Abby’s Diary:  Seeing “Italy” the Banfi Way!

Anyone that follows me regularly on Facebook knows that I recently experienced a 16 day trip to Italy in May. I posted a lot of pictures to document the many awesome sights, sounds, and tastes. I was blessed to experience all of this with twelve of my husband’s top customers from Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC) and their beautiful wives. Along with my husband, who is the VP of Sales & Marketing for Banfi Vintners and two other Sr. Leadership members and their wives, our job was to ensure that RNDC’s experience on this trip would transform their feeling about Banfi from being just another wine company, to “Wine is not just what we make it’s who we are, our passion, and all we do.”

I arrived in Rome at 6:30 a.m. We got to the hotel by 8:30 a.m. and as expected there were no rooms to be had. Everyone was suffering from jet lag and simply wanted to shower, nap, and try to start to feel human again. As bad as we all felt physically, that vulnerability of not looking or feeling our best was actually a blessing because it allowed us to be unguarded and get to know each other’s true self, as we slumped over all the couches in the lobby of that hotel. Those hours in the lobby together helped us to begin the journey with the complete understanding that no matter what title we had, or how much money we made, we all shared exhaustion in common, and that made us equals and human. Only after every customer had a room did we take one for ourselves allowing us to display the Banfi core value of customers first. After everyone napped for a bit we officially kicked off the trip with a welcome toast at the roof top bar followed by a light dinner of eight courses of food paired with eight different bottles of wine. End of day one we were exhausted, stuffed full, and ready to see what other fun and learning would be had.

Day two included a three-hour walking tour of Rome, and then the real fun began when Sharon became our designated “price line negotiator” for all vendor purchases. Admittedly, watching a group of Baby Boomers try to use their newly acquired “selfie stick” effectively also provided priceless entertainment. After another big lunch, and more wine we were the guests of Enrico Cerulli, who’s family home sits right across the street from the American Embassy where President Trump would be just a few days later. He actually shared that he would get booted from his home to make room for snipers during the upcoming visit. As is the custom in Italy he also put out a spread of more food and wine, and as we sunned our sated bodies on his rooftop, we were informed that dinner would be in just three hours.

Facing another 8-course dinner and a restaurant owner singing out loud in Italian what I can only imagine was “these fools are paying my rent tonight”, we enjoyed more great food and comradery. The highlight of the evening though was a sing off between the restaurant owner and Luciano our tour guide and Banfi Wine Ambassador. Hands down Luciano killed it! But as Americans so as not to feel left out, we serenaded the remaining patrons with a chorus of “Gilligan’s Island” bringing down the house, as we were finally getting our Italy on!

Day three started with a long bus ride to Tuscany to tour Castello Banfi to sample the wines, tour the wine manufacturing facility, the on-site balsameria, and lunch at La Taverna, Poggio alle Mura ,and meet the second and third generation owners of Banfi Vintners, John Mariani, and Cristina Mariani-May, before being taken to the hotel to nap and freshen up before dinner at the castle later that night.

Imagine knocking on the gate of a Medieval castle and being greeted by a drum and bugle corps, followed by an exhibition of an authentic Italian flag throwing troupe before being escorted into a banquet hall with a table set for 30 that was so beautiful, it literally took your breath away. Add being graced at the head of the table with Dr. John F. Mariani Jr. and his daughter Cristina as our host and hostess, as well as resident historians of Castello Banfi, you knew the evening would indeed be something memorable. With each course that was served John would stand up and tell a little bit about the wine, how the business got started, his dedication to the science of enology, and the contributions to the industry Banfi was making because of their willingness to share all that they learned. Anyone in attendance would tell you they took away many things from that special evening. At a minimum, those things would have to include admiration of the commitment, contribution, and generosity of the Mariani family to both their guests and the wine industry as a whole. At 85 John Mariani could command a room and tell a joke better than most comedians today. The hospitality shown made everyone at that dinner feel like they were part of the Mariani family! The surreal awe of dining in a Medieval castle with a moonlit Tuscany as your backdrop was a moment you’d never forget. But most importantly that Banfi was indeed very special and more than just another wine company, it was a family business with such passion for greatness it would forever change how you thought about wine.

Day four took us on another bus ride to Florence for a free day of shopping the Ponte Vecchio, and the Piazza San Lorenzo for leather goods of every kind. I will say two things about this day, no one left without making a purchase or two, and the vendors at the market will never forget the negotiations that took place once Sharon pulled out her calculator!

Day five we left Florence to head to the Emilia- Romagna region of Italy to visit our friends at Riunite home of the Lambrusco varietal, Maschio Prosecco, and the best Parmesan cheese you will ever eat. At this point, we were joined by James Mariani the other Co-CEO of Banfi. We toured their facilities, sampled some wines, and lunched, before heading to our evening’s destination of Verona. Our hosts there were gracious, fun, and generous, giving all the renewed opinion that Riunite on ice is still nice and the new Sangria will be even better!

Day six the husbands went to the Bolla vineyards while the wives took Verona by storm. If you haven’t been to Verona it’s one on Italy’s best-kept secrets. Set on the river Adige it has a colosseum, the home of Romeo & Juliet, shopping like Rodeo Drive, all set with a backdrop that date backs to (550)BC. Our first night’s dinner was hosted by Andrea Sartori of Sartori wines in Dante’s plaza or more correctly Piazza dei Signori, and this nights was hosted by Marco Gobi from Bolla, a man who truly has the handsome good looks to be the poster boy for “The Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign except they sell beer, not wine. The biggest thrill of the day was sitting front and center having dinner across from the Colosseum when Verona’s soccer team Hellas Verona tied and moved up to Division 1 and the city and its football fans went wild. What a remarkable sight to behold!

Day seven featured cooking school at La Soffritta in Verona hosted by the most charming, funny, generous and engaging man in all of Verona, Andrea Sartori. Here he is President of his own winery and he took the time to Vespa to our cooking school to take photos, flour the faces of amateur gnocchi makers, and supply several bottles of expensive Amarone wine to make Amarone risotto, and ensure that we were all having a once in a lifetime experience. Later at his winery, he showed all the photos he took at a reception then we toured his winery, ate dinner, and tasted his many fine wines. Beside the extravagant hospitality throughout the entire day, one woman on the trip had a moment she will never forget, Dewi, a cancer survivor, celebrated her 50th birthday there being serenaded in Italian by Luciano and a huge chocolate cake. I had the pleasure of Deb and Bill that night as my dinner companions and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, and RNDC’s plan to develop more female leaders in the organization.

The last stop was Strevi, in the Piedmont region known for all wines sparkling in nature. The moment to remember there was the sabre ceremony to uncork a bottle of sparkling wine. James Mariani and Joe were pros at popping the cork. Juan, however, got a needs improvement on his technique! Don’t I know being married to him for 28 years! Another lovely buffet meal of meats, cheeses, and local produce capped with a dessert table to melt any woman’s heart but also featuring a cake with an American and Italian flag signifying that we had become over this journey one “BIG FAT Italian Family!”

Thank you to all our hosts, our guests from RNDC, and the Mariani family for making this an unforgettable trip of a lifetime. We work hard and we played hard with all the bus ride singing and conga line dancing, all the eating and fine wine tasting, the negotiating and shopping, but most of all the transformation from just another wine company to one that truly stands out from the rest. Arrivederci or until we meet again!

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