Barbara Banke, who helped her late husband Jess Jackson build a wine empire on the success of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and has led it to new heights since his passing, is the recipient of Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award for 2017.
Banke, 64, is the chairwoman of the board of Sonoma County, Calif.–based Jackson Family Wines, which includes 47 wine brands across four continents. Along with Kendall-Jackson, which sells 3.5 million cases a year, labels include La Crema, Murphy-Goode and Matanzas Creek.
From its humble beginnings in Lake County, Jackson Family Wines became an influential player in California, then expanded into Australia, France, South Africa and, more recently, Oregon. When the 1982 Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay retained a hint of sweetness after a stuck fermentation, it was seen as an opportunity, and it went on to become one of the fastest-growing wine brands in the history of the business.
Jackson and Banke were innovators. From labeling to marketing to winemaking, the company thought outside the box. After its initial success in the value end of the business, the company focused on luxury brands since the late 1990s, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
Raised on the San Pedro peninsula near Los Angeles, Banke was the eldest of four children. In an era when the stereotype that men should be breadwinners prevailed, the idea of staying home and doing housework never appealed to Banke. She decided to become a lawyer. "I love to argue," she says, laughing. She graduated from UCLA in 1975 and followed that with a degree from U.C. Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
She met Jackson in 1980, and over the next two decades she became an increasingly important partner in the company, including developing the Cambria winery in Santa Maria Valley. She was a driver of the company's sustainability efforts. Together she and Jess had three children, Katie, Julia and Christopher, all of whom work in the family business. Jess died in April 2011 at age 81.
Since his passing, Banke has continued the shift toward premium wines that he began, acquiring new brands, such as Siduri and Brewer-Clifton, and making a significant investment in Oregon, buying top vineyards and wineries like Penner-Ash.
Banke is active in supporting philanthropic efforts around the country. She was crucial in the establishment of Sonoma Country Day School, Sonoma Academy and other academic programs, and her family helped fund the launch of the Family Justice Center Sonoma County, providing help for victims of domestic violence. "I think we need to give back to our communities, here in California and Oregon," said Banke.
She will receive the DSA award at the Grand Award Banquet at this year's Wine Spectator New York Wine Experience on Oct. 21.