Banke on that: Jackson Family Wines chairman and proprietor Barbara R. Banke

MEASURED GROWTH

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.”

Biography: Barbara R. Banke

Jackson Family Wines chairman and proprietor Barbara R. Banke has spent the last two decades leading the company she co-founded with her late husband, the memorable Jess Jackson.

She is a UCLA and Hastings Law School graduate and former land use and constitutional law attorney. Banke spent more than a decade arguing cases before the United States Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal, and raised three children with Jess (Katie, Julia and Christopher Jackson).

In addition to the Kendall-Jackson and La Crema wineries, Banke and Jackson shaped nearly two dozen small, high-image wineries located across Sonoma, Napa, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Mendocino counties, including Arrowood, Byron, Cambria, Carmel Road, Edmeades, Freemark Abbey, La Jota, Matanzas Creek and Stonestreet. The Jackson family portfolio also includes the international properties of Château Lassègue in Bordeaux, Tenuta di Arceno and Arcanum in Tuscany, Calina in Chile, and Yangarra Estates and the Hickenbotham Vineyard at Clarendon in Australia. In 2013, the Jackson family purchased property in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, including the acclaimed Zena Crown and Gran Moraine vineyards. This year, in January, the company bought a small property in SA’s Stellenbosch region.

Banke takes a hands-on role in the development and promotion of various Jackson Family wine estates, with a special focus on the company’s top-end wineries such as Lokoya, Cardinale, and Vérité, as well as new vineyard acquisitions, and a broad range of other business initiatives. In addition to the family’s wine holdings, Banke shares Jackson’s love of racing – their stables, Stonestreet Farms in Kentucky, produced Horses of the Year Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, as well as Eclipse Award Winner My Miss Aurelia.

Banke’s tastes are broad: “I love Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris – if it’s from Alsace – the occasional Chenin from the Loire and South Africa, along with Pinot Noir and Bordeaux blends. I do also like Piedmontese and Tuscan reds,” she adds, admitting that a Nebbiolo-growing estate is “definitely on the wish-list”.

However, despite her recent foray into South Africa, she jokes that she “definitely” won’t be doing anything with Pinotage.

Banke-Family

Barbara Banke with her three children (left to right): Katie, Christopher and Julia

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.”

EYEING TRENDS

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.”

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