Travaasa Austin Certified Sommelier, Edward Morgan, embarked on a two-week long journey through Italy, learning the intricacies of Italian winemaking along the way. His adventure has taken him through Piedmont, Veneto, Verona, Emilia Romagna, Reggio Emilia, Abruzzo, and Montalcino. Here is his final excerpt from his incredible Italian saga highlighting his time in Banfi.
When John Mariani Sr. started Banfi Wine imports in 1919, I wonder if this is what he had envisioned – a company so vast in reach, not only in the proliferation of the Italian food and wine culture, but also in the enhancement of knowledge through John and Christina Mariani’s concerted efforts in philanthropic and educational endeavors. They have been pioneers of the region, extending a free exchange of information to fellow vintners and viticulturalists.
The drive that morning to the vineyard was a quiet one. The long days and late nights definitely began to wear on us. It was peaceful though, to share the calm with my new friends. It was a beautiful morning of late spring, and the sun braised the travertine stone buildings and bathed the vineyards in gold as if they had been dipped in amber and hung to dry amidst the morning breeze. The sun began to rise high in the distance as we arrived in the vineyards that lay stretched out among the hills below Mt. Amiata.
Banfi covers nearly 7,100 acres of land, just shy of the size of the island of Manhattan. The Mariani family has nearly 2,600 acres of land under vine and 800 acres of olive groves, which encompasses 41 farmhouses throughout half a dozen villages. Once upon a time, the enologists under Banfi employment unearthed a five million year old whale after finding an ancient Shark tooth. Did I mention much of Montalcino was once part of the Tyrrhenian Sea?
The entire estate is something out of a fairytale with the Castle of Poggio Alla Mura as the centerpiece, built in various strides starting in 1,000 A.D. representing various layers of architectural history. Inside lies an intricate under ground cellar that houses every vintage Banfi has ever produced and the most complete collection of hand blown glass in the world. Some pieces dating back to the first century – bottles from the Etruscan era, 18th century Lattimo crystal and of course Lafitte’s first bottlings. Off the main strata, a balsmaeria incubates a bevy of Banfi’s 12 year method of five wooded balsamic for the world to enjoy. In keeping with much of the rest of Italy, Alla Mura endured hardships during the war, and, as we took in the property, I noticed a large scar across the outer wall of the castle. Lars told us during WWII, the German’s attempted to destroy the castle upon their departure. It is impressive to see how short sighted the world can be.
We ate lunch at La Taverna, a classic Tuscan restaurant in the shade of the castle carved out of the old Brunello barrel room where vaulted archways once cradled the sleeping vintages of Sangiovese. We enjoyed osso bucco, pinci pasta and, of course, a sliver of my favorite hazelnut delight, bonnet. John Mariani joined a group of tourists from Bali at an adjacent table but promised dinner would be something of an intimate setting.
We rallied just before sunset at our hotel and headed to John and Christina’s home on the hills just below the castle. John’s wife Christina welcomed us as we arrived. Not that it ever felt that we were anything less then family friends throughout this trip, the Mariani’s have a way of making you feel well received through the warmth of their words and genuine attitude in their smiles, as if they’d been expecting you for some time and now you are home. Despite the sheer magnitude of the estate and reach of the Banfi Import Company, John and Christina live in a modest villa no bigger than a couple thousand square feet – the difference being they sit on 7,100 acres of the rolling Tuscan wine country. We shared a glass of sparkling wine and watched the sun slip into the horizon as we got to know our new friends.
We headed to supper just above the tavern in a private dining area I assume is reserved for friends of the Mariani family. As per the usual, an exceptional dinner ensued flagging the meal with beautiful presentations of risotto fondant, veal fillets with fresh porcini mushrooms scallops in burrata cheese, and, for the finale, seven layer chocolate bars washed down with Rosa Regale. At one point, Lars adjourned to the cellar and returned with a bottle of Banfi’s finest – a 1978 Burnello di Montalcino, the first vintage of Sangiovese under the Banfi flag. It was generous, yet elegant with soft cherry notes wrapped in sweet basil and supple tannins. I recalled earlier in the day, when touring the barrel room, something Franco Barnebei, chief enologist at Banfi, said, “Time, patience and wood soften the wine.” This is the result of such patience, a masterpiece of flavor.
It was getting late, and John and Christina bid us adieu as we adjourned in the courtyard for a final toast of Grappa. We admired the stars off in the distance and toasted one another on a trip well spent, reminiscing about the adventure and making our jailhouse promises to really make an effort to stay in touch. As is life though, way leads on to way, it is difficult in an industry of gypsies to hold true to these decrees; I hope this one sticks. Over the past ten days, it has been a journey. I have traveled halfway around the world and put hundreds of miles beneath my feet. I feel forever changed for having been a part of such an experience, seeing not just the culture of another country but also the life’s work of a community, and in such a raw perspective.
Many times, I have been asked, “Why wine? Why be a somm?” It has never been an easy question to answer as the rationale is constantly in flux, and I sometimes even question my path. I think this is it though. In a world where seldom we learn about geography through anything other than war, and, more often than not, we step out of our own ecosystem only to abide the same comforts of home, this culture affords you the opportunity for so much more – the opportunity to achieve a sense of place on this plane of existence, to understand this reality. The word terroir comes to mind. Much as a vine is indicative of its environment, we too are a quotient of our existence. It is how we choose to gain wisdom and complexity that makes all the difference in the final product of our lives.
When I first met John less than 48 hours ago he explained now is a time when there seems to be a particular need for friends of wisdom and truth to join together – something a much wiser man once said to a younger more malleable fellow.
John has a statue of Einstein in front of the winery. Fitting, I think.