Boisdale Life MD, Harry Owen meets billionaire entrepreneur Barbara Bank and is immersed in wine, horses and empire building
I’ve met two people this year that have created billion dollar enterprises from start-ups and surprisingly, neither of them were tech entrepreneurs. Rather less unexpected, they were both American. The first was Vernon Hill, the dynamic, larger-than-life entrepreneur behind Commerce Bank in the US and recently the UK challenger brand, Metrobank. The second was Barbara Banke, who whilst less gregarious than Vernon, was quietly commanding as she arrived with a small entourage for lunch at Boisdale of Belgravia.
Barbara Banke is a trained lawyer who graduated from UCLA in 1975, following this with a degree from UC Hastings College of Law, in San Francisco. In 1982, she started Jackson Family Wines (JFW) with her husband, the late Jess Stonestreet Jackson. Regulars at Boisdale restaurants will almost certainly have tried their flagship brand Kendall Jackson Chardonnay (currently we are on the ’13 vintage). She became chairman and proprietor after her husband’s death in 2011 and today the family owns over 30,000 acres of vineyards in California. Forbes estimates that the family-owned group is worth $2.3 billion, which has taken less than 35 years to accumulate. It is arguably the epitome of the American dream; capitalism and free enterprise at its most impressive.
Banke is continuously seeking out new investments and opportunities, both in California and beyond. The wine business is now a multi-million dollar operation with many people involved, but at the heart of it is Banke. As CEO Rick Tigner explains, “Barbara is the one pulling the trigger.”
What brings her to the UK? “I have several reasons to come, including wine. London is very important for the wine press, it doesn’t just stay in the UK; it goes out to Asia and Eastern Europe. I also like to come for Royal Ascot where we won in June, which was great. It’s mostly work but we are going to Kew Gardens this afternoon and then seeing some English bubbles on Thursday, before shopping on Friday. Or I could go to the Tattersalls and buy a horse.”
Barbara is as well known in thoroughbred breeding circles, as she is in wine. The family purchased Stonestreet Farm in 2005 on a historic parcel of rolling Woodford County acreage, dotted with freshwater springs, near the town of Versailles, Kentucky. By 2007 a product of the stable, three-year-old colt named Curlin, would go on to win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and a year later the $6 million Dubai World Cup. Curlin became the all-time leading money earner in the history of American racing, a title he retained until California Chrome’s 2016 campaign.
Did Barbara ever bet on him? “No I’m very superstitious and I never bet on my own horses. My husband was driving us crazy in the wine business in 2003 and so I said, ‘Why don’t you get a hobby?’ He bought a racehorse and then two farms in Kentucky, one in Florida and more horses, so now we’re in the racehorse business. We’re the leading consigner of yearlings in Kentucky.”
Barbara has been joined on this trip by her daughter Julia, who also has a passion for horses, “I do dressage,” she says. “In fact I recently purchased a Lusitano that I’m going to ride at home”. Day-to-day, Julia is involved in the JFW sales and marketing. I asked Julia to describe the structure of the families’ involvement in the business. “Mama is the Chair,” she says endearingly. “Don (Hartford) is the Vice Chair and I work mostly with our international team.” Indeed the whole family plays a role. Son Christopher, 28, sits on the JFW board and launched his own project, the Seismic Brewing Co. in Sonoma County last year. While eldest daughter Katie, is VP of sustainability and technological innovations in the wineries.
Does JFW follow Napoleonic Law on primogeniture? I ask Barbara how far they plan forward. Is it for three or four generations? “We have everything in a company and in Trust, so it’s something that will pass down fairly easily. In the short term we continue building the legacy. They say that the second generation is usually the easiest to contend with and statistically if you can get past the third generation, you’re safe.”
The last four years has seen an expansive phase for JFW and the buying up of a number of new vineyards. In 2013, the company acquired the former Soléna Estate and adjacent Gran Moraine Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton, as well as Zena Crown Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills. Following this in 2016, JFW purchased noted producers Penner-Ash Wine Cellars and the WillaKenzie Estate. JFW also invested in vineyards in South Africa, launching a brand there called Capensis. Are there more acquisitions on the horizon? “I think we want to assimilate the properties that we’ve purchased over the past few years,” she says. “We’re a collection of wineries. We have 50 different wine properties and they’re all run separately. Kendall-Jackson is just one of the wineries but we have everything from Kendall-Jackson to Vérité, which produces small wines, and many in between.” And how many bottles of wine are being manufactured across the group? “I’d say 6.2 million bottles a year depending on the vintage.” Julia explains that they let the winemakers have a free rein. “ They do terroir-driven wines. A lot of them are inter-site specificities, wines that speak to each site that we own and as a family we just provide them with the tools and equipment. Other than that we’re pretty hands off in terms of wine making.”
So what do Barbara and her family enjoy drinking at home. “We drink a lot of different wines. It depends but we do drink a lot of Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs. I love Pinot and there’s a whole new market that’s just starting to discover it. I spend a fair amount of time in Kentucky at our horse operations and the people I know there who were big Cabernet drinkers are all drinking Pinot Noir now. If they’re drinking it there, they’re doing it elsewhere.”