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Passion Uncorked

Author: Christina Julian
April, 2012 Issue


You know their names. Now learn their passions.


Three women, three friends, three diverse approaches to business, yet one driving force unites them: passion. Barbara R. Banke, chairwoman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, partners with Peggy Furth, former co-proprietor of Chalk Hill Estates, to form SonomaCeuticals, while Sandra Jordan, formerly of Jordan Winery, sits at the helm of her own Sandra Jordan Prima Alpaca Collection. Each woman is unique in her own right, and each has a legendary career in the wine industry. Today, instead of running from a faltering economy, these women are charging forward with entrepreneurial ventures that are taking them beyond the traditional business of wine to include eradicating poverty and building a sustainable future.

Jordan, who spent 15 years as creative director at Jordan Winery shares, “I think the key to success is to follow your passion. Be open to the many people and situations you encounter, because you never know what will become useful one way or another. This has certainly been the case for me, whether as a teacher, mother or entrepreneur.”

Banke, who presides over Jackson Family Wines, says, “Start with what interests you and focus on your own passion. The economy will improve, so if you start with something you’re passionately interested in, you’re more likely to succeed.”

For Furth it’s simple: “You need to go where you’re engaged and enlightened by what you’re learning.”

Here’s how three women turned passion into not only a new chapter, but a life’s work.

Peggy Furth

I meet Furth, managing partner of SonomaCeuticals, where she and Banke specialize in food products that make use of the “whole” grapevine, at the company’s Santa Rosa office. It’s an intense operation, like any good startup company.

Furth laid the foundation of her career at Kellogg’s, when she became the first female department head at the international food manufacturer’s home office in Battle Creek, Mich. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she studied nutrition at Ohio State University, where the seeds of health and nutrition that continue to flourish decades later at SonomaCeuticals were planted. Furth entered the wine business in the mid 1980s, when she became engaged to vintner Fred Furth of Chalk Hill Estates. She and Fred (now divorced) spent the next two decades building the renowned wine estate, with Peggy taking on a multitude of roles including co-chair and CEO. It was during the early years that she forged a relationship with Banke.

“We were friends, first and foremost, and spent a lot of time traveling together to vineyards and wineries around the world,” says Furth. And while she enjoys reminiscing about the past, she’s eager to discuss life in the startup lane. “I think that the women I know, those who are successful, are generalists. There’s no task they won’t tackle. In a small businesses or winery, you have to know a little bit about everything—a little bit about vineyards, winemaking, marketing and human relations. I think being a generalist and a small business entrepreneur leads you into areas you may not have an educational background in, or even experience in. But when it’s Monday morning and the pump has failed, you’re going to have to be the plumber,” says Furth.

“I’m ever grateful for the fine wine perspective, 25 years of making wine,” she shares. “Though one of my most passionate adventures was the children’s charity auction, which began as Imagine [and became Sonoma Paradiso Foundation. Barbara and I] ran it annually from 2004 until 2008, raised more than $6 million and put a lot of energy in creating the charitable infrastructure for a fund that would perpetually assist local children’s charities.” It was this union and a collective mindset about sustainability that became the catalyst for forming SonomaCeuticals.

Barbara Banke

Sustainability has always been a driving principle for Banke; it’s a philosophy that took root early on. “It started with Jess [Banke’s husband, Jess Jackson, who passed away in 2011] and I having a family and our hope to have our kids and their descendants stay in the wine industry. We wanted to take care of the land we were farming.”

The dream became a reality in November 2011, when all of the Jackson family vineyards and wineries were certified under the Sustainable in Practice (SIP) program (in 2010, third-party certification was received under the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program), and the efforts continue at UC Davis, where the family provided charitable funding of $3 million to build a sustainable, innovative, zero-carbon teaching and research facility (ground was broken in November 2011 for the 8,000-square-foot Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building on campus). Jackson Family Wines was also presented with the EPA Green Power Leadership award, one of 18 companies (selected from nearly 1,300 entries) recognized for leadership in clean energy. “I think it’s very important, in the long-term vision, to make the California wine industry greater than it is already—and it’s already pretty good,” says Banke.

Prior to entering the wine industry more than 25 years ago, Banke was a successful litigator, whose career took her all the way to the Supreme Court (in the early 1980s, she argued the Grantie Rock vs. California Coastal Commission case before the high court). But it’s her work with charitable organizations, the land and horseracing (Banke now presides over Jackson’s award-winning equine enterprise Stonestreet Farms) that truly hold her passion. “Going into the wine industry took me out of practicing law, for which I’m eternally grateful,” she says with a laugh.

Catching up with Banke proved challenging, so we spoke over the phone. As she shares a “day in the life,” I understand why. “Today, I worked with our French negociant team, which imports high-end wines in Europe, and gave them a tour of the vineyards. I saw a preview of “Undercover Boss” [the reality show featured Kendall-Jackson President Rick Tigner in a January episode] and then worked with the finance team on potentially acquiring a few more vineyards.” It’s exhausting just listening to her describe her day, let alone to imagine living it.

