Among wine importers and producers Banfi is near royalty. The Old Brookville, N.Y., company was founded in 1919 by John Mariani. After spending his formative years in Italy learning about wine from his aunt Teodolinda Banfi – who was head of household for Pope Pius XI – he took his Old World knowledge to New York, where he opened a wine import business named in her honor.
Today, the 168-employee company imports wine from around the world, with annual net sales of $350 million. As one of the few wine importers, if not the only one, that also produce wines, Banfi is especially known for its Brunello wines coming out of its own Italian wine estate, Castello Banfi of Montalcino.
Despite this impressive pedigree, the company’s turning point came when, under the leadership of Mariani’s sons, it began importing Riunite in 1967 and, later, marketing it with its “Riunite on ice, so nice” campaign. The catchy ads, which ran on the three networks on prime-time, were designed to teach the public that wine was something that could be consumed regularly and not just with Italian or French cuisine. As one ad proclaimed, Riunite tastes so nice with hamburgers, tacos, chicken even salads.
“The whole goal with my father and uncle was to get more people to enjoy wine on an everyday basis,” says Cristina Mariani May, who, along with her cousin James Mariani, now runs the company. “The only way to do that was to branch out and bring in more a popular base.”
If Americans whet their palettes with these sweeter chilled wines, they surmised, they would eventually graduate to dryer, bolder, more expensive varietals. Riunite became the number one imported wine in 1976 and held that position until 2000. At its peak, U.S. sales of Riunite reached 11.5 million cases a year.
Whether because of Riunite or the proliferation of domestic winemakers, annual wine consumption in America more than doubled from one gallon per capita in 1970 to nearly 2.6 gallons per capita in 1982, according to the Wine Market Council. In 2011, it topped 3 gallons per capita.
The Riunite campaign certainly helped boost wine sales, says John Gillespie, president of the Wine Market Council, and CEO and founder of Wine Opinions. But it was part of a bigger trend of Baby Boomers opting for a glass of wine on occasions where they might have otherwise chosen beer or spirits, he adds.
After dipping in the early 1990s, wine consumption has been steadily growing. Still, Banfi believes there’s still plenty of room for growth, especially among consumers just coming of age. Earlier this summer, it began marketing two new Riunite wines – Riunite Sweet Red and Riunite Sweet White. Like the original, they have a price point that’s easy to swallow: $5.99 for a 750 ml bottle. But whereas the classic Riunite is a slightly bubbly Lambrusco, these wines are still varietals. And instead of promoting the wines to the masses on prime time, Banfi is targeting 20-something women with its “Just Chill” campaign that includes YouTube videos, mobile banner ads, and, of course, social media.
“Lifestyle brands are very hot,” says Mark Lyle, who is group marketing and communications director at Banfi. “Millennials are interested in a brand that speaks to them.”
This effort may help increase the share of regular wine drinkers, says Gillespie, though it’s no guarantee they’ll seek out Banfi imports as they branch out. Wine drinkers – and young wine drinkers in particular – are open to trying anything new. “This is the bane of wine marketers because there’s no such thing as brand loyalty,” he adds.
Still, as Mariani May sees it, the more wine drinkers who come to the table the better for Banfi. “Once you’re into wine,” she says “you rarely exit the category.”