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Harry Mariani, Pioneering Importer and Champion of Italian Wine, Dies at 78

Alongside his brother, the former Banfi president brought both Riunite and Banfi Brunello di Montalcino to America
Photo by: Emily Wilson
Harry Mariani (left), with his son James, niece Cristina and brother John, at Banfi Vintners' Long Island headquarters.

Mitch Frank
Posted: January 6, 2016

Harry Mariani, the former president of Banfi Vintners who helped introduce many Americans to Italian wine, died Jan. 5 in Huntington, N.Y. He was 78.

Working with his older brother John, Mariani built their family wine import firm into a major player beginning in the 1970s and '80s with a sparkling red Lambrusco called Riunite. Its success enabled the Marianis to establish their own winery in Montalcino, Castello Banfi, helping spark an American love affair with Brunello.

"My father made a great contribution to wine culture and trade, particularly in his earlier years, when wine quality management was nowhere near as developed as today," said James Mariani, Harry's son and current co-CEO of Banfi Vintners. "This expanded the opportunity for consumers to try and enjoy a good bottle of wine, especially from Italy."

Harry Mariani was born Jan. 21, 1937, in New York, the youngest child of John Mariani Sr. and his wife, Eva. John Sr. had established Banfi in Greenwich Village in 1919, importing wine and food for Italian-American communities.

Harry spent most of his childhood on Long Island, in Garden City. Tall and lanky, he was named to Long Island's All-Scholastic Basketball Team in high school before attending Colgate University and graduating with a degree in economics in 1959. Later that year he married his high-school sweetheart, Anne.

He had joined the family business right after graduation, joining his father and brother John Jr. Banfi’s focus was now wine, and Harry began coordinating marketing and sales in the U.S. His brother, who had traveled in Europe during two years in the Army, focused on finding new sources for wine overseas and in California. Their father handed off control in 1964—John became CEO while Harry was president.

The brothers had a symbiotic relationship that made the company go. John was the ideas guy, always bubbling with inspiration. Harry, soft-spoken and level-headed, was the practical one who crunched the numbers and made the ideas work.

While Banfi had some success importing high-end wines, the brothers wanted something that would appeal to a wider audience. In 1967, John traveled to Emilia-Romagna and met with a farmer’s cooperative called Riunite about importing Lambrusco. Harry and John specified that they wanted a special version of the wine for American palates—slightly sweeter and more carbonated. “Ultimately, we hope this will be another Coca-Cola,” Harry later told New York magazine. “We want this to be in the fridge along with the beer and soft drinks and orange juice." Propelled by ads with the tagline, “Riunite on ice—That’s nice!”, by 1983 Riunite was the No. 1 imported wine in America, with Banfi bringing in 11 million cases.

Lambrusco’s success allowed the brothers to realize another dream—to not just import wine, but make it. In the mid-1970s, they hired Italian enologist Ezio Rivella to scout for vineyards in Tuscany. In 1977, they bought 4,500 acres outside the small town of Montalcino and established Castello Banfi.

It was a surprising location. While Biondi-Santi and a few others produced well-regarded Brunellos, the wines were largely unknown in America. Ever the dreamer, John saw potential. "It was a beautiful area—ideal for viticulture," he told Wine Spectator in 2007. Harry remembered another reason: "It was the one place in Tuscany where you could buy large tracts of vineyards."

The Marianis invested huge amounts of money and manpower. Rivella focused on new methods in the vineyard and cellars to produce wines that could be drunk in less than a decade but would still age. In the 1990s, Brunello became Italy’s new blockbuster wine in America, thanks in no small part to the Marianis' efforts.

Mariani served as a trustee of Colgate University from 1987 to 1996 and was honored with the designation Trustee Emeritus. A longtime champion of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, he served as a trustee of the Cornell Society’s Foundation. He also served on the Board of Directors of Huntington Hospital.

Mariani is survived by his wife, Anne, his daughters Ginny Kitt and Katy Goodrich, his sons James (currently Banfi's co-CEO) and John, as well as eight grandchildren, and his siblings Joan and John.

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