More Than A Meal

Where: Tuscany, Italy

Castello Banfi appears on the Tuscan horizon like a pink hilltop castle straight out of a fairy tale. A tall, slender Rapunzel-style tower overlooks a huge estate that reaches almost as far as the nearby Mediterranean. Within this authentic medieval fortress lies a cozy courtyard; outside lies a cluster of stone cottages with narrow vine-covered streets, a hamlet that clung to the castle walls in the dark ages. The estate holds vines, olive groves, wheat fields, plum orchards, and woodlands; within those same forests live wild boar, deer, pheasant, even truffles.

But unlike many European winery castles, this place is no fortress when it comes to visitors. It has two restaurants, one of which has a Michelin star. It has a gorgeous wine store with spacious ceramic flooring, handsome dark wood rafters, and attractive display shelves. The winery facilities with their endless rows of barrels are immaculate, as are the 14 guest rooms located in the surrounding stone cottages.

The winery even has its own onsite cooperage, where the best oak planks from France and Slavonia are custom made into barrels. If this isn't quite enough, what surely marks this winery out as a must-see in southern Tuscany is its intriguing Glass Museum, six rooms displaying glass from the present day all the way back to the 15th century B.C. Egyptian urns sit beside Babylonian vases beside ancient Roman ampules and goblets; present-day examples include decorative crystal by some guys called Picasso, Cocteau, and Dalí. It focuses your mind temporarily away from the wine onto the see-through object that holds it.

Such rich, historic splendor has its genesis in the most unlikely of places -- Long Island, New York. This is where owner John F. Mariani's father started out with an Italian wine importer called Banfi in 1919. His timing could not have been worse -- Prohibition came a year later. He limped through those dry years selling wine for "medicinal purposes," then wasted no time importing the very best from Italy when the law was finally lifted. Business boomed, and over the years Banfi introduced the finest of Italian wines to the American market, including Lambrusco, and Chianti.

The winery itself has put its faith in Sangiovese; vineyards teeming with the grape now besiege the castle walls. While the whole complex has a somewhat polished, corporate feel, rest assured that this is no Disneyland of wine -- it's the genuine article.

Castello Banfi, Montalcino; tel. 39/577/840111;

Nearest Airport:
Florence Airport (85km/52 miles).

Where to Stay:
Borgo Grondaie, Strada delle Grondaie, Siena (tel. 39/577/332539; Hotel Villa Elda, Viale 24 Maggio, Siena (tel. 39/577/247927;