Being fortunate enough to speak with these women, whose careers span decades in the business, I was anxious to learn how they feel the wine industry has evolved. “The number of high-quality, world-class wines produced in California continues to rise. We’re producing some of best wines in the world,” says Banke, who adds that, while the industry has morphed, so too has Jackson Family Wines. “We started out buying grapes from eight vineyards around the state and only making Chardonnay. In the years since, we’ve acquired most of those vineyards, built a number of other wineries and focused on the terroir of the individual properties. We’re much more land-focused than when we started.” And the growth continues as the company launches the Champ de Rêves winery in Anderson Valley.

Putting the whole vine to good use

You can’t be in conversation with Furth and Banke too long before conversations return to sustainability, which brings things full circle—or, as they like to call it, “full-cycle”—to SonomaCeuticals. It’s a fitting name, given the company transforms grape pomace into natural, vineyard-sourced products made from grape skin and grape seeds. A product line called WholeVine includes 16 varietal flours sourced from grape seeds and skins, eight cold-pressed grape seed culinary oils and four chef-designed, gluten-free cookies. The line is currently available at wholevine.com and some retail outlets throughout Northern California and Colorado.

In 2008, Furth and Banke realized the unraveling economy would limit success of a 2009 Sonoma Paradiso Foundation auction to benefit children’s charities. Unwilling to let go of the dream, they began to explore other scenarios. “That was the year I said, ‘Let’s think about how we make these children’s charities sustainable without doing an auction.’ My idea was to go back into a for-profit business venture,” says Furth. She and Banke began to analyze the assets owned by Jackson Family Wines and saw some benefits, the most resounding being: the company owned its own vineyards.

The seeds were laid and, quite literally, grew into SonomaCeuticals, which puts full-cycle sustainability, into action. “This is the beginning of an exploration. Our dream would be to not have any waste in the fine wine industry in the coastal California region,” says Furth.

A different aspect of sustainability became the catalyst for launching the company. “The reason we started was to get sustainable cash flow for the children’s charities,” says Banke. When the company becomes profitable, a percentage of its revenue will be donated to local organizations that benefit children in need. “We’re all aware that the demand for services from local charities continues to grow. If we can address this through full-cycle sustainability, we’re not only doing something more sustainable, we’re getting products in the marketplace as well. We have to get to profitability as soon as possible. We hope for it to be this year.”

While SonomaCeuticals is going steps beyond the traditional wine industry, some roots remain firmly planted. At this time, Jackson Family Wines is the sole provider of grape pomace to the line. “Wines are better from sustainably farmed vineyards,” says Banke. “There’s more of the good stuff in those skins and seeds, so there’s a lot more to offer in terms of nutritional content. We’re hoping to get to a zero waste platform.”

SonomaCeuticals consults with scientists from UC Davis’ energy, food science and nutrition departments and collaborates with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regional office. All are interested in learning about the best practices for utilizing grape waste. Furth is quick to discern between “waste” as we know it, and how she sees things. “We don’t view it as grape waste. We’re tending thousands of acres of fine wine vineyards. They’re as precious to us as anything. Our choices came down to, should we throw things away or discover new elements to harvest? For us, it’s this annual growing cycle that will renew itself every year.”

Furth and general manager Paul Novak manage the day-to-day operations while Banke and Furth oversee things strategically. A key aspect of the operation occurs at the processing plant in Sonoma County, where a Buhler Aeroglide industrial drier runs day and night immediately following harvest. “We’re treating [grape] seeds as if they’re as precious as the pulp the winemakers are using to make the wine. Our priority is for the seeds to make the best grape seed oils. But in that process, we’re thinking very carefully about sustainability of the vine and all it produces,” says Furth. The company made the decision to leverage pomace from only the highest quality grape vines, a point that Furth views as one of the products’ key selling points.

“These products taste great, because the seeds that produce the best winegrapes in the world will also produce the best oil. We decided that a pure process and unrefined oil was the direction we wanted to go in, so we literally squeeze the grape until we get oil.”

The company continues to expand (a wine varietal cracker is coming next) in not only product line, but also in the realm of research. “In both grape seeds and grape skin flours, there are categories of pure compounds: antioxidants, nutrients and what we call ‘vine-grown colors.’ If you can imagine taking artificial dyes out of the food, drug or cosmetic supply and replacing it with a natural red hue that comes from red grapes, we think that would be a project worthy of our enterprise, so we’re pursuing that as well. This is the exhilarating part,” says Furth. “It’s either adding or subtracting 10 years off my life. I’m not sure which, but it’s very exciting!”

Sandra Jordan

Sandra Jordan’s passion was birthed in her native Peru at an early age, though it took a lifetime of adventures to actualize the dream. Growing up, Jordan traveled extensively due to her American stepfather’s work in the U.S. diplomatic corps; she was exposed to artisan crafts during jaunts to local markets that would later influence her work. Jordan enrolled in Florida’s Rollins College at age 16 and, after completing her studies, became an educator at the high school and college level. Jordan was teaching at Napa College and living in St. Helena while also doing special projects for area wineries; when she married vintner Tom Jordan, she moved to Sonoma County.

