From local grocery stores in Maine to giant wine retailers in Los Angeles, Kendall-Jackson wines can be found on shelves across the country. That makes Jackson Family Wines' proprietor and chairman Barbara Banke an influential figure in a rapidly changing industry. Banke took over Jackson Family's enormous range of wines after her husband, founder Jess Jackson, passed away in 2011. Since then, she has expanded the business into Oregon, added more high-end brands in California and Australia to their portfolio, moved ahead with a broad set of environmental and climate-change initiatives on the local and international level and supported a diverse set of charities, earning her the Wine Spectator Distinguished Service Award in 2017. In the latest episode of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Banke spoke with Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec about shifting from law to wine, expanding the family wine empire, horse racing and her ambitious sustainability goals.
Before getting into the wine business, Banke was a litigator for 13 years. She says law was only fun 10 percent of the time and transitioning to the wine business was a "blast." Banke also spoke about her foray into horse racing. The family's Stonestreet Farms is one of the most prestigious thoroughbred horse operations based out of Louisville, Ky., with championship-caliber horses and yearlings for sale.
"In 2003, Jess was known as a micromanager and he was driving us crazy, and I said, 'Why don't you get a hobby?'" Banke recalled. Jackson proceeded to buy racehorses, and Banke slowly became addicted to another fun business, especially after their horses started winning.
As a woman in a male-dominated profession, Banke saw a bright future for women in the wine industry. Early on, she was inspired by female winemakers such as Signe Zoller, who spent more than a decade at Kendall-Jackson, and Zelma Long, who headed Simi in the 1980s, and believes that opportunities are becoming more widespread. To date, 61 percent of Jackson Family's winemakers are women, and over 50 percent of other leadership positions are held by women.
"As we went forward, we seem to have more and more winemakers that were coming to the forefront," Banke said. "There's a lot of highly skilled women in the business, especially in production. And some of our best salespeople are women." Banke adds that female scientists at the company are making advances in smoke taint research.
Diversity and inclusion has become an important part of Jackson Family Wines' mission. Recently, the company announced a 10-year plan to help fight climate change and pursue other broad environmental and social responsibility goals, including bringing in more Black professionals, elevating Latinx employees to management positions and improving gender equity. The "Rooted for Good" initiative also aims to cut the company’s carbon footprint in half by 2030 and make it "climate positive" by 2050, meaning it will help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through regenerative farming, land preservation and other methods.
"It's a long-term strategy because we are a long-term company," Banke said. "It's very important to my kids and grandkids that we continue on this path."
Another long-term strategy is expansion. In Oregon, Jackson Family has developed its own brands and purchased high-performers Willakenzie and Penner-Ash. Banke has also been focused on building the Australia portfolio. In 2001, Jackson Family bought its first vineyard in McLaren Vale to create the value-priced Yangarra brand. Banke says she then asked Yangarra winemaker Peter Fraser to see about expanding in McLaren Vale. He found the historic Hickinbotham Vineyard up for grabs. Banke followed this purchase with the acquisition of Giant Steps Winery last year, and she says the team plans to break ground on a new winery on the property's Sexton Vineyard in the next year or so.
For Banke, the future of wine depends on younger drinkers, a generation focused on transparency. "It's very important to them where their food and wine comes from and how it's made and grown, so I think what we're doing in that respect is something that will prove valuable to us in the long run to reach these new consumers," she said. "The future is pretty bright and we're investing our resources in going forward."
Watch the full episode with Banke on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator every week. On Sept. 15, senior editor Bruce Sanderson will talk to Marchesi di Barolo's Valentina Abbona.