Banke on that: Jackson Family Wines chairman and proprietor Barbara R. Banke
The woman leading one of the world’s largest and most well-respected wine producers, Barbara Banke of Jackson Family Wines, speaks to Patrick Schmitt on taking over the helm from her late husband.
WHILE IT’S a dreadful cliché that behind every great man is a great woman, in the case of Jackson Family Wines it’s true – well, sort of. Because the business was best known for its vociferous, alpha- American founder Jess Jackson, his wife Barbara Banke always appeared to be in the background. Yes, she had been providing support for his public role, but she had also been working closely alongside him since their marriage in 1984, particularly when it came to amassing an extremely valuable cross- continent vineyard holding – Barbara had trained and practised as a land use and constitutional law attorney.
Indeed, so involved was Banke in the building and running of Jackson Family Wines, when Jess died in 2011 following a three-year battle with skin cancer, the operation continued in the same vein with her at the helm. Not only has the company invested further in vineyards with premium wine potential, but also nurtured the bedrock of its sales volumes: Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve – which presently accounts for 45% of the company’s volume, 60% of which comes from its Chardonnay alone.
On top of that Banke has taken the company in new directions. At the same time as expanding Jackson Family vineyards in its existing spheres of influence, such as Napa and Sonoma, she has also taken the company into different regions, above all Oregon, and into further countries, with a move this January into South Africa. Overall she has spent more than US$100m (£65m) in the past three years expanding operations, although still a small proportion of her estimated $2 billion (£1.3bn) net worth.
In other words, Banke has not so much been behind her husband during their happy 25-year marriage, but next to him in business dealings, even if publicly she appeared overshadowed by the force of Jess’s personality.
A VAST EMPIRE
Today Jackson Family Wines has more than 12,000 hectares, of which 40% are planted to vines. It is the “largest owner of coastal vineyards in California and Oregon” according to Banke, and runs “over 35 different wineries,” which include the US operations but also those in European regions Bordeaux and Tuscany, along with wine producing countries Australia and Chile, as well as a fresh foray into South Africa – although this involves land and not winemaking operations, yet.
Aside from the range of wine regions she oversees, Banke also deals with all the major international grapes, with a particular focus on Burgundy’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but grown in California. The latter grape she said was “horrible” in the state until about 1988 when it became “ok” with the launch of the Cambria Julia’s Vineyard Pinot, a Jackson Family project named after Barbara’s daughter Julia born that year.
Notably, Banke had wanted to work with Pinot Noir from Oregon’s flagship Willamette Valley for some time, and certainly while Jess was still alive. However, she admits, “My husband thought it was too wet and risky”. Since his death though, she recalls, “The more I looked, the more I liked…” and from 2013 onwards Banke purchased five vineyards and a winery in the west coast region.
What would Jess think? “Oh I think he would approve now: one year it rained like crazy, but 2014 looks fabulous.”
As for her move into South Africa, that has seen Banke buy the 121-acre Fijnbosch farm in Stellenbosch this year, which includes 20 acres of vines in the Banghoek Valley, although she was already making Chardonnay in the region through a joint- venture with Anthony Beck from Graham Beck Wines.
Called Capensis, the white will be the Cape’s most expensive Chardonnay when 1,000 cases are launched later this year from the 2013 vintage at around US$80 a bottle. Although Banke praises the quality of Chardonnays from South Africa, she admits that the new wine really came about due to a shared love of racing – she met the Becks through the horse industry.
Looking more generally across the world of wine she says, “We are not after growth for growth’s sake,” qualifying, “We will grow for revenue, not volume.” Already, some of the group’s wines are at their limit, constrained by sourcing: “We can’t grow La Jota in Howell Mountain,” she says for example, pointing out that this label is dependent on a particularly fine and fully planted Napa hillside site for Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc. “Others are perking along nicely at 2-5%,” she adds. She’s also waiting for a “number of new projects to take off” such as the Zena Crown, Gran Moraine and La Crema Oregon Pinot Noirs.
But bearing in mind the company’s success with Burgundy’s flagship grapes, Pinot and Chardonnay, it seems strange perhaps that the Jackson Family hasn’t invested in the Côte d’Or. But even for this cash-rich business, Burgundy is too expensive. Bringing her index finger and thumb together, Banke says, “We could only buy a property that big, and for €4 million…”. Nevertheless, she admits, “we are looking at partnering with a couple of families to make wine in Burgundy.”
She’s not tempted to go into New Zealand either, another respected source of Burgundian grapes, above all Pinot. “We import Sauvignon Blanc from there, but we don’t own any vineyards… it used to be a really good market [in the US], but prices and the perception of New Zealand have gone down in the US, so it’s difficult to sell and make money.”
However, Banke is confident in the future of the US wine market and thankfully she sees no signs that America may be falling out of love with either Chardonnay or Pinot. “Chardonnay is by far the largest variety and its growing at 8% per year, and Pinot Noir is growing too.” On the other hand, she records, “Syrah you can’t sell, that is unless you don’t call it Syrah – and then you can sell the heck out of it.”
Perhaps surprisingly, continuing on the subject of wine’s performance by variety, she records that “Merlot is back… certainly in the States, and in Australia… last year we saw an increase in sales; there’s more interest in the wines made from Merlot.” Why? “It wasn’t a movie,” she jokes, alluding to the positive effect of the film Sideways on Pinot Noir (and negative effect on Merlot), adding, “I think its because Merlot is so old that it’s new again.”
Continuing, she says, “It’s the same with Bordeaux… there are signs of life in the Bordeaux market again.” Noting that sales for the Jackson Family property in Saint-Emilion, Château Lassègue, are growing slowly, she says that the demand in the US, as well as China, is experiencing a turnaround. “We sort of missed the boat in China, but we are glad we did, because for the top end Bordeaux, there is a lot of inventory there, but none of it is ours,” she observes. “Long-term I think it will be a really good market, however it has been seeing some growing pains recently,” she adds on the subject of China specifically.
What about the UK? While Jackson Family Californian brands were once prominent in Britain’s major retailers, today you won’t see them. Banke explains: “We used to do a lot of business with the multiples in the UK, and we used to worry a lot about making the right product for them, but about five years ago we said, ‘to heck with it, we’re not going to make wine for that market’, and we stopped selling to the multiples.” Continuing she records, “I’m very pleased we did that, as it has been a profitable strategy: we are now focused on the on-trade and small wine stores, and I love the accounts we have in the UK. We actually sell a lot of high-end wine in the UK… pulling away from the multiples enhanced our reputation, and now boutique wine shops actually seek out our wines.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
Looking ahead, Banke, aged 62, is aware that she’s readying Jackson Family Wines for the next generation. She compares her approach to the Antinori Family, which today is run by Piero Antinori with the support of his three daughters. “Jess and I have three children, and he has two older daughters from his first marriage, and we are all involved in different wineries, but we are a meritocracy,” she explains. Unlike the Antinoris however, Banke has a president from outside the family. “The day-to-day in the trenches management is run by Rick Tigner, and the way it works now is good,” she says.
Her aim appears focused on the internationalisation of Jackson Family Wine’s winemaking and sales operation. Exemplifying the rapid pace of change in the latter, she says, “Today we have 45 people selling our wines around the world – five years ago, that was just six.”
As for the issue of image, Barbara says the positioning of the business is simple: “We just want to be known now and in the future for the best wines in the world.” She pauses, and then adds with fond memories of her late, hard-talking husband, “Or as Jess used to say, the best damn wines in the world.”