At Banfi Winery, Tuscan Meets Tudor — WSJ — WSJ

Converting a Neglected Estate into a Winery’s Headquarters

Lisa Selin Davis

Oct. 16, 2014 11:38 a.m. ET

As with good wine. it takes time, skill—and some luck—to uncork the potential of a piece of real estate, but the Mariani family of winemakers is well schooled in patience and persistence.

“The ivy was 4 feet thick on the walls,” said Mr. Mariani’s nephew, Robert Whiting, director of estate and vineyard for Banfi.

ENLARGE

Banfi maintains some vines on the Long Island property for educational purposes. Adam Friedberg for The Wall Street Journal

Most people wouldn’t have envisioned corporate headquarters, said Mr. Mariani’s daughter and the company’s chief executive, Cristina Mariani-May. “My father saw the unkempt beauty of the house—all its potential.”

What her father had to work with was a 63-room house, with 13 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms, plus outbuildings on the estate’s 52 acres that included a teahouse, dovecote, men’s and women’s bathhouses, and a gatehouse.

Ms. Mariani-May lives in a house her husband built on an adjoining property. “My kids ride their bikes back and forth,” she said.

Banfi was started in 1919 by John Mariani Sr. and his three brothers in New York’s Little Italy. They imported wines from Italy, Germany and France. The company was named for Mr. Mariani’s aunt, Teodolinda Banfi, who, according to family lore, worked as Pope Pius XI’s head of household staff, selecting wines for the Vatican. The company survived Prohibition by making medicinal Amaro, Italian bitters purported to have stomach-soothing properties.

ENLARGE

The vintners filled a once-empty manor wine cellar with 6,000 bottles of wine. Adam Friedberg for The Wall Street Journal

Banfi grew in the 1960s and 1970s, importing middle class-friendly Riunite and making less acidic versions of traditional Italian wines on their 7,000 acres in Tuscany.

By then, John Jr. had assumed operations and was on the search for Long Island headquarters that evoked the villas and châteaus in which business was done abroad.

Rynwood fit. It was built in 1927 by Sir Samuel Agar Salvage, an English knight who made his fortune in the textile business. “In the 1920s when you made a lot of money you got yourself a little cottage on the North Shore,” said Mr. Whiting.

The property had belonged to several members of the gentry. In 1960, Frederick William Irving Lundy, who owned the original Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, restaurant Lundy’s, bought the house.

“In the 17 years he owned it he never once stayed overnight,” said Mr. Whiting. Mr. Lundy used it for his collections, including four grand pianos (none of which he played) and the fence that once surrounded the Coney Island Steeplechase.

ENLARGE

A former chapel room has been turned into an office for John Mariani Jr. the chairman emeritus. The Mariani family, from left: Cristina Mariani-May, Bob Whiting, Virginia Mariani and James Mariani. Adam Friedberg for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Lundy died in 1977 and his estate put the then-dilapidated house up for sale. The only offer came from a developer who wanted to raze it and build 26 homes. The mayor at the time, S. Reed Anthony, was married to the daughter of the original owners. “He didn’t want his wife’s childhood home destroyed,” said Mr. Whiting, so he brought John Jr. to see it.

By 1981, Banfi had purchased the home and had started the restoration. It took one year and 200 employees, including Mr. Whiting. He moved into the estate’s 1,400-square-foot gatehouse to oversee the restoration. He still lives there part time.

In the main house, they replaced wiring, ripped out coal furnaces to upgrade to oil, and had slate roof tiles custom cut to fit a graduated pattern. They cleaned and repointed thousands of limestone blocks. It took six months and five men to just to strip the paint in the living room. “One guy spent a month using toothpicks to get the paint out,” said Mr. Whiting.

The 400-square-foot wine cellar, empty when they bought the house, needed less work. It now holds 6,000 bottles of wines, including some large format bottles of Super Tuscans and Brunellos that date to the 1970s.

ENLARGE

A sitting room in Banfi headquarters. Adam Friedberg for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Mariani tapped interior designer Mark Hampton, who specialized in English country décor, to redecorate. The house is furnished in an eclectic mix of European antiques—Chippendale, Queen Anne, Italian Renaissance—many gathered by Mr. Mariani on his trips abroad, with a few modern touches. There are Scalamandre carpets, tapestries from Harvey Firestone’s estate auction, and dining chairs covered in the official fabric of the Medici family, a Missoni-like zigzag.

A few touches of the decorators’ showcase remain. Local art teacher Charlie Morrongiello —Mr. Whiting’s former high-school instructor—painted a black-and-white mural of African animals on the walls of the garage, which they chose to keep.

In 1982, Banfi moved its offices into the estate. There have been some updates since. What had been a billiards room when Rynwood was a residence is now a boardroom where, next to a seventh-century Tuscan table and eighth-century Tuscan chairs, is a 90-inch television. “I’d like a take a baseball bat to that,” Mr. Whiting admitted.

Seven members of the family still run the business. They won’t discuss the cost of saving Rynwood. Instead Mr. Whiting tells inquirers, “We bought it for a reasonable price and spent a lot of money restoring it.”

Corrections & Amplifications

In an early version of this article, the size of the manor was incorrectly given as 4,000 square feet. It is 40,000 square feet.

