Barbara Banke ran her own successful law firm and even argued a case before the United States Supreme Court. Then she met and married Jess Jackson, and became an instrumental part of Kendall-Jackson’s historic growth. The parent company behind that brand, Jackson Family Wines, now owns some 14,000 acres of vines around the world and many well-known wineries, from Arrowood, Matanzas Creek, Hartford Court, Verite and La Crema in Sonoma County, to Freemark Abbey, La Jota and Lakoya in the Napa Valley, not to mention properties in Australia, Italy and France. We sat down with Banke, 56, to talk about the ins and outs of the thriving business:
Q: What kind of wine consumer were you when you started working with Kendall-Jackson?
A: I liked a lot of the California wines but really didn’t know much about them. It was an education process for me when I first came into the business and education continues, everyday.
Q: What surprises you most about the current average wine consumer?
A: I am very optimistic about younger wine consumers. Jess and I have three children that are 21, 22 and 24, and all of their friends are interested in wine to a degree that I haven’t seen since the days when I was 21. They like to go wine tasting and read about wine. They find it more of an intellectual pursuit than other alcoholic beverages.
Q: You were a land-use specialist when you had your own law practice. Are land-use issues still of most interest to you?
A: Yes, I like to see a parcel of land or vineyard and if it has potential, to make it better, take something that is perfect soil, perfect location, wrong clone, wrong rootstock and know that you can turn it into something that’s world-class.
Q: What are Jackson Family’s most pressing challenges in the current economic environment?
A: We are all being a little more conservative about plans and keeping our costs down and not investing so much in growth. It would help the economy to have a little more certainty. Consumption has actually increased—the amount of wine per capita. But we invested a lot in replanting and bought six major vineyard winery properties in a two-year span so now we’re in the process of digesting and getting those to work a little better.
Q: What role are your kids taking on in the business right now?
A: We named the vineyards at Cambria after our two daughters, Katherine and Julia. Katherine has started representing Cambria; she’s blogging about it and going on the road for sales trips and wine tastings, and she made wine this past harvest, learning the production side. Julia just went to Bordeaux and is going to be making wine at Chateau Lassegue (the Jacksons’s joint venture in Bordeaux with Pierre and Monique Seillan). Christopher is in his last year of college. He says he’s going to law school.
Q: Do you think of Jackson Family as an ongoing family business that will carry on through your kids?
A: Yes, we’re hoping it’s multigenerational and that it continues through the kids and grandkids and goes on because a lot of these vineyards are world-class and can compare with Bordeaux or Burgundy, and the kids appreciate them and have grown up around them.
Q: How has your role changed over time?
A: I started in the legal end of the winery because that was my skill set. I don’t have to do that anymore. I like to keep my eye on all parts of it; certainly the land, the real estate part, the sales and marketing and the vineyards and production I know a little, but I like the whole enterprise.
Q: How is your leadership style different than Jess’s?
A: Jess has a tremendous ability to see the big picture and I’m hoping that I have that, too. I like seeing people develop their skill sets and I like to encourage that. I’ve always been sort of a collaborator. I like to work with groups of people, but he does as well. Jess is a risk-taker. He always has encouraged the little guys in the wine business. They encourage excitement in the wine industry, which is important.