But it was amour of the land that kept her here. “I loved traveling the cities of South America, Asia and Europe when I was younger. It was stimulating, and I absorbed so many things. Then, in Wine Country, with its calmness, I was able to reflect on and absorb the things I had seen and experienced,” says Jordan. At her elegantly designed and welcoming home in Healdsburg, she shows me a piece of straw that became the inspiration for the color of upholstery covering a wall in her living room—an item from her Sandra Jordan Prima Alpaca Collection; this concept of “bringing the outside in” became a signature of the luxury textile line.

Planting the seeds

Natural elements of her surroundings have always been a source of inspiration for Jordan, first at the winery and now for her collection. It's a point Jordan relates to shifts in the wine industry. “From a marketing standpoint, the wine industry has evolved from promoting a manufactured product to promoting a lifestyle. As creative director [at Jordan Winery], the goal was to promote and emphasize the quality of life here. So I designed products that cultivated Wine Country traditions.”

Jordan was at the winery from 1992 until 2007, and all the while, the kernels of her own collection were forming. “One of the first things I did at Jordan was create a style manual. I wanted to institute the consistency you see with brands like Hermès and Chanel. It became important to look at competitors in the wine business but also to pay attention to what luxury brands in other industries were doing.

“I started designing and manufacturing silver pieces that would be used for wine service. With Peru’s long heritage of silversmithing and my upbringing in that country, it was a natural fit.” Products such as bottle stoppers and wine coasters were crafted in Jordan’s factory in Peru. People began making inquiries about her work, including the textiles she developed for the redesign of the winery’s hospitality facilities.

A fabric scouting trip to New York paired with the unexpected pleasures in redesigning the visitors’ areas and publishing her first book, The Art of Decanting (now in its fifth printing), instigated a new entrepreneurial “itch” as Jordan calls it. It was an itch of a different variety that became the cornerstone of her collection.

Calming the entrepreneurial itch

The minutes with Jordan melt seamlessly into hours as she recounts the history of alpaca herding, domesticated more than 10,000 years ago in the Andes of Peru. Stories drift back to her childhood. “When I was a little girl attending a British school in Lima, we were going to the Indian markets and buying things made out of alpaca. My teacher said, ‘Alpaca is the fiber of the gods. The Incas thought of the fiber as clouds on earth.’ I was 6 or 7 years old, and that image always stayed with me.”

After tracing the history, Jordan discovered there exists an alpaca with especially soft fiber, once reserved only for royalty. The key to this silky alpaca fiber, she explains, comes down to quality and healthy breeding habits for the animals. Jordan, for example, uses the softest fiber from the first shearing of baby alpacas that have been bred specifically for a fine coat. “We measure the thickness of fiber shaft by microns and keep the level below 23 microns,” she says. “That way, we only have top quality.”

Jordan’s quest for the best alpaca fiber also tied into a cause that stirred her passion: creating jobs to eradicate poverty in Peru. “Even as a little girl, I was aware of the lack of opportunity for many in my native country. The focus of my graduate studies in education and business were sharpened by my desire to address this problem.

“I wanted to create products that were completely manufactured in Peru. When we were making home furnishings, that’s what we did—including all elements of our branded packaging. Now that our emphasis is entirely on the textile collection, we still manufacture in Peru and produce our collateral there whenever possible.”

Though the company has no brick-and-mortar stores (it relies on wholesale distribution), Jordan steadfastly built the business, drawing first from interested winery visitors; later, she was approached by a showroom in San Francisco that went on to carry the line, followed by another in Los Angeles. Now her textiles can be found in 13 showrooms across the United States as well as in Canada, Australia, South Africa and Europe. “This is where my travel helped. I felt comfortable venturing into overseas markets.
 
"The economy hasn’t had a major impact,” says Jordan. “It turns out my product is something that people are still buying in tough economic times. They may not be able to buy a new piece of furniture, but for a fresh look, they’re comfortable recovering an existing piece. We had strong, double-digit growth for 2011. We’re a luxury item that you can buy incrementally, and that’s helped us.”

When asked about her business approach, Jordan shares, “Early on, at the conceptual stage, I’m deeply involved. When a design is done and I’m developing selling strategies or marketing and branding strategies, I’m still really hands-on,” she shares. “Once I’m completely satisfied with the status of a new product or direction, I can let go. I have incredibly wonderful people working with me, and they’re totally capable of taking over at that point. That makes it possible for me to go on to the next project.”

The secret sauce

Success, I learn, comes down to the simple business of igniting an inner fire and working to keep those flames burning. For these leaders, being a woman is just more fuel for those fires. “The value of reinforcement and encouragement between women is fabulous. I can’t think of anybody better than Peggy and Barbara for friendship and for professional guidance and encouragement. The camaraderie is crucial,” says Jordan, a longtime friend of Banke and Furth. “We gather in one of our kitchens to try out new recipes made with the grape seed flour, or we travel to Lexington to watch the horses run while we’re wrapped in alpaca, the three of us together. At the end of the day, we really want to have a balanced life.”

It’s true the wines of our region are like bottled poetry, but I’d argue the juice that fills our bottles is equally ripe with passion, waiting to be uncorked.


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