What does sustainability mean in Montalcino?

Q&A with Cristina Mariani-May, family proprietor of Castello Banfi estate in Montalcino and president and CEO of Banfi Vintners.

Agatha Pereira recently interviewed her at the Climate Change Leadership conference in Porto, Portugal.

AP: Everyone's talking about sustainability in wine these days but definitions vary a lot. What is your definition?

CMM: My definition is really to be keepers of the land in the sense that the land that we're on in Montalcino is one of the largest contiguous properties in all of Italy, the Castello Banfi estate, but only one-third of that is planted to vineyards. We have a 12th century castle that crowns the property.

Cristina Mariani-May

The castle's been just in the hands of three owners since the 12th century. The way I look at it is, myself and my family are just here to take care of the land for a few generations, and then hopefully, as I see it, we'll leave it just as healthy or healthier than when it was back in the medieval ages.

Being that our land is agricultural, it's very important that we protect the land and also manage it very delicately where the vines are because also managing it delicately allows us to make the best wines possible, the best Sangiovese in Brunello di Montalcino, but it also means protecting the rest of the land because two-thirds of it is forest, it's durum wheat, were we make our own pasta, and olive groves and plum trees. It's very much giving back to the natural resources that Tuscany and Italy is so famous for.

AP: You make pasta as well?

CMM: Yes, we make our own artisanal pasta from the durum wheat, and we started planting that recently as well because not every bit of soil is good for vines. If it's not a hunting preserve, we grow pasta. We're also one of the largest growers of plums and producers of prune. We dry our own prunes in the European community. It's really a wonderful climate for all different types of agriculture.

AP: Can the wine industry uphold sustainability with so many vineyards not being profitable?

CMM: It's going to be a big challenge. What's realistic is that we have open dialogue with our neighboring producers to be able to share best practices because not every producer and not particularly smaller producers, who only have a few hectares, are able to experiment to the same degree that we can when you're more diversified in your holdings and in the wines you produce.

What we can expect is an open-mindedness, an awareness of sustainability from most people who are in agriculture. They appreciate the land and the land is our livelihood and what we produced, but you can't expect everybody to be on the forefront, you just can expect them to do what's within their means.

Our job at Banfi is to share as much as we can with our neighboring producers, because I like to say that all ships rise when the tide comes in. Even if our neighbor who has two hectares can produce a better wine that's more natural for the environment, it's going to protect our vineyards as well, which are right next door, and collectively, the territory or the zone or the country will have better wines and be seen as more sustainable and friendlier to the environment.

AP: Beyond the vineyard, whose responsibility is to drive sustainability, do you think?

CMM: It's really a team effort. We're very fortunate that we have a very global team that's very internationally focused in the sense that they're aware of global issues. Of course, it has to come from the top. When I say the top, it comes from the agronomist, the winemakers, the owners, the commercial directors, but it has to translate all the way down to the person who's working the vineyards because if they don't really believe in it, they're going to take the shortcuts too.

I really fully believe that it takes time to get a culture that thinks that way, it doesn't happen overnight, but there's a place to start and the starting is you'll share it with your team. Your team is your family. When you make wines, everybody's really involved in it. From our winery workers to how much water we use when we're cleaning the barrels to what types of wood we use to which suppliers we use, it's really all along the chain, if you think about it.

It's just a communication and it's a message, and I think it's also a pride and a recognition when people are doing it right. It's a pride in working together as a team.

That's something that I'm very proud of in my family business and being a woman in business. I'm really sensitive to incorporating everybody into the mission and what we're doing and being very open and honest and authentic about that.

AP: Do you think certifications are useful to end-consumers?

CMM: I do think they're important. Again, it's a seal of authenticity. Castello Banfi was one of the first vintners in the world, was the first vintner, to receive triple ISO certification, exceptional environmental, ethical, and social responsibility. Not every consumer recognizes, that but we put that on the back of every bottle of our wine, on the label. When people want to look for it, they see that as a mark of good standing in a company that they feel healthy about and good about, and not just consumers but also the trade.

The trade is just as important. We have to reach every level in the wine business. I think that consumers, more and more, are picking it up, especially the new generation of drinkers, millennials, they are. They're very aware of it, and I think they would buy one product if it's certified from an outside organization rather than just saying it ourselves. It's a third-party endorsement.

In today's day and age where there're so many messages getting sent to consumers, it's just flooded with information, coming back to simple messaging like a certification is very clear, also, to understand. It's a symbol or a recognition without a lot of flooding of too much information.

Some other recent posts you might be interested in:

Climate models, data, short term forecasting and sustainability

Is radical transparency a step too far for the wine industry?

The story of sustainability, organics and bio-dynamics, at Chateau Palmer. CEO Interview.

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