Arts & Entertainment

Dowd On Drinks: Banfi, Emiliana Sending New Names to U.S. Market

James W. Mariani is fond of analogies.

He likens his family's Banfi wines to writing, the basics available to anyone but the finest expressions of both created only through imagination and meticulous efforts.

He also likens the differences in those expressions to the differences in dance styles, comparing the impact of one bold wine to Gene Kelly's muscular style and the nuances of another to Fred Astaire's ethereal moves.

Mariani, a Colgate- and Cornell- educated New Yorker who is co-CEO of Castello Banfi with cousin Cristina Mariani-May, spends much of his time away from the company's world headquarters in Old Brookville, N.Y., proselytizing its wines.

In the industry, of course, not a lot of proselytizing is necessary. Castello Banfi has been named "International Winery of the Year" an unprecedented four times at VinItaly's International Enological Concourse, which also named it "Italy's Best Wine Estate" 11 times since 1994.

I spoke with Mariani before a wine luncheon for the trade in upstate New York the other day.

"I'm as proud of our certifications as I am of our wines," he said, displaying certificates attesting to Castelo Banfi's completion of rigorous international examinations in the areas of sustainable agriculture, environmental responsibility and, unique among wineries, social accountability.

After living in Italy during his teen years, John Mariani Sr., born in Torrington, Conn., founded the company in New York in 1919 as a wine importer. He named the company after his inspiration, an aunt named Teodolinda Banfi, who was hospitality manager for Pope Pius XI, the "between the wars pope" who served from 1922 to 1939.

When Mariani's sons, Harry and John, took over the company, they became the importer of Riunite Lambrusco, the top import to the U.S. market for a remarkable 26 years, thanks in great measure to a taste for Italian wines developed among GIs during World War II. But, they wanted to upgrade the quality of wine they thought would sell even better. To that end, they purchased land in Tuscany, broke ground for their first plantings in 1978, and in 1984 dedicated the Castelo Banfi Estate.

Castello Banfi's signature wines include the likes of single-vineyard reserve Poggio all'Oro and cru Poggio alle Mura Brunellos. However, several wines new to the American market are worthy additions. They are from both Banfi and from the Mariani family's partnership with the Guilisasti family of Concha y Toro in the Emiliana winery in Chile.

Emiliana, like Banfi a very eco-conscious company, has been marketing wines to the U.S. under the Walnut Crest brand name.

I was particularly taken by one wine from each winery:

— 2001 Brunello de Montalcino: Any wine that can hold its ground with the spices, tomatoes and cheese of a steak forno is a big, bold wine. This 100 percent sangiovese is aged at least two years in wood, then further matured in the bottle for 8-12 months before release. Deep garnet color, soft and velvety mouthfeel yet intense and alive with spice, stone fruit notes and a licorice. Retails for about $60.

— 2005 Emiliana Coyam: I am normally skeptical about any blend of more than four grapes. It takes a wonderful palate and a deft hand to make such a marriage work. Winemaker Alvaro Espinoza has both as shown by this blend of 45 percent syrah, 27 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent merlot, 11 percent carmenere and 3 percent petit verdot. Both French and American oak is for maturation. The finished product looks syrupy with its bold color, but flows cleanly and wraps the tongue in a pleasant coverlet of fruit flavor, the wood nuances subtle. Coyam has been selling for three years in Europe and South America but is new to the U.S. market this year, at a suggested retail price of $30.

Go to dowdtastingnotes.com for a full rundown on the Banfi and Emiliano wines samples at the luncheon.

             

              (William M. Dowd covers food, drink and destinations at dowdsguides.com)

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