When her beloved “partner and soul mate,” Jess Jackson, died in April 2011, Barbara Banke might have felt like the world had come crashing down around her shoulders.
Overnight, she became the sole proprietor of Jackson Family Wines (JFW), whose largest winery was the iconic Kendall-Jackson.
Jess, whom she married in 1988, had long been its larger-than-life public face. “Charismatic” only begins to describe him.
With Jess gone and with the recession creating the toughest business climate in decades, becoming chairwoman of the company would’ve been daunting enough.
But even as San Francisco’s media speculated on the future of the Sonoma-based company, the shift to Barbara’s management proceeded with pinpoint precision.
“Jess knew he was in bad health, so he took it on himself to make it a very easy transition for me,” Barbara says. “From 1988 onward, I was vice chair, involved in quite a few things, especially property, acquisitions, land use, construction. So, none of the issues following Jess’s death came as a surprise to me. I was familiar with them all.”
A forceful high-achiever, Banke enjoyed a fast-track career before meeting Jackson.
After graduating from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in 1978, Barbara argued Constitutional law and land-use cases, including one that went before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jess had also been an accomplished property-rights lawyer in his pre-wine days.
Practicing law, Barbara once said, “provides a good mental frame for assessing risks and solving problems.”
Those qualities of analysis and shrewd judgment—she describes herself as “a strategist”—served her well before, during and following the transition.
But understanding land-use law—the arcana of zoning, environmental regulations and historic preservation—is one thing. Owning thousands of acres of vineyards in two states and on four continents requires a more personal connection to the land, one stemming from Barbara’s earliest memories.
“As a girl, I spent my weekends painting apartments,” she says, referring to her parents’ investments in rental properties. But those experiences resulted in a philosophy.
“I early on developed an interest in land as the fruit of one’s labor,” Barbara says.
When Barbara took over the company, the recession was at its height.
“We were profitable, but those were bad economic times, so Jess had leaned the company back,” she says. “What I had to do was add it back,” meaning that, once recovery was within sight, the company could again grow.
JFW’s land acquisitions in the last two years have been among the company’s most spectacular.
In January 2012, JFW increased its holdings in Australia, buying 445 acres in McLaren Vale. It also delved more deeply into its Sonoma County roots, expanding its holdings by nearly 1,000 acres, including the Buena Vista production facility in Carneros (now renamed Carneros Hills Winery).
The company also increased its ownership in Mendocino County in 2012, acquiring 875 unplanted acres in the new Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak appellation.
This year has been equally dramatic. JFW underscored its belief in Oregon with the purchase of more than 1,000 acres, all in prime Pinot country. Additionally, a deal was struck to buy highly regarded Soléna Estate, in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA.
In all, JFW added 17 new properties and thousands of acres. It’s these purchases that bring Barbara’s vast experience in land use into focus.
“I like to see a parcel of land or vineyard and, if it has potential, to make it better, knowing that you can turn it into something that’s world-class,” Barbara says.
That passion for producing world-class wines was generally credited to Jess. He was the one in the ads and quoted in articles, whose ruggedly handsome cowboy face, tanned and square-jawed, touted “mountains, ridges, hillsides and benchland vineyards.”
But, the truth is, Jess and Barbara were a team.
“He was running the company,” she says, “but he did listen a lot to me. Jess was not a one-man show—this is way too detailed of an operation for that.”
Barbara stresses the importance of JFW’s team, including CEO (and son-in-law) Don Hartford, as well as “a lot of talented people, great winemakers, viticulturalists, at all levels of the company. We’ve always been a team, not just of two people, but of hundreds.”
This team-first atmosphere is echoed in the “softer” accomplishments Barbara has helmed. These include achievements in environmental sustainability—including the country’s largest solar cogeneration facility—enhancements at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in Santa Rosa, and widespread philanthropic ventures (about which she is reticent).
And when she’s not actively presiding over JFW, Barbara, like Jess, indulges her penchant for thoroughbred racehorses.
However, one suspects that after her three children, JFW is nearest and dearest to her heart.
“After Jess died,” she says, “after I lost my partner and soul mate, the business was a consolation to me.”
She has not only maintained it, but brought Jackson Family Wines to unprecedented heights.
Wine Enthusiast is proud to name Barbara Banke its 2013 Wine Person of the Year. The first woman to win the award, Barbara now shares it with Jess, the magazine’s inaugural recipient in 2000.