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Decanter interview: Charles Banks

From wine novice to joint owner of Screaming Eagle, and now at the helm of a mighty portfolio of esteemed global wine estates – it’s been a busy few decades for this venture capitalist, finds Patrick Comiskey

Charles Banks and his wife Ali

Charles Banks: At a glance

A few minutes into my conversation with Charles Banks at Mayacamas Vineyard in the Napa Valley, he mentions ‘authenticity’. It’s a word oft used by Banks who, in the past five years, has invested in an estimable collection of wine brands in an entity called Terroir Selections, which includes wineries from California, Oregon, Hawke’s Bay, Stellenbosch and Burgundy. In this instance he’s using the word to describe the feel of this place, a venerable 124-year-old property on the furthest reaches of Mt Veeder which he owns with retail entrepreneurs the Schottenstein family. It’s less than 16km from Banks’ previous Napa project, Screaming Eagle, but may as well be in another country.

To get to the winery you must pass through west Napa’s tidy sub-divisions and seek Redwood Road. From there you make a rapid, winding ascent, shaded by tall old trees, the air spiced by redwood, cedar and bay laurel. By the time you’ve reached the winery, 30 minutes later and nearly 700m higher, it’s easy to forget you’re in Napa. Literally and figuratively, Mayacamas is Banks’ new home.

Banks meets me in front of the winery on a drive that passes for a crushpad here. Nearby, stonemasons are shoring up a wall first built by Bob Travers, the previous owner for 45 years. The wall represents one of dozens of modest improvements Banks has imposed upon the property, including extensive replanting, an irrigation system for the young vines, a bottling line and the residence. Banks has strived to change little else, in an effort to preserve the strange alchemy of mountain terroir and Travers’ idiosyncratic winemaking, the stuff that has made Mayacamas a classic Napa Cabernet house, with a flavour profile in 2014 that remains largely unchanged since the early 1970s.

Banks’ acquisition of Mayacamas in 2013 serves as a convenient demarcation line for his conversion from winery impresario to what might be called winery conservator. He is an owner-partner devoted to preserving classic brands, American and otherwise, whether established, like Mayacamas, Qupé or Mulderbosch, or future classics like Wind Gap, Sandhi and Fable Mountain.

It signals the final decoupling of the Banks name from one of Napa’s most mythical Cabernets, Screaming Eagle, in favour of wineries known more for fidelity to place than for fame and scarcity.

Finally, the acquisition is emblematic of the cultural shift underway in California, one where the interests of wine entrepreneurs like Banks are no longer characterised by the pursuit of cult brands – wines defined by bombast and hype – but rather by subtler, quieter, more terroir-focused efforts.

‘Charles values authenticity,’ says winemaker Sashi Moorman. ‘He’s not interested in these brands because they have great scores or clever marketing campaigns. Mayacamas is dripping with terroir and authenticity. It’s the antithesis of cult; a true classic.’

Indeed, when you speak to Banks about Mayacamas, it’s clear he looks upon its purchase almost as a redemptive act. ‘It’s been a long, tricky, winding road to get here,’ he says, ‘but I wouldn’t trade this for Screaming Eagle in a million years.’

Early years

Charles Banks IV was born in Virginia in 1967, and raised in Georgia. After working in California for many years as a venture capitalist, and then establishing Terroir Capital, a winery, hotel and restaurant group, he and his wife Ali recently moved the family back to Atlanta, in part to be closer to her family, and in part, he says, to instil a bit of the southern politesse upon his children.

Banks is tall and thin, with greying fair hair and a youthful face, framed by wireless, bookish glasses that make him look more like a clerk than a venture capitalist. His voice, however, commands attention, with a delivery that’s pleasingly throaty and gruff, part wine mogul, part football coach.

In the early 1990s, Banks was informed by his new wife that, as grown-ups, they had to learn about wine. They entrusted their early education to Kent Torrey, a wine and cheese purveyor in Carmel with connections to California’s Central Coast producers. Consequently, the couple’s earliest wine epiphanies were found in bottles of Au Bon Climat Chardonnay and Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir.

Less than a decade later Banks had experienced his share of grand vins, and had cultivated several friendships in the industry, including sommelier Rajat Parr and then-retailer Pax Mahle, both of whom would become winemakers. By 2000, Banks had entered into a vineyard investment in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley called Jonata.

He worked for five years to establish vines at this sandy Ballard Canyon site, deflecting a fair amount of scepticism about the vineyard’s potential. (Frédéric Engerer of Château Latour famously dismissed the site out of hand, saying it might be a good place to grow asparagus.) Jonata would go on to win accolades from several American wine critics as emblematic of California’s bold new wine style.

In 2005, Banks learned that Jean Phillips, owner of Screaming Eagle, was looking for an investment partner. Banks jumped at the chance: he enlisted the financial assistance of Stan Kroenke, billionaire owner of several sports franchises (including Arsenal Football Club) and set about improving the estate, with an extensive replanting effort and a state-of-the-art winery which his new winemaker, Andy Erickson, helped design. He realised that they’d have just one chance to enhance the winery’s already exalted reputation, or he’d be perceived as a failure. ‘We were under extreme pressure not to screw it up,’ he says. Eventually he and Kroenke purchased the property outright, vaulting Banks into an echelon of winery ownership that proved to be at once thrilling and disconcerting.

