The founder of Banfi Vintners was John Mariani, Sr., an American of Italian heritage whose company today is one of the world’s leading wine merchants. It also exports wines of its own vinification to over 85 countries around the world.
Competitors who knew him were quick to compliment his integrity and business acumen; his associates saw him as a quiet, conservative executive yet one who enjoyed “working the streets”; and his family still marvels over his universally classic taste. Anything truly beautiful sparked his creative flair – art, sculpture, antiques, music, especially the operas of Verdi and Puccini, and, of course, the noble wines of Europe.
For a time, he may well have questioned his wisdom in establishing a wine house in New York in 1919, a year before the unthinkable happened: America voted “dry,” and Prohibition became the law of the land. He persevered, however. Like any sound businessman, he simply adapted to conditions by concentrating on imported spices and other Italian specialties as well as the manufacture of medicinal bitters, an alcohol product permitted under the new law. These items kept the firm alive for the next 13 years.
With Repeal, Mr. Mariani wasted no time. He booked passage to Europe and sought agencies from renowned vintners in France, Germany and Italy, though the Banfi line eventually became mostly Italian in character. He helped to introduce America’s wine lovers to vintage Barolo, Gattinara, Brunello and Chianti Riserva.
Through a twist of fate, Mr. Mariani found himself exposed to Europe’s fine wine offerings early in life. He was born in 1895 in Torrington, Connecticut, but when he was nine years old, his father, a carriage maker, died. Financial circumstances then forced his mother to return to Italy with him and five siblings. They resided with her sister, Teodolinda Banfi, who, albeit unwittingly, planted the seeds for her nephew’s future choice of career. At the time,. She was serving as chief of the household staff of the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Achille Ratti, a position she continued to enjoy when he was elected Pope Pius XI in 1922. It seems that among her duties was the selection of the Pontiff’s wines, decisions that invariably proved a topic of conversation at the Banfi table. Her choices – and the reasons for them – did not escape her nephew’s attention. In subsequent years, he would quip with a wink that the experience unveiled the secrets of the Vatican cellars.
Mr. Mariani returned to America several years prior to the country’s involvement in World War I. At the age of 23, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was trained at the Fort Gordon School for Non-Commissioned Officers in Atlanta, Georgia, graduating with the rank of infantry sergeant. But he never saw battle. While on a troop ship bound for Europe, hostilities ended, and on the voyage home he began giving serious thought to the wine trade.
He located his office and warehouse on Spring Street, New York, a section of the city favored by importers, and he named the firm “Banfi” in honor of his mother and aunt. The times obviously were not ideal, hours assuredly long and growth slow, but these difficulties did not interfere with his courtship of a young American girl of Lithuanian descent, Eva Barr. They married in 1928 and were blessed with three children: Joan, John, Jr., and Harry. All three joined their father in the business on reaching adulthood.
Joan was the first, following her graduation from Cornell University in 1951, and she remained with the firm until her marriage five years later. John, Jr., also a Cornell graduate and possessed of much of his father’s creative flair, entered the family firm in 1956 after a two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Europe. Harry came on staff in 1959. “When I was graduated from Colgate University,” he says, “my father offered his congratulations and told me to take a week off before reporting to the warehouse. He believed in brief vacations.”
John, Sr., not only found his sons to be great assets to the business but worthy successors. He turned the firm over to them in 1963.
John Mariani, Sr., died on December 24, 1972. The preeminence of Banfi in the wine world today is a fitting tribute to his memory.