Converting a Neglected Estate into a Winery’s Headquarters

Lisa Selin Davis

Oct. 16, 2014 11:38 a.m. ET

As with good wine. it takes time, skill—and some luck—to uncork the potential of a piece of real estate, but the Mariani family of winemakers is well schooled in patience and persistence.

“The ivy was 4 feet thick on the walls,” said Mr. Mariani’s nephew, Robert Whiting, director of estate and vineyard for Banfi.

ENLARGE

Banfi maintains some vines on the Long Island property for educational purposes. Adam Friedberg for The Wall Street Journal

Most people wouldn’t have envisioned corporate headquarters, said Mr. Mariani’s daughter and the company’s chief executive, Cristina Mariani-May. “My father saw the unkempt beauty of the house—all its potential.”

What her father had to work with was a 63-room house, with 13 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms, plus outbuildings on the estate’s 52 acres that included a teahouse, dovecote, men’s and women’s bathhouses, and a gatehouse.

Ms. Mariani-May lives in a house her husband built on an adjoining property. “My kids ride their bikes back and forth,” she said.

Banfi was started in 1919 by John Mariani Sr. and his three brothers in New York’s Little Italy. They imported wines from Italy, Germany and France. The company was named for Mr. Mariani’s aunt, Teodolinda Banfi, who, according to family lore, worked as Pope Pius XI’s head of household staff, selecting wines for the Vatican. The company survived Prohibition by making medicinal Amaro, Italian bitters purported to have stomach-soothing properties.

ENLARGE

The vintners filled a once-empty manor wine cellar with 6,000 bottles of wine. Adam Friedberg for The Wall Street Journal

Banfi grew in the 1960s and 1970s, importing middle class-friendly Riunite and making less acidic versions of traditional Italian wines on their 7,000 acres in Tuscany.

By then, John Jr. had assumed operations and was on the search for Long Island headquarters that evoked the villas and châteaus in which business was done abroad.

Rynwood fit. It was built in 1927 by Sir Samuel Agar Salvage, an English knight who made his fortune in the textile business. “In the 1920s when you made a lot of money you got yourself a little cottage on the North Shore,” said Mr. Whiting.

The property had belonged to several members of the gentry. In 1960, Frederick William Irving Lundy, who owned the original Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, restaurant Lundy’s, bought the house.

“In the 17 years he owned it he never once stayed overnight,” said Mr. Whiting. Mr. Lundy used it for his collections, including four grand pianos (none of which he played) and the fence that once surrounded the Coney Island Steeplechase.

ENLARGE

A former chapel room has been turned into an office for John Mariani Jr. the chairman emeritus. The Mariani family, from left: Cristina Mariani-May, Bob Whiting, Virginia Mariani and James Mariani. Adam Friedberg for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Lundy died in 1977 and his estate put the then-dilapidated house up for sale. The only offer came from a developer who wanted to raze it and build 26 homes. The mayor at the time, S. Reed Anthony, was married to the daughter of the original owners. “He didn’t want his wife’s childhood home destroyed,” said Mr. Whiting, so he brought John Jr. to see it.

By 1981, Banfi had purchased the home and had started the restoration. It took one year and 200 employees, including Mr. Whiting. He moved into the estate’s 1,400-square-foot gatehouse to oversee the restoration. He still lives there part time.

In the main house, they replaced wiring, ripped out coal furnaces to upgrade to oil, and had slate roof tiles custom cut to fit a graduated pattern. They cleaned and repointed thousands of limestone blocks. It took six months and five men to just to strip the paint in the living room. “One guy spent a month using toothpicks to get the paint out,” said Mr. Whiting.

The 400-square-foot wine cellar, empty when they bought the house, needed less work. It now holds 6,000 bottles of wines, including some large format bottles of Super Tuscans and Brunellos that date to the 1970s.

ENLARGE

A sitting room in Banfi headquarters. Adam Friedberg for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Mariani tapped interior designer Mark Hampton, who specialized in English country décor, to redecorate. The house is furnished in an eclectic mix of European antiques—Chippendale, Queen Anne, Italian Renaissance—many gathered by Mr. Mariani on his trips abroad, with a few modern touches. There are Scalamandre carpets, tapestries from Harvey Firestone’s estate auction, and dining chairs covered in the official fabric of the Medici family, a Missoni-like zigzag.

A few touches of the decorators’ showcase remain. Local art teacher Charlie Morrongiello —Mr. Whiting’s former high-school instructor—painted a black-and-white mural of African animals on the walls of the garage, which they chose to keep.

In 1982, Banfi moved its offices into the estate. There have been some updates since. What had been a billiards room when Rynwood was a residence is now a boardroom where, next to a seventh-century Tuscan table and eighth-century Tuscan chairs, is a 90-inch television. “I’d like a take a baseball bat to that,” Mr. Whiting admitted.

Seven members of the family still run the business. They won’t discuss the cost of saving Rynwood. Instead Mr. Whiting tells inquirers, “We bought it for a reasonable price and spent a lot of money restoring it.”

Corrections & Amplifications

In an early version of this article, the size of the manor was incorrectly given as 4,000 square feet. It is 40,000 square feet.

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