Life Lessons from Harry Mariani

Wine lovers can gain from heeding Banfi president's business tips
Jan 8, 2016

Harry Mariani died this week, at 78. As former president of Banfi Vintners, he had a long, successful career and made a significant impact on the U.S. wine business. But he was a quiet man, happy to let his charismatic older brother, John, take the spotlight.

I met both Marianis more than 20 years ago, but I couldn't say I really knew either man well. John was a showman. Harry played his cards very close to his vest. But their achievements testified to their business acumen.

What were the keys to Harry's success? When his son James called me to tell me about his passing, I asked him what lessons he had learned from his father. James and John's daughter, Christina Mariani-May, are now co-CEOs of Banfi Vintners, and as the older generation did before them, they are finding their way to work together.

"Harry was a master at communication, with colleagues, friends-anyone he would meet," James responded. "He advised me to listen carefully and supportively to anyone at any time, then listen more, think deeply, and finally be short and confident in recommending a solution before decision-time."

As a journalist, I take that advice to heart. Over the years, I have learned that information, and even wisdom, can come from any source, so long as I ask good questions and listen carefully to the answers.

I found another of James' memories equally compelling: Harry's philosophy extended to "right action" as well.

"If some of your solution is adopted, then act as if 100 percent was adopted," was Harry's approach, according to James. "Even if none of your solution is adopted, act as if 100 percent was adopted. Because such is not only an act of a gentleman and a professional, but you will be warmly invited back for the next conference or decision point."

We live today in a polarized world, where the stakes are all too often all or nothing. Even wine lovers frequently argue that there's only one right way to make authentic wine, whether the issue is manipulation in the winery or alcohol levels in the wine. Natural wine lovers reject California Cabernets. Mass-market Pinot Grigio drinkers think orange wines are weird.

I think Harry Mariani would say it doesn't have to be that way-especially in the day-to-day world of winemaking, where factors like weather patterns are beyond our control. In wine, as in life, demanding that everything, or anything, be done 100 percent your way is unrealistic and ultimately self-defeating.

We grow by learning from others, and progress comes in small steps. Trying wines with an open mind is a simple but significant way to begin to understand a complex world and find common ground with others. Is half a loaf really better than none? That approach seemed to work pretty well for Harry.

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