The Science of Wine: How Banfi Wines Uses Innovation to Stay Ahead

Wine making is one of the most competitive businesses in the world. Similar to distilleries and breweries, it seems like a new, exciting winery opens its doors every week. It’s difficult to find a way to get ahead of the competition. That is unless you innovate and use science like the folks at Banfi Wines.

Banfi Wines

Banfi Wines was founded in 1919 by John Mariani, Sr. The business was inspired by his Italian aunt, Teodolina Banfi, who selected Pope Pius XI’s wines and was the first woman (who was not a nun) allowed in the Vatican. “Since Prohibition began immediately after the company’s founding, my grandfather began by importing bitters and liqueurs to the U.S. as medicinal products, eventually transitioning to import wines after Prohibition was repealed,” says CEO Cristina Mariani May.

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Business changed drastically when May’s father John, Jr. and her uncle Harry took over the company and introduced Riunite Lambrusco, a light, sparkling red wine. “That became – and has remained for four decades — the #1 imported red wine in America.”

© Banfi Wines

© Banfi Wines

Riunite’s success enabled them to buy land in Montalcino, which at the time (1978) was mostly unknown and under-developed as a wine region (meanwhile, many others were buying property in California). “It was there at Castello Banfi where we helped build the Brunello and Super Tuscan categories, which introduced Americans to a more elegant style of Italian wine than the table wine they were used to at the time.”

While they import almost every popular variety out there, they maintain a smaller brand portfolio that is filled with wines that both deliver value and are widely available. “Sangiovese is the key grape from Tuscany, capable of producing delicious daily drinkers and exquisite, collectible bottles,” says May. “Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna is making a comeback, and now enjoyed in both dry and fruity styles.”

A few years ago, they purchased Pacific Rim Winery in Washington State, where they are excited about Riesling’s potential, and created Rainstorm, a winery in Oregon that focuses on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. “Overall, we prefer to focus on quality over quantity at Banfi. In my opinion, our best wine is the Brunello di Montalcino—the most recently released vintage, 2010, is exceptional and cellar-worthy.”

Innovations Aplenty

Castello Banfi has inspired a renaissance in Italian winemaking through the years. “We were among the first to make wines more naturally and organically, resulting in healthier wines that were lower sulfites and histamines, and better for the environment.” These efforts led to being the first winery in the world awarded “triple ISO” — International Recognition for Exceptional Environmental, Ethical, and Social Responsibility (ISO 14001 and SA8000) and an International Leader in Customer Satisfaction (ISO 9001:2000). “Beginning in the 1980s Banfi pioneered groundbreaking clonal research as the first winery in Italy to study Sangiovese grape clones.” The Castello Banfi estate is a constellation of single vineyards that encompass over three dozen varying sub soils covering over seven thousand acres. They apply the finding of their clonal research, allowing the best clones to thrive in the most optimum terroir. This creates not only a consistant Brunello, but the ultimate of Montalcino Super Tuscans. “Most recently, we patented ‘hybrid’ fermentation tanks made of stainless steel and fine oak. The wines express a profound respect of their heritage; yet, have been perfected by innovation. What’s best of all is that we’ve shared our findings and research with the Italian winemaking community, to better production in the region as a whole.”

© Banfi Wines

© Banfi Wines

Hybrid Fermentation

Traditionally, wine is fermented either in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks – each type has their benefits and flaws. “Stainless steel tanks are easier to keep clean and allow the winemaker exact temperature control of the fermentation process – at the expense of flavor and character imparted by oak barrels.” Their patented hybrid tanks have stainless steel cap and base (for easy clean out, pumping over, temperature control) with body of removable French oak staves (allowing wine to breathe and develop complexity).

The Science Behind Cloning

In the early 1980s, Banfi worked with the Universities of Milan and Pisa on a groundbreaking research project focusing on the Sangiovese grape variety. “The project proved quite extensive as we discovered about 650 different clones of Sangiovese in the area surrounding Castello Banfi.” They narrowed that down to 180 clones, which were planted in a “test vineyard” on the Banfi estate and microvinified into separate lots that eventually identified 15 “super” clones of Sangiovese. “What makes Sangiovese so amazing it its complexity and variability, so the goal was to identify a group of clones that would work together to best express this wealth. The complete findings of our research was not only shared with our neighbors, but also published in an extensively detailed textbook titled Pursuit of Excellence that you can purchase on Amazon.”

Banfi is about increasing the pie and getting more people drinking wine. Even if you think you can’t get into wine drinking, May wants you to know that picking out a wine shouldn’t be as terrifying as it seems. “That’s why we offer wines for all palates, at all price points.” The intimidation involved in wine is obviously there. Many people can tell you a million facts about beer and spirits, but still can’t tell the difference between a pinot noir and a shiraz. “Wine can be intimidating, and we’d like to help empower you to make informed decisions (and impress your friends!).”

If you want to learn more about wine and get delicious, easy recipes and great wine pairing advice, May has a blog where she can explain everything a wine novice needs to know. BanfiBlog is the place to go to give May feedback as well as get all of the information you need to go from a wine newbie to a wine expert. You can also tweet at Banfi Wines (@banfiwines). “We’d love to hear from you and help you understand and enjoy wine.”