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The big interview: Barbara Banke

Barbara Banke, owner of California-based Jackson Family Wines, tells Lucy Shaw about her expansion plans, passion for rearing racehorses, and goal to create the world’s greenest wine company.

Barbara Banke at home in California with one of her three beloved dogs

Barbara Banke doesn’t waste time. Skim-reading my 40 questions ahead of our hour-long phone interview, I assume that we’ll only get through half of them, but she answers every one in detail, and finishes the interview exactly an hour after it began. Time is money and Banke knows how to spend it wisely. A former land-use attorney who spent over a decade arguing cases before the US Supreme Court, Banke has led her Santa Rosa-based family wine company, Jackson Family Wines, since the death of her husband, Jess Jackson, in 2011.

A one-time real estate lawyer with a penchant for rearing racehorses, Jackson was a colossal character in the wine world, and left Barbara with big shoes to fill when she took over the firm after his death. Rather than slinking off into the background, or relying heavily on delegation, Banke has thrived since taking the helm, embarking on a fiercely ambitious expansion of the company through a series of savvy winery acquisitions reminiscent of Bernard Arnault of LVMH, whose business model Banke admires.

“We’re strictly a wine company and don’t have the other luxury components in our business, so we’ll never be at the same level as LVMH, but I’m definitely looking to emulate Arnault’s approach to acquisitions. I don’t want the company to be bigger per se, I want it to be better, through the addition of a few small, spectacular estates,” she says.

In addition to her global wine business, Barbara Banke runs a successful racehorse breeding operation in Kentucky called Stonestreet Farms

Since taking over Jackson Family Wines, Banke has spent an estimated US$100 million (£77m) expanding its operations around the globe. The company now comprises 40 estates in California, Oregon, Australia, France, Italy, South Africa and Chile.

Among the jewels in the Jackson family crown are Cardinale in Napa; Vérité in Sonoma; Gran Moraine in Oregon; Yangarra in McLaren Vale; Capensis in the Western Cape; and Château Lassègue in Saint-Emilion.

“Being a land lawyer has come in very handy, and it’s why we’re so land focused as a company. It has enabled me to do good risk assessments of properties before I invest in them,” Banke says.

Helping to fund her thirst for prime plots in some of the world’s most revered wine regions is the company’s Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve brand, which includes a Chardonnay that has been a top-seller in America for the last 26 years. But Banke, who turns 67 this year, isn’t done yet. With four estates in Oregon, she is keen to shine a light on Chardonnay from the region, which has long dwelt in Pinot’s shadow.

In a bid to raise the international profile of Oregon Chardonnay, she has recently upped her plantings in the region, and is looking to make high-end, block-specific expressions of the grape to highlight the nuances of her various terroirs.

“Oregon can produce fabulous Chardonnays – it’s a new and growing category. Plantings are still small, but winemakers in the region are starting to recognise the value of Chardonnay,” she says.

Jess was always sceptical about investing in Oregon, given its propensity for rain. Having become one of the biggest vineyard owners in the state, does Banke feel she’s proved him wrong? “Yes! It didn’t hurt that after we purchased our initial vineyards in 2013, we had six warm vintages (by Oregon standards), rather than the rained-out vintages Jess was worried about.

You can make great wine in a cold year, you just have to pick well, and know how to manage your crop loads,” she says. Banke is putting some of her Oregon Chardonnay to good use in a traditional method blanc de blancs that has been ageing on its lees in the Gran Moraine cellars for the past six years, and will be released in 2021. Banke is bullish about putting Oregon fizz on the map.

“Sparkling wine from Oregon has great potential. The wines have such a good acid base, and with time on lees they really gain in complexity,” she says, revealing that blanc de blancs is her favourite style of fizz. On the subject of sparkling wine, with English sparkling starting to stir up excitement beyond its homeland, might Banke be interested in adding an English estate to her ever-evolving portfolio?

“We have been looking around at vineyard sites in Kent and Sussex for a while now, but took a holiday from it due to Brexit. I show up every year around Ascot, and no doubt I’ll be touring vineyards this year while the races are on,” she says.

