Castello Banfi’s CEO and ‘Woman of the Year’ Cristina Mariani-May on Italian Wines and the Industry’s Future

8/10/2018

Breakthru Beverage is proud to present our “Women in Wine” series — an ongoing effort to highlight the women shaping today’s evolving global wine industry. From winemakers to sustainability specialists to executives, these are the women among the vines to watch in 2018.

Winemakers often reminisce about “good years,” and 2018 has been a very good year so far for Cristina Mariani-May, the newly-minted president and CEO of Banfi Vintners and Drinks Business’ 2018 “Woman of the Year.” 

But, like any good year for wine, the seeds for 2018’s successes were planted long ago and carefully nurtured through the years, beginning with a semester spent abroad in Tuscany, in 1993, that kindled a lasting passion for Italian wines that would bring her to the top of her industry and put her in a position to help shape the future of the industry.

Tradizione Familiare

For Mariani-May, the pull toward Italian wine was strong, starting during her undergraduate studies. “I spent a year at Georgetown's campus in Florence,” she told Breakthru in a recent interview, “and fell in love with Tuscany and all things Italian.” After completing her MBA at Columbia Business School, she said “it was a no-brainer to join the family business, which of course includes the Castello Banfi estate in Montalcino,” a gorgeous community in south-central Tuscany. Mariani-May continued the tradition started by her grandfather, John Mariani Sr., becoming part of the third generation of Mariani winemakers. “From the beginning,” she said, “the family's goal has been to create pure, clean, healthy wines that people want to drink.” To that end, Mariani-May has already been successful in burnishing the company’s legacy and reputation with consumers.

Under Mariani-May’s leadership as CEO and in her previous roles, Castello Banfi has achieved ISO 14001, ISO 9001 and SA 8000 quality certifications. As Mariani-May explained, “it's important to look at winemaking from a big-picture, holistic perspective.  Every single detail that goes into the winemaking process, from the grape to the glass, has to be scrutinized. How can we be more efficient? How can we build processes that allow our associates to thrive? How can we give back to Mother Nature, because in the end we rely so much on Her to give us healthy fruit? In short, what can we do better that will help everyone and everything involved?”

New Growth

“It's always been about increasing the size of the pie, to get more people drinking wine,” she said, “rather than getting people to drink more wine. Wine is a natural, living product that reflects its origin and the care that has been taken to make it, so having this holistic mindset is, to me, the only way to go. We want to be proud of what we do and authentic in our approach.” 

Part of that approach means planning for the long term. The very long term. “Over the past 750 years, we are essentially only the third owners of the land, and the way I see it, we're just holding it for a while. It's my duty to make the land better than how we found it, so it can be passed on to future generations. The only way to accomplish that is to be as respectful as possible to the land and to continually look for ways to improve it. So in the end, ‘sustainability’ means that our processes need to not only sustain our existence, but to sustain through the next 750 years." 

Even against that kind of timeframe, Banfi has witnessed big changes to the industry, and to Italian wine in particular. “Banfi will be around for 100 years as of 2019,” Mariani-May told us, “but the most obvious change in my lifetime has been the popularity of wine, and improvement overall in wine quality.” She explained, “I don't think it's an accident that wine's popularity began to increase the same time that Riunite,” one of Banfi’s biggest wins, and the top Italian wine in the U.S. for four decades, “became the number one imported wine in the USA.”

She also credits “our pioneering efforts to use science and technology to improve wine quality in Italy—first with Riunite and then with Castello Banfi,” to help “raise the bar not only for Italian wine but for all wine around the world.” As a result, Mariani-May says, “we have far more Americans drinking wine than ever before, from far more producers and places than ever before.”

“Take Montalcino,” she said. “it was a barren wilderness with maybe two or three dozen producers when we first broke ground there in 1978. Today there are close to 300 Brunello producers [in the region]. It's the same thing throughout the world—there's a winery in every U.S. state, and wines from every corner of the world.” Mariani-May sees that expansion as a boon to the industry. “All that competition breeds excellence and innovation,” she said, adding that excellence and innovation “are two tenets of our overarching philosophy.”

Ultimately, she said, “there is a sea of wine available to the consumer, offering literally thousands of options, but eventually it will be the most authentic and innovative brands that survive and thrive in the future. At the end of the day the consumer wants to drink something that is pleasurable and has a real story behind it that resonates with the individual.”

Years to Come

In the years to come, Mariani-May sees more consumers upgrading their wines. “I'm seeing people trading up,” she told us. “If they've been enjoying a $12 wine, they're now looking for $15. If they've been in the $20 range, now they're looking to $30 and above.” She added, “the younger generation -- millennials -- are all about learning. They want to know everything about the wine they're drinking, they want to hear stories. They want to try varietals they've never seen before, from places they're unfamiliar with, in packaging that is attractive and different from what's traditional for the wine industry. They're all about discovering something for themselves, rather than being told what to drink through an ad or a high score.” Specifically, she said, “I'm seeing our Banfi La Pettegola Vermentino being embraced, as well as Eufloria cans. Those are two delicious wines that could very well be trendsetters.” 

Behind the scenes, Mariani-May told us a bit about her experience as a woman in a position of leadership in the industry, and the changes she’s seen throughout her career. “Change has been slow,” she said, “but it's happening, so I'm encouraged. The female perspective is so important in any industry, but it's even more important in wine when you consider that women account for close to 60% of all wine sales .” Overall, while she is optimistic about where the industry is now, she recognizes the work yet to come. “Certainly, I'm seeing more women climb the ladder in the wine industry in recent years,” she said, “but I'm hoping to see more females in upper-management and executive-level roles. I think we're getting there.”
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