Female Wine Industry Leaders Over 60 Years Old Are Revolutionizing The Concept Of How Chardonnay Grapes Are Used

Food & Drink

It is so often that we see the accomplishments and future potential of younger people -there are various lists that celebrate the top people that are under 30 or under 40 years old in a multitude of industries that highlight the accomplishments of the young. These lists certainly are important as they represent those who will most likely shape the future of their chosen field as convention dictates those people over 60 have already accomplished everything that would significantly contribute to an industry, however, two female wine industry leaders are not only focusing on making some of the greatest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines in the world, they could potentially help food insecurities in the U.S. by exploring the health benefits of consuming non-alcoholic Chardonnay pomace. 

Two Women with Impressive Careers even before Wine

Barbara Banke and Peggy Furth are co- proprietors of WindRacer, a wine project that selects the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir rows within their favorite vineyards in rugged North Coast California vineyards. These wines are made in minuscule quantities, only a couple of hundred cases for each wine, and bring these longtime friends together in creating a project that shared their love for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but also Thoroughbred racehorses which is the passion that inspired the name WindRacer.

Both of these women are already well-known in the wine world – Barbara Banke is the co-founder of Jackson Family Wines (along with her late husband Jess Jackson) and Peggy Furth helped to establish Chalk Hill Vineyard & Winery with late ex-husband Fred Furth; while both women played a pivotal role in building and sustaining the reputation and infrastructure of these businesses, they had already made some cracks in the glass ceilings of other industries. Barbara was a well-respected land use lawyer and her skills were eventually invaluable in making good assessments of vineyards before purchasing them as a wine producer; today, Jackson Family Wines is a company that has built their business on investing in land. In 1979, Peggy became the first woman to hold an officer’s position at Kellogg Company, as vice president of public affairs, and once she entered the wine world her previous skills were extremely valuable in raising the visibility of Chalk Hill but she also threw herself into the day to day operations learning about their vineyards and finding a way to consistently invest financially in the land.

A Story of Friendship

Peggy explained that their WindRacer project was one based on “the girlfriend story” as it involves two women who have known each other for decades and they have had a friendship that has survived many of the ups and downs that is involved in life especially for women who are actively taking roles in shaping their industries. Chalk Hill was eventually sold and so when Peggy took her “early retirement” from the wine industry Barbara told her, “You need to stay in wine because that is what you have been doing for 24 years so let’s do a project together.” Both Peggy and Barbara always drank Chardonnay when they got home from work and they had a strong belief that North Coast California vineyards could make some of the greatest Chardonnay wines in the world.

So WindRacer was launched in 2006 with these extraordinary ladies getting into Pinot Noir as well since Barbara had been impressed by Oregon Pinot Noir and she knew their North Coast vineyards had the same potential. One of the secret weapons of WindRacer is not only the access that Peggy and Barbara have to some of the top vineyards for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the North Coast but also the personal attention from the vineyard director for Jackson Family Wines, Shaun Kajiwara. And so this project is not only a girlfriend story but extends out to a family story with Shaun being the son-in-law of Barbara as well as a man with a great work ethic and brilliant mind with a degree in Biochemistry. Shaun says the “sections” they pick for WindRacer are “top quality” and are known as the sections that many winemakers fight over and WindRacer is a great opportunity to show off the talents of another woman as the winemaker, Nikki Weerts, who grew up in South Africa’s wine country as well as worked in New Zealand and the past eight years in California.

Revolutionizing How One Looks at Chardonnay

If  the idea of making wines under the conditions that are equal to the “very, very rarefied atmosphere for the top, top, top horses” in Thoroughbred horse racing wasn’t already an enormous goal to try to achieve, that wasn’t enough as in 2009 Peggy came up with a revolutionary idea. Peggy thought a lot about what else there was to discover about Chardonnay and she and Barbara were “curious people” who liked to take risks. And so Peggy went up to U.C. Davis to talk to the dean of the Department of Viticulture and Enology to ask him if there was any commercial use for the Chardonnay pomace a.k.a. marc (the pulpy residue remaining after fruit has been crushed in order to extract its juice) left over from their “exquisitely cared for” Chardonnay grapes. But U.C. Davis hadn’t conducted any research into wine grape pomace that could answer Peggy’s question and so that is when she knew that she had to take it into her own hands.

