Winning Team Behind WindRacer Wines Creates Best In Class Chardonnay And Pinot Noir

Food & Drink

Well known in the both the wine world and the world of horses, businesswomen Barbara Banke and Peggy Furth hardly seem like the type of people who need to add another line to their already impressive resumes. However, after partnering on two previous ventures, WholeVine and Vine To Bar Chocolate, the two joined forces to create WindRacer Wines, a small-batch, luxury Chardonnay and Pinot Noir brand using grapes from “extreme” viticulture sites in California. 

Their first joint enterprise, WholeVine, focuses on the “full cycle of sustainability,” utilizing cast off products from the winemaking process such as grape skins and seeds in a variety of food items. This led to their Vine to Bar chocolate company, which incorporates this “Chardonnay Marc” into a line of gourmet chocolate bars that are rich in nutrients, flavanols, and natural sweetness. 

 Barbara Banke, chairperson and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, is a former land use and constitutional law attorney. Her late husband, Jess Jackson, founded JFW. One of the most notable aspects of this global wine powerhouse is its commitment to sustainability and stewardship of the natural resources, which grew out of Barbara and Jess’s shared passion for the environment. Peggy Furth began her career in business at Kellog Company, where she was the first female department head in its home office. She then transitioned into the wine world alongside her husband Fred when the two founded Chalk Hill Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma, which has since been sold. Both women have strong philanthropic inclinations and have each raised millions of dollars for children in need, among other causes. 

WindRacer’s first vintage release is from 2018. It produced two single vineyard Chardonnays, one from Russian River Valley and one from Alexander Valley, that retail for $65. There are four Pinot Noirs in the portfolio, from Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley, and Sonoma Coast, that retail for $75. They are made in very small quantities ranging from 1,320 bottles to 3180 bottles. The wines are in limited release in New York, California, Florida, and Kentucky, and are also available online. When asked about the small quantities as compared to many of the other wines that Jackson Family produces, Barbara Banke explained, ”We want to take great little sections of the vineyards and produce wines that are really the Thoroughbreds of their class.”

Questioned about the origin of the brand and the name WindRacer, Banke told us, “We have shared interests in horses; Peggy in dressage and her grandkids do hunter jumpers, and me in racehorses. We wanted something that had a horse on the label, and we love Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so we decided to curate some of the vineyards that I own in California and take selected pieces. I have a really good winemaker, Nikki Weerts, who is from South Africa originally, making the wines for us so it’s a combination of our interests in wine and horses.”  

Peggy Furth made herself available to explain the origin of WindRacer, the passion that she and Barbara share, and the important details behind one of the wine world’s newest and most exciting collaborations.

World Wine Guys: How did the WindRacer partnership between you and Barbara Banke come about?

Peggy Furth: Barbara and I have collaborated on a number of projects and shared experiences involving global wine business travel, Thoroughbred racing, and philanthropy. In business we have also partnered on generating new uses for vineyard byproducts with WholeVine, from which we then created a consumer product using our Chardonnay Marc (byproduct) for Vine to Bar chocolates, and finally developed WindRacer Wines, bringing our collaborations full circle as entrepreneurs.

From our shared interests in wine and horses we decided to pursue a “best in class” philosophy for WindRacer wines. Some of our favorite wine varieties are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, those are wines we choose to drink at home, so those are the wines we decided to focus on.

We’ve been asked, “Why horses and wine?” There are so many similarities: the dedication, the passion, and the precision that it takes to raise a Thoroughbred and to raise a grape. People may not think those two are related at all, but being in both industries, there are many similarities, and it does require an incredible team of people. You can’t do either one of these things alone no matter what your dreams are, and it takes a lot of professionalism.

WWG: What is the story behind the name WindRacer? 

PF: The name WindRacer is a combination of “Wind” as a description of the climate at higher elevation coastal growing regions, representing the extreme viticulture single vineyards we source from, and “Racer” representing horses, their strength and beauty. We are always searching for novel Thoroughbred horse names that hopefully speak to pedigree, so naming a wine brand was comparatively easy. WindRacer epitomizes our combined passions of producing luxury wines and elite horses.

WWG: How was the winemaking and viticultural team for WindRacer put together?

PF: Shaun Kajiwara is the Vineyard Director for Jackson Family Wines, where he has worked since 2007, so these are estate vineyards he knows by heart. Shaun regularly walks these vineyards year-round, knows the difficult terrain and climate, and helps us choose specific rows within the single vineyard blocks to dedicate to WindRacer Wines. Shaun is hands on and in sync with these vineyard sites, the very best person on the ground for WindRacer.

Nikki Weerts has known Barbara since she arrived for her first US vintage as an intern with JFW in 2009. She is from South Africa, where she still spends half the year, and Barbara has generously included her in holidays since her family is so far away, so she has become an extended part of the family. Over the past 12 years Nikki has also worked with and made wines with Shaun Kajiwara and they had already developed a great working relationship and friendship. We loved Nikki’s international experience in New Zealand, South Africa, and the US, and sat down with Nikki and Shaun over a holiday weekend about our WindRacer project, our vision, style, and direction. We wanted new energy and Nikki fit perfectly with us, so we connected this fabulous duo to develop WindRacer Wines with us.

WWG: Why did you and Barbara decide to release a small production luxury wine brand? 

PF: Why small batches? It’s more fun! We ask Shaun to find the best places within a diverse array of single vineyard sites and to evaluate the growing season events as harvest approaches. That foundation allows Nikki to take a holistic approach to winemaking. The result is an entire collection of wines, each distinctive and expressive of this team effort. We are blessed to have access to these extreme viticulture sites, hard to farm and challenging to make, creating a beautiful collection of wines from distinct sites.  

WWG: What effect do the extreme viticulture sites in Sonoma and Mendocino have on the flavor profiles of your WindRacer wines? 

PF: Each and every site, because of its specific location, has distinctive characteristics that shine through each wine. They are all different, dynamic, and elegant wines because of where they come from. What makes the project so exciting is that winemaking takes full advantage of these grapes by letting the vineyard lead the wines. Nikki is working with fruit that Shaun farms in intense conditions and she is getting what we want out of the fruit, by doing as little as possible in the winery. That’s why extreme viticulture sites are worth the hard work; the sense of place comes through when you are farming these challenging sites, really giving a true sense of place. 

Our selected cooler climate sites and higher elevation sites tend to have higher natural acidity which allows Nikki to make wines which are bright and fresh and also age beautifully. The coastