Meet CEO Gutsy of Banfi, dedicated to a better world of wine

When researchers from Castelo Banfi winery in Tuscany have discovered new vine clones that would produce better and healthier Sangiovese vines, they have not kept the information for their own exclusive use. Instead, they shared it with their competitors, aiming to improve quality and sustainability across the region. Similarly, when Banfi CEO Cristina-Mariani May, 3rd family generation owner of the estate and Banfi Wines, took on the role of running the company in 2018, she hasn’t just stuck to the same 100-year-old strategy. Instead, she drastically changed it for new management, which many doubted was the right business move.

However, three years later, and after surviving a global pandemic, May’s bold moves and visionary insight paid off. Banfi achieved 25% revenue growth in 2021, with positive trends continuing through 2022. Today, the company is focused on a streamlined portfolio of 4 wine brands, distributed in 100 countries .

“Our main message at Banfi,” May reported in a recent online interview, “is that we are dedicated to a better wine world. We want to make sustainable wines, do research, and share that research with others. wineries around the world, so that wine is recognized as one of life’s true treasures.

Changing Banfi’s Traditional Strategy – Despite Opposition

“We’re an Italian-American family,” May says. “The company was started by my grandfather, John Mariani Sr., born in America but raised in Italy by his aunt Banfi. She taught him everything about Italian cuisine, wine, olive oil, bitters and other products. So when he returned to New York in 1919, he started an import company and called it Banfi.

Over the years, the company has expanded to import wines from other countries, especially the best wines from France, as well as major brands such as Ruinite and Concho Y Toro. Eventually, May’s father, John Mariani Jr., took over the helm and continued to grow the business. By the time May assumed the position of President and CEO in 2018, they were importing many different wine brands from around the world and owned several wineries in Italy, including Castelo Banfi in Montalcino, dating back to 1438.

In 2019, on its 100th anniversary, Banfi had grown so big that the family had to make some tough decisions. They received a takeover offer from LVMH, the French luxury conglomerate; however, May decided to take the company in a different direction – back to her Italian roots. So they streamlined their portfolio from 2 million cases of value-priced wine to 300,000 cases, with a focus on their own exclusive Banfi labels and 3 other sustainability-focused brands (Natura, Rainstorm and Pacific Rim).

“Our heart and soul have always been Italian,” she says, “and I felt like we weren’t doing enough justice to other vendors. In the end, it was the right choice for our business, but it was difficult. We had to cut the workforce in half. We’re more of a flat, agile global organization now.

His decisions appear to be bearing fruit with the 25% increase in 2021 revenues. In addition, Castelo Banfi, an early adopter of sustainability and climate research, has upped his game in this area, putting even more emphasis on research and sharing, with the aim of creating a better world of wine.

Castelo Banfi – First winery to obtain ISO 14001 environmental certification

Castelo Banfi is arguably the most famous of the Italian Banfi vineyards. Located just outside the hilltop village of Montalcino, it produces world-class Brunellos, Rossos and Super Tuscans. Banfi also operates other estates throughout Tuscany and Piedmont, creating a variety of red, white and rosé wines. However, it was in Castelo Banfi that the company began to focus on sustainability, even before it was a popular topic. This allowed them in 2007 to be the first cellar worldwide to receive ISO 14001 certification for environmental management and SA8000 for the implementation of socially acceptable practices for employees.

“We have always focused on the preservation of vineyard environments and social issues,” May reports. “Soil protection is particularly important, because we get rich nutrients from calcareous soil. This is what makes Montalcino’s Sangiovese so unique. And we are always researching. For example, archaeologists have found shark teeth and a 5 million year old whale fossil in our vineyards right next to the castle.

In addition to soil and clone research to create healthier vineyards, Castelo Banfi has installed solar panels and water-saving measures to conserve energy. They also maintain 1/3 of their land in virgin forests, with another third planted with wheat, olive and fruit trees to promote biodiversity.

Castelo Banfi was also an early adopter of lightweight bottles to reduce their carbon footprint. In fact, since reduction in bottle weight in 2009, from 570 grams per bottle to 360 grams today, they saved more than 26 million kilowatt hours of energy and 6,000 tons of raw materials.

All these efforts must bear fruit, as Castelo Banfi recently received the Equalitas certification, for its achievements in multiple aspects of sustainability: environmental, social and economic. Egalitas focuses on a more holistic approach to sustainability.

“We are constantly evolving,” says May. “The future of food and wine is very important to our business. Concerned about the evolution of climatic conditions, we are continuing our research on clonals and trellises, as well as innovation in the cellar, such as our hybrid stainless steel and wood vats. And we believe in sharing that research with others around the world.

Elisha A. Tilghman