Peggy had a dinner with Jess Jackson and Barbara after her meetings at U.C. Davis and she knew that she needed to get Jess onboard if there was any chance of exploring the various uses in the food world with Chardonnay marc. “Jess, I have learned a new term; underutilized assets,” exclaimed Peggy to Jess and she further explained, “I’m going to find one in your business.” Peggy, being an extremely experienced woman who successfully navigated her way through corporate America, knew how to get an executive’s attention, however Jess, who started out in life as a litigation attorney, pushed back, “Peggy I don’t have any.” Then Peggy knew she needed to jump in with counterpoints that would plant the seed that Jess might being missing out on a great opportunity by continuing, “But there is a paper about grape pomace and they are making biofuels and grape seed oil and besides there is this investment banker who was curious about what we are going to do…” and then Jess was quick to expand on his answer, “I don’t think I have any underutilized assets but if you find one I want to be the first to know.”

And that was the beginning of Peggy and Barbara starting Sonomaceuticals LLC in 2009 to start a company focusing on Whole Vine products in a mission to accomplish the “full cycle” of sustainability, in harmony with the cycle of nature and the vine.

So Peggy not being afraid to take on any challenges, let alone not taking no for an answer, tracked down a professor at the U.C. Davis Business School named Dr. Harold Schmitz who was formerly with Mars, the chocolate company, to discuss her idea of taking a family enterprise that does something really well with wine that wants to do something more and it might have a human health benefit. Dr. Schmitz said he had done this with dark chocolate but it took 20 years of research. “We are not getting any younger so you have five years to do it,” Peggy told him. And so they created Vine to Bar which is the first product to use 15% Chardonnay marc incorporated into dark chocolate and hence all the benefits of the Chardonnay marc can be received in a delicious chocolate bar without the alcohol.

What are the benefits of Chardonnay marc (pomace)?

Recently a study came out of U.C. Davis, which is funded by Peggy and Barbara, that has findings that conclude that Chardonnay pomace has properties that not only contain health compounds that contain antioxidant, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties but it has “diverse and complex oligosaccharides that could potentially improve gut health by encouraging good bacteria to grow.”

Decades of Experience Should not go to Waste

When the study came out they received calls from science labs all over the world wanting to learn more about the findings but Peggy admits that the project is not proving to be commercially viable as they have sold around $50,000 worth of chocolate bars and the investment spend has been significantly more as they have had to fund this research at U.C. Davis. But Peggy and Barbara are excited to pursue where their research could lead as it may not make sense to Wall Street minds but to women who have spent a tremendous amount of time raising millions of dollars for organizations that serve children in Sonoma County and the Bay Area in California, it is an incredible development.

As California and many other areas around the world find it more difficult to grow certain crops as climate change brings more erratic climatic conditions, vineyards become a more ideal choice for agriculture as often times they do not need as much water, many types of wine grape varieties can do well under stressful conditions where other crops could not survive and vineyards have proven time and time again to be fire breaks to keep fires from spreading in California.

The pomace of wine grapes can not only be used for high-end food products when it reaches a certain standard but all wine grape pomace can be a “co-product” of all the wine grapes that are grown in the world and ultimately co-produce a healthy food source to combat food insecurities that many Americans and others face around the world everyday.

Peggy and Barbara have long been great examples for other women in the wine industry to strive for leadership roles that at one time were non-existent for women but their legacy is far from over. If anything, they have barely scratched the surface of the monumental impact they will have on the world. For some, over 60 doesn’t always mean sitting back and enjoying the fruits of one’s labor… sometimes it is the stage in life where women with decades of experience show the world that the unimaginable is not only possible but it could be the answer that many were looking for.

2018 WindRacer, Saralee’s Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley: A bright nose with smoky minerality and roasted almonds that had a broad body with juicy stone fruit and expressive finish. Only 265 cases made. $65.

2018 WindRacer, Alexander Mountain Estate Chardonnay, Alexander Valley: Baklava and allspice aromas with fresh apples and a creamy texture on the palate with mouthwatering acidity. Only 208 cases made. $65.

2018 WindRacer, Skycrest Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley: An enchanting nose with pretty lilac notes and red cherries with an exquisitely etched tannic structure that gave a beautiful shape to this wine. Only 206 cases made. $75.

2018 WindRacer, Edmeades Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley: Darker fruit with loamy earth and dried orange peel that had inviting juicy fruit flavors balanced by a linear body with an energetic drive. Only 237 cases made. $75.

2018 WindRacer, Sealift Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast: This wine seemed to express so many facets of North Coast Pinot Noir with its gorgeous nose of wild flowers, layers of red, black and blue fruit that had hints of mossy tree bark and black tea leaves with velvety tannins. And although very complex, it had a lovely purity of expression of pristine red cherries on the finish. Only 237 cases made. $75.

2018 WindRacer, Bloomfield Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: Lifted fresh herbs on the nose which distinguished this Pinot Noir from the others and the multifaceted fresh red fruit (raspberries, strawberries and red cherries) that danced along the palate leaving a wafting aroma of freshly picked basil and ripe strawberries in one’s head. Only 110 cases made. $75.

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