“I’d love to add an English estate to our portfolio – my children are particularly enthusiastic about it, as the English sparkling wines we’ve tried from the likes of Gusbourne, Nyetimber and Hattingley Valley are really good.”

Despite her Welsh roots – one of her grandmothers was Welsh – Banke has no desire to try her luck at making wine there. “It’s really cold and wet there – they have one of the worst climates in the world,” she quips. A long-time lover of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Burgundy remains the Holy Grail for Banke, who dreams of adding a Burgundian estate to her stable. So far her search has proved fruitless. “It’s difficult to find something suitable there.

A lot of the properties are so small, it wouldn’t really be worth it for us. But never say never – I’ve always got my eye on Burgundy.” In the meantime, she is keen to team up with a winemaking family in Burgundy on a collaborative project. Yet to strike up a partnership, Banke feels the link will likely come from one of the Burgundian estates to have invested in Oregon, such as Drouhin or Louis Jadot. With fine wine collectors increasingly looking to Italy for value, Banke also has her sights set on Piedmont.

Baraba with her three children (l-r): Katie, Christopher and Julia

“I’d love to have a Barolo or Barbaresco estate in our line-up. I see similarities between Nebbiolo and Pinot, as the wines have the same textural element and refinement. I tend to prefer Barbaresco to Barolo, as they’re more approachable and go better with food.”

At home in California, Banke is developing a destination winery in Healdsburg for Vérité, Jackson’s triumvirate of Bordeaux blends from Sonoma, offering 360-degree views of Chalk Hill, which is due to be completed this summer.

First conceived in 1998, Vérité is the fruit of a collaboration between Jess Jackson and Bordeaux winemaker Pierre Seillan, which launched with the ambition of creating a Sonoma County Merlot as good as Pomerol’s Petrus.

The project evolved into three wines – the Merlot-based La Muse, the Cabernet-focused La Joie, and the Cabernet Franc-dominant Le Désir. On the acquisition trail, last October Banke snapped up the Pinot Noir-focused Balo Vineyards in Mendocino County, and plans on using the tasting room to showcase the company’s Anderson Valley wines, including Copain, Maggy Hawk, La Crema and Siduri.

While her outlook remains rosy, 2020 has not been without its challenges, from Brexit and Trump’s tariffs to the effects of coronavirus on the Chinese market. Despite this perfect storm of problems, Banke is confident that it will be business as usual soon enough.

“Things are good for us in the US right now, where sales of our high-end wines are up more than our mid-range wines. Outside America, we’re doing well in Japan and other parts of Asia. The international market is a challenge, but I’m optimistic things will pass and we’ll get back to growth.”

Another challenge she’s facing is the short-term thinking of some of her competitors. “There is a lot of negative talk in the industry right now about consumers moving away from wine, but wines over US$14 are growing in the US. People are maybe drinking less, but they are drinking higher quality wines. We need to push past negative perceptions and recognise that wine is and will continue to be a universally loved beverage,” she says.

The company’s two Australian estates, Yangarra and Hickinbotham in McLaren Vale, weren’t affected by the recent wildfires that wreaked havoc in the Adelaide Hills, but back in California, Banke was less fortunate. Late last year her daughter Julia’s Geyserville home was destroyed in the Kincade wildfire that swept through Sonoma County in late October, having ignited at the base of a damaged transmission tower owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

At 4am on Thursday 24 October, Julia received a call from a friend warning her of the fast-spreading wildfire. “The flames were coming down towards the house. I didn’t have time to grab anything,” Julia told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was very sad and not something I’d care to repeat, but luckily everyone was safe – our vineyards acted as a fire break,” says Banke.

“It was a beautiful wooden house in the woods. We won’t be building that style of house again. We’re interviewing architects to rebuild some of the 27 structures we lost in the fire.” Keen to make the best of a bad situation, Banke is looking into ways to make her estates more fire resistant. “There is quite a lot you can do to safeguard yourself against wildfires. We’re looking into thinning out the forest where our house in Geyserville stood, and installing sprinklers around our properties. I’ve learnt a lot from the wildfires that I intend to put to good use, but hopefully not any time soon.”

