers’ cooperative whose grapes produced a fizzy Lambrusco. They encouraged the growers to experiment with blends and techniques, eventually finding a combination that produced a wine that was sweet, that had a low level of alcohol and that offered a market used to carbonated drinks a wine they could embrace.

Banfi had a new product. And it was a hit.

“In 1969,” Goodrich said, “Banfi sold its first case of Riunite. In 1981, it sold 11.5 million cases.” Riunite — with its “On ice … so nice” campaign — was the No. 1-selling imported wine in the U.S. for 26 years. It still has annual sales of 2.5 million cases. By 1980, Banfi was importing more wine from Italy than France and Germany combined were exporting to the U.S.

In 1988, Banfi acquired the import rights to Concha y Toro, selling 90,000 cases a year. A decade later, sales were 3 million cases. Banfi also introduced the brand Walnut Crest, which was produced by an affiliate winery of Concha y Toro. Walnut Crest became Chile’s No. 2 brand and also one of Banfi’s, and America’s, top imports. Other Banfi imports include Bolla, Cecchi, Château Tanunda, Fontana Candida, Sartori and Trivento as well as three niche categories: Marsala from Florio, Wisdom & Warter sherry from Spain, and Stone’s Ginger Wine from England.

But the founding of the company and its growth as an importer are just part of the Banfi story. There is also the tale of Castello Banfi.

 

In the 1950s, John Jr. and Harry Mariani had realized that most Americans were not drinking wine. With Riunite, they changed that; they got Americans to fall in love with wine. But the brothers also realized something about the American market for the Italian wine then being produced. Although sales had grown large, further growth in the market had a handicap: Italian wineries in the middle of the 20th century were just not in the same class as the French. When people thought of fine wine, they thought of Burgundy and Bordeaux, not of any region in Italy.

The Mariani brothers were going to change that.

Much of the profit from the Riunite bonanza was invested in a new project for Banfi. Banfi was going to produce fine Italian wines of its own. The brothers would start from scratch, planting new vineyards, building a new winery and conducting the clonal research to bring Italian wines to world-class level.

The Marianis turned to the land of Tuscany and a grape of ancient origins but, in the mid-20th century, not for the most part of particularly high regard. The name of the grape, Sangiovese, reputedly comes from the Latin for “blood of Jove.”

Sangiovese traces its origins to the Etruscans, inhabitants of the Italian peninsula before the Romans. Among the explanations for its lack of regard in the mid-20th century was that it was often blended with inferior wine. On the other hand, one of its many clones, Brunello di Montalcino, had achieved a reputation as a very fine wine; but it also had become very rare. Winemaking is a very complicated blend, not just of land and weather but also of genetic research and careful attention to production — and of timing.

Banfi’s timing was again superb.

In 1978, the Marianis established Castello Banfi, which comprises 7,100 acres (and, indeed, a castle). The firm did extensive research on Sangiovese, starting with a possible 600 clones of the grape, concentrating on 180 of them, and selecting a final complementary 15 clones. Where the various clones are planted (the Tuscany land of Castello Banfi has 29 major soil zones) and in what proportion help determine the composition of the final product.

Both the process and the product have been successes.

Castello Banfi is the first winery in the world, as its website notes, “to be awarded international recognition for exceptional environmental, ethical and social responsibility (ISO 14001 and SA8000) as well as to be an international leader in customer satisfaction (ISO 9001:2000).”

Banfi also has received Winery of the Year recognition from both Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits Magazine. And among Wine Spectator’s Top 10 Wines has been Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Poggio all’Oro.

The winery makes several other Brunellos and sells a line called Banfi Tuscany, wines —such as Centine and a variety of Chiantis — that are more widely available and less expensive but also have been well-received.

 

Working with Banfi’s Italian operations and traveling to Italy four times a year is part of Marc Goodrich’s job. After graduating from UD in marketing, Goodrich worked at NCR Corp. and later had his own consulting firm. Compared to his earlier work, his job now, he admitted, “has a certain amount of romance.”

And, he pointed out another bonus coming from his work: “It’s nice to sit down and taste your own product. And it is enjoyable to be in a restaurant and see other people enjoying your product.”

But however enjoyable the job and the product, producing and selling wine is a business.

Banfi is big; for three decades, it has been the U.S.’s leading importer of wine. But, as Goodrich pointed out, it has customers — such as Kroger, Costco, Wal-Mart — that are huge. And some of its competitors are divisions of immense companies. “Giant companies can bring in a lot; and what sells, sells,” he said.

Banfi’s approach is different. “Everything in our portfolio has a strategy, has a purpose. We try to avoid overlap among our suppliers. We have to be selective.”

And, he said, “we keep looking for new products, new ideas. Ten years ago nobody drank Malbec; now it’s hot. Riesling was big in the 1970s; it’s now making a comeback.”

Katy Goodrich, as one of the 10 grandchildren of Banfi founder John Mariani Sr., has seen dramatic changes in wine and in Banfi. She also saw, a couple years ago when she and her husband, Marc, came back to UD for Reunion Weekend, dramatic changes in the University of Dayton. But, she said, “Sitting on a porch at 2 a.m., you realize some things don’t change.”

 

Businesses and universities change, but it is change that evolves around human beings, people whose nature is to gather, to talk, to remember, to plan, and to eat and drink together.

Tastes in wine change. Tastes in food change. But human beings continue to sit down together as family and friends for meals of food and wine. The wine business is, in many cases and in many ways, a family business. Katy Goodrich points to families running the companies of some of the wines that Banfi imports — the Sartori family whose wine bears its name and the Guilisasti family of Concha y Toro. “It goes beyond the companies,” she said of their relationships. “We see each other, do things together, vacation together.”

The Mariani family has now for three generations been part of an experience that dates back millennia. Although the business has grown large, Katy Goodrich said, “it looks like it will stay in the family.”

A number of members of the fourth generation, she said, are interested in the business. The oldest of the fourth generation — Marc and Katy’s son, Robert — has prepared by graduating from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and is now working at Empire Merchants, a large wine distributor. “He’s in the industry, learning about it,” Katy said. That’s much the same experience Katy’s cousin, Bill Whiting, had when he worked at Dayton’s Heidelberg Distributing.

Many a family business has had a rocky or fatal transition from one generation to the next. But, Katy Goodrich said, “We’ve been wise with long-range planning to ensure it can go smoothly.”

Mariani planning in the past has been highly successful. Wine in the U.S. used to be just something to drink and that only occasionally. But the Mariani family changed that.

“Now,” Marc Goodrich said, “wine is part of the meal, part of the culture.”

Thomas M. Columbus, retired editor of this magazine, is spending his newly found time away from the office stomping grapes in his garage.

Continued conversations

BANFI
Facts on the company, the wines it imports and the wines it produces — as well as a highly informative section (under Banfi Vintners) on wine in general
www.banfi.com

‘RIUNITE ON ICE … THAT’S NICE’
Videos of ads from the hugely successful advertising campaign of the ’70s and ’80s
www.riunite.com/americas_best.html

WINE TASTINGS
One of the best places to learn about and enjoy wine is at a wine tasting. The Dayton area alone has dozens each week at wine retailers, grocery stores and restaurants. If you live in or will be visiting Dayton, you can find information in the wine blog of the Dayton Daily News.
www.daytondailynews.com/o/content/shared-gen/blogs/dayton/wine/

WINE FOR DUMMIES
An easy-to-read, very useful text used by UD’s Tom Davis in UDI 350 — History and Evaluations of World Wines; Davis also points to the Dummies series’ books on red, white, French and Italian wines.

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