Land of Plenty

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Cambria Winery reaches out to New Orleans through the Make It Right Foundation

Although Barbara Banke’s careers have taken her down seemingly unrelated paths, all roads apparently lead to one thing for her: land. After graduating from Hastings Law School

wine

in California, she worked for a law firm that specialized in land use and constitutional law. She even met her future husband, Jess Jackson, while working as a real estate attorney. Today, the couple are co-proprietors of Jackson Family Wines, based in Santa Rosa, California, where they oversee more than a dozen wineries, including Kendall-Jackson, the vineyard that yielded their very first bottling. Their vast and impressive wine portfolio has also branched out beyond the United States with estates in Italy, France, Chile and Australia.

While Banke is involved with their entire collection of wineries, she makes no qualms that it is Cambria, the first winery she founded, that she holds near and dear to her heart. “To me, producing wines under the Cambria name is profoundly personal. It goes back to 1986 when we acquired a large portion of the original Tepusquet Vineyard on the Santa Maria Bench and named the vineyards after our daughters Julia and Katherine. This was the first purchase my husband and I made following the success of Kendall-Jackson,” she says.

An advocate of education and children’s organizations, this philanthropic vintner, who sits on several boards in California and co-chairs the Sonoma Paradiso Wine Auction, one of the most successful wine auctions in the U.S., has recently adopted a new cause: the rebuilding of New Orleans. “As with many Americans, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is still very vivid in my mind,” said Banke. So out of her love for the city grew a relationship between Cambria Winery and the Make It Right Foundation, which has garnered national attention due in part to its famous founder, actor and part-time New Orleans resident Brad Pitt.

Banke, along with Cambria winemaker Denise Shurtleff, recently hosted a winemaker dinner at Restaurant August that benefited the Make It Right Foundation. I was fortunate to be one of the 100-plus guests who enjoyed a remarkable dinner, incredible wines and had the chance to meet these two dynamic and benevolent women. Afterward, I had the opportunity to chat with Banke about her affinity for New Orleans—and of course wine!

What inspired you to host a winemaker dinner in New Orleans for the Make It Right Foundation?

New Orleans is a special city to me and my family because of its culinary and musical heritage. We also have a connection through thoroughbred racing in New Orleans. Our horse Curlin, 2008 Horse of the Year, has trained in New Orleans as have others in our stables. So when we looked around the nation to host a winemaker dinner, New Orleans seemed like the perfect fit for an event tagged with laissez le bon temps roulez.

Why did you choose to donate proceeds to Make It Right?

The decision to support Make It Right was twofold, first because of their commitment to rebuild New Orleans and second because of their commitment to rebuild sustainably. All of Cambria’s vineyards are farmed sustainably because we believe in the importance of preserving the sanctity of the land for future generations.

Do you have plans to host more events on behalf of Make It Right?

We have no specific plans now, but it would be wonderful to host an annual winemaker dinner in their honor and are in fact just beginning a dialogue about a long-term partnership with the organization.

It’s been over three years since Hurricane Katrina ravished the Gulf Coast. Why is it still important for companies such as Cambria to continue to assist in our rebuilding efforts?

This is truly a historic, inspired city that needs to return even better than it was before Katrina. We hope to be a part of that in a very small way.

Other than the fabulous food, what attracts you to New Orleans?

There is no other city like it in America—the music, the culture, the heritage, the people, the wine …

Cambria Winery is located in picturesque Santa Barbara County. What originally drew you to the area?

The Santa Maria Valley was originally home to the Chumash Indians who called the area “tepuztli” from which the name Tepusquet derives. When we purchased Tepesquet Vineyard in 1986, this was a yet-to-be-discovered viticulture area, but the chardonnays and pinot noirs were astounding. I envisioned its future potential and was drawn to the unique beauty of our estate vineyard, thus Cambria was born.

From a winemaking position, what sets Santa Barbara wines apart from others made in California?

The Cambria estate vineyard is situated in the cool-climate of the Santa Maria Bench within Santa Barbara County. Seventeen miles to the west, the Pacific Ocean drives cool winds and white fog into the Santa Maria Valley, creating one of California’s coolest and longest growing seasons. This provides the perfect micro-climate that results in amazing flavor development for our pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah.

How many different wines are made at Cambria?

We produce and bottle on our estate chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah, with the heart and soul of the Cambria label being Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir and Katherine’s Chardonnay. In addition, we craft limited bottlings that highlight specific vineyard clones as well as offer exclusive wines to our wine club members.

You are a big advocate of sustainable agriculture. Why is this so important?

Advocating sustainable agriculture not only ensures that our estate vineyard will be fruitful for my grandchildren’s grandchildren, but being good land stewards also makes good business sense.

What steps have you taken at Cambria to move in this direction?

We employ dozens of sustainable approaches when we farm our estate vineyard block-by-block, all tailored to the unique Santa Maria Bench geography, soil type and season. One example is our cover crops, which we plant and irrigate to control erosion and stabilize the soil. The resulting benefit is that it also increases soil development, ensuring the future of Cambria wines. Another example is the introduction of barn owl boxes, which encourage owls to live in harmony on our property and help with rodent control.

Before entering the wine world, you practiced law. How do you think your former career prepared you for the wine business?

The legal profession gave me insights into risk assessments and problem solving. In addition, I was a real estate attorney who worked on land deals, so that came in handy when I went to purchase vineyards.

Many wineries are truly a family affair. Do you have other family members in the business?

We are most definitely a family-run business. My sister, my stepchildren, my son-in-law; cousins are involved.

Do your children aspire to work in the wine industry?

My two daughters, Katherine and Julia, have vineyards and wines produced from Cambria in their honor. Now that they are both over 21, I hope they take a more active role at the winery. They have great palates and are very creative.

What advice would you give those who are interested in a career in the wine business?

The wine industry offers so many opportunities. If you have a scientific background you can become a winemaker. If you have a creative background you can go into marketing. My overall advice to any aspiring winemaker, owner or sommelier is to taste as many wines as you can. Also, seize any experience you can whether working in a tasting room or cellar. This is the best foundation for any future education, training or job experience. 

I know this is a tough question, but if you could have one last bottle of wine, what would it be and why?

I would select two in honor of my children. Cambrian’s Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay and Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, because they are simply delectable wines.