Fortunately, all of the firm’s grapes from the 2019 harvest had been picked before the fires hit. While Banke is on her way to creating one of the most influential high-end wine companies in the world, she also wants Jackson Family Wines to be a pioneer of sustainable practices. Last year she teamed up with Spain’s Familia Torres to create the International Wineries for Climate Action initiative with the aim of lowering carbon emissions in the wine industry.

Banke with one of her racehorses at Stonestreet Farms

Since its foundation, four fellow green-minded wineries have joined: Spottswoode in Napa; Portugal’s Symington Family Estates; VSPT Wine Group from Chile and New Zealand-based Yealands. All six companies have pledged to lower their carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, and 80% by 2045.

“The wine trade is starting to wake up to climate change and wineries are taking steps to lower their carbon emissions through the use of wind power, solar power and water conservation. In Sonoma County, 98% of the vineyards are certified sustainable.

“We’re looking to take things a step further through regenerative agriculture, and are trying to create a carbon sink in our vineyards that will take a lot of the carbon out of the air, like a forest. I want to create a more viable industry in the long term that we can all be proud of.”

Another key focus for Banke is tourism. She has applied for permits for two hotels – one at Freemark Abbey in Napa, and an eco-friendly hotel in Sonoma with a farm-to-fork restaurant. “There’s a need for more lodging in Sonoma, and I’m interested in the idea of eco-tourism. We have a truffle farm in Sonoma, so this feels like a natural extension, but it’s a long-term project,” says Banke, who would also like to open a hotel in Oregon.

As well as Banke’s demanding day job, she has also found the time to grow her racehorse-rearing business, Stonestreet Farms in Kentucky, into one of the top breeding operations in the US. The project began in 2003, when, in need of a hobby, Jess Jackson bought a share in a racehorse. Within two years he had spent US$22m on 90 mares to launch a horse-breeding business.

Banke at Ascot where her racehorse, Lady Aurelia, won The Queen Mary Stakes

In 2007, Curlin, a colt, became America’s Horse of the Year after a string of high profile race wins. A year later, he won the Dubai World Cup. To celebrate, Jackson and Banke cracked open a bottle of Latour 1961. Banke charges US$175,000 for mares to breed with the champ.

Today, Stonestreet Farms houses around 100 mares on three sites. The farm is the biggest seller of young racehorses in North America – in the past three years, Banke has made over US$20m from the sale of yearlings.

In 2016, Stonestreet-bred Lady Aurelia won the Queen Mary Stakes at Ascot by seven lengths in her second ever race. Banke spends around a quarter of her time developing Stonestreet Farms, and dreams of winning another Dubai World Cup.

When we spoke she was due to go to Australia to watch Rulership, a horse she owns a share in, take part in the Blue Diamond Stakes in Melbourne. “Breeding racehorses is similar to growing grapes – a lot of it comes down to luck,” Banke concedes. “Horses are fragile, like grapes, but with both wine and horses, every year you get another chance.”

To succeed in the wine industry, Banke believes you need to have a high tolerance for risk and a good sense of humour. “I’ve been in the wine business for 35 years and it’s very cyclical. You have shortages then gluts. History gives me the advantage of perspective,” she says. Rather than further expanding her vineyard holdings in California, Banke is looking to trade in a few of her Santa Barbara vineyards for more high-end plots in the Santa Rita Hills and Napa’s mountain appellations.

She seems to be getting all her ducks in a row to leave Jackson Family Wines in rude health before passing the baton to the next generation. “I have another five to 10 years in me then I’ll leave it to my kids. All three are part of the business and give me a lot of advice,” she says. Looking ahead, her hopes for the family business are characteristically ambitious. “My dream is that we continue to be a collection of the finest wineries in the world, and the greenest too.”

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