Building the empire

Throughout the 2000s Screaming Eagle was routinely bestowed with near-perfect scores from critics. Its flagship wine was one of the most famous in the world. It was so coveted that bottles of it were rarely seen, and rarely opened – upon release, ‘Screagle’ was invariably squirreled away for later sale, as an instant commodity.

This rankled the Bankses; it was as if they were being treated like rock stars for music they weren’t allowed to play. ‘We weren’t in this business to show off,’ he says; ‘we were in it for the wine. But we became pet celebrities. I’d go to dinner with the hedge fund guys and they’d all go nuts.’ But the sommelier community, whom Banks was close to, and on whom he had relied for his wine education, was indifferent. ‘They’d be like, “Yeah, I’m not really into Cabernet, especially this one”.’ Despite immense pride for the work he’d put into the estate, Banks started to realise that the hype was likely always exceed his efforts, no matter what he did. When Kroenke offered to buy him out in 2009, both Screaming Eagle and Jonata, Banks accepted.

He wouldn’t be sidelined for long. In 2010, with the encouragement and guidance of a South African wine merchant, Banks purchased a stake in Mulderbosch Winery in Stellenbosch, a highly visible brand he could sell worldwide. Thereafter, the pieces of Terroir Selections came together quickly and serendipitously. Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman, who would go on to partner in a number of Banks-supported wineries (Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte and Evening Land) sought him out to invest in their fledgling efforts. So did Pax Mahle with his brands Wind Gap and Agharta. Both Parr and Mahle were allied in the trend towards more balanced, lower-alcohol Californian wines, as was Pinot Noir producer Jamie Whetstone. It was Parr who notified Banks of the financial straits that Qupé’s Bob Lindquist found himself in. Lindquist had been making nuanced Rhône-varietal wines for more than 30 years; Banks agreed to partner with him after one phone conversation, in 2013.

Together, it is a collection of winemakers characterised by restlessness, single-mindedness and heterodoxy – a group that shouldn’t be a group, with winemakers who have gone their own way for years, sometimes decades. It’s no coincidence that some were in financial distress, or that Banks was called in as an angel investor, but this has just as much to do with Banks’ attraction to risk-takers and iconoclasts – and is perhaps one reason the portfolio has developed such a distinct aesthetic.

The beauty of imperfection

The only conceivable outlier to this group might be Erickson, Banks’ winemaker for Screaming Eagle, and a consultant to a host of new-guard Napa wineries such as Arietta, Ovid and Dancing Hares, as well as a Banks-backed project called Leviathan. Erickson was, and still is, a darling of US critic Robert Parker, and known for graceful, modern wines. So when Banks hired him to make the wines at Mayacamas, there was trepidation, not least among the coterie of Terroir Selections winemakers.

In August of 2013 Banks organised a vertical tasting of every vintage Bob Travers had made, spanning six decades and including a flight from the ’70s that Parr said was ‘the single greatest decade of wines from one place I have ever tasted’.

A discussion ensued as to exactly how Erickson planned to preserve the style. Erickson was receptive, but he and his wife, viticulturist Annie Favia, found it hard to imagine regressing in their winemaking, or in their high-tech vineyard management – things like green harvesting, canopy thinning and sorting out unripe clusters. Both Parr and Mahle objected. ‘Then it won’t be Mayacamas,’ Parr said. ‘All of that variability is the reason the wine is what it is, wild and gamey and totally alive.’

After listening to all of the arguments, Banks did something he rarely does: he offered Erickson winemaking advice. ‘I want you to throw out everything you know about winemaking every time you get in your car and drive up this mountain.’

Erickson consented, and has since come around. Just before harvest last year he called off the final passes on green-thinning, and returned all of the sorting equipment he’d ordered. ‘After tasting more and listening to the wines in the last six months,’ he says, ‘we’re not as concerned about the straight line any more.’ It was his wife who came up with the best metaphor for the Mayacamas style: wabi sabi – a Japanese aesthetic that celebrates imperfection in life and art. ‘That’s what this place is all about,’ says Erickson, ‘appreciating the beauty of imperfection.’

Banks has acquired an inherent sense of this too. ‘He really gets our winery culture,’ says Lindquist, ‘which is quirky and definitely not for everybody. He understands that this is part of what makes us tick, that we couldn’t make wine any other way.’

Mayacamas, meanwhile, seems to have increased Banks’s appreciation for the quirky, sometimes counter-intuitive steps he must take to foster the production of great wine. ‘They know I won’t do anything to diminish what matters most to them,’ he says, ‘which is the wines. If they come to me and say “this is important, this helps us to stay true to our vision”, they know I’ll override financial prudence to make that work. Because if the wines aren’t there, we lose all credibility.’

Written by Patrick Comiskey

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