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.

Barbara-BankeWHILE 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.

Jackson Family Wines: tasting the top end

Barbara-Banke-tastingdb met with Barbara Banke in London on 7 October last year, one day before an event organised and hosted by Jackson Family Wines, where library samples from its top-end Californian brands were sampled along-side the likes of Lafite and Pingus. Also tasted were the latest releases of Jackson’s Cardinale, Vérité and Lokoya from the 2011 vintage – a year renowned not for its greatness, but instead remembered for its challenging weather conditions.

“It was a cool vintage, but because [winemaker] Pierre [Seillan] loves to pick early he managed to get the grapes in before the rains,” she said of Sonoma’s Vérité estate. As for Cardinale and Lokoya, she noted, “Our Napa wines are from mountain vineyards so they are very well drained and the grapes ripened in due time, although they produced less.”
Summing up the vintage character, she commented, “It is a really good vintage for wines which will age, wines which will be around for a long time, and wines which will be interesting for a long time.”

For a full account of the tasting event refer to November’s issue of the drinks business.

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.

Jackson Family Wines’ Vérité Estate in the Alexander Valley

Jackson Family Wines’ Vérité Estate in the Alexander Valley

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.

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