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How an American Made an Italian Region Famous

John Mariani’s investment in Montalcino propelled it to superstar status

Jacopo Mazzeo By July 27, 2021
photo collage of Banfi wine bottles
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

Montalcino, a hilltop town in southern Tuscany, was once one of Tuscany’s most deprived areas, despite the fame of its Brunello wine. In the late 1960s, even its keenest vintners were struggling to capitalize on the wine’s potential.

The wine itself dated back to the late 19th century, when Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, of the Biondi-Santi estate, took a local clone of the Sangiovese grape — known locally as Sangiovese Grosso — and in 1888, created the Brunello di Montalcino. It was the first single varietal wine made in Tuscany. 

While these wines soon achieved legendary status, their audience consisted of a niche of connoisseurs, for decades. It was only towards the turn of the last century that Brunello became a commercial success, an achievement undersigned by an Italian American family, a Piedmontese oenologist, and a jaw-dropping investment.

A wine phoenix

The Marianis, an Italian American family, had been involved in the wine business for several decades. With great success, they made fortunes by importing Lambrusco from one of Italy’s largest co-ops, Cantine Riunite. “Then, in the ‘70s, my father had a dream,” says Banfi CEO, Cristina Mariani-May, speaking of her father and today Banfi’s chairman emeritus, John F. Mariani Jr. “He wanted to become a wine producer.” 

To fulfill his winemaking fantasy, John Mariani partnered with Piedmontese oenologist Ezio Rivella, who had already consulted for his firm for some time. 

Rivella eyed Montalcino as the project’s target.

Ezio Rivella, former winemaker, Castello Banfi. Photo courtesy of Banfi.

Montalcino appeared as the ideal vessel to decant the Marianis’ plentiful American dollars into. Its Brunello was well-known and highly respected amongst the experts, and in 1966, it was one of the first handful of Italian wines to be granted DOC status, denomination of controlled origin. Despite Brunello’s fame however, “Brunello di Montalcino was a phoenix,” says Rivella. “Sure, it was already a legendary wine, but did not have a real presence on the market.” He remembers Franco Biondi-Santi “telling me that he would make 13,000 bottles a year but only manage to sell half of them.” In the late ‘70s, Montalcino produced a mere 3% of today’s average output of Brunello, and Rivella recalls that most wineries would sell their wine in bulk, meaning they would sell it as anonymous juice. “It was unaged so they couldn’t even call it Brunello. When I said I wanted to produce 100,000 bottles a year, people told me I had gone mad.”

While Montalcino’s small, artisanal wineries had no financial means nor the necessary marketing skills to grow, Rivella believed that Banfi’s dollars could turn Brunello from a rare treasure into a commercial success. Furthermore, the town abounded with properties for sale, and the limited land price — the equivalent of about $770 per acre — meant that Banfi’s money could buy plenty of land. 

A sizeable investment

In 1977, determined to seize such a unique opportunity, Rivella pitched his Montalcino project to John Mariani.

“‘How much can you invest?’ I asked John,” Rivella recalls. “‘Perhaps we could do $100,000,000 spread over five years?’ he answered. Honestly, I thought our conversation was being purely academic.”

Yet, a week later, Rivella received a call from the bank, telling him that he was about to receive the equivalent of $2 million, the first installment of Mariani’s investment.

“I dropped all other commitments and decided to dedicate my life to Banfi and Montalcino,” says Rivella.

In a few years, John Mariani’s dollars and Rivella’s meticulous scouting work gave Banfi nearly 7,400 acres of land — the equivalent of 3,000 football fields. The property, which Banfi claims to be Europe’s largest contiguous agricultural estate, is dominated by the grandeur and charm of Poggio alle Mura castle. Rivella built his dream avant-garde winery near the castle, and inaugurated it in September 1984.

A panorama of Castello Banfi in Montalcino. Photo courtesy of I Franchini.

Mariani explains that the innovations that Banfi and Rivella had brought to Montalcino turned their Brunello into a wine whose taste profile perfectly suited the modern drinker. “We began at a time when everything in Italy started evolving from tradition. Angelo Gaja in Piedmont, Antinori in Chianti, and us in Montalcino,” she goes on. “Before, Brunello spent so much time in wood, it was harsh. Winemakers would say, this is how we do it here, this is how my grandfather worked … but vats were dirty, vines out of control. We, as outsiders, were able to think of wine drinkers first.”

The first releases arrived in the 1980s, but it took time for the wine to attract attention. Then came the famed 1995 and 1997 vintages, and high scores from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Italy’s Gambero Rosso. Soon, herds of visiting journalists were on their way. Amazed by Poggio alle Mura’s imposing, medieval beauty, they supplied Rivella’s project with plenty of media coverage.

Banfi had propelled Montalcino into oenospace, turning Brunello into one of the world’s most sought-after wines. Today, more than 40 years after the birth of its Montalcino project, Banfi’s Brunello still stands out, by combining Italy’s winemaking heritage with the quintessential embodiment of the American dream, while offering aspiring wine enthusiasts an affordable and widely available gateway to the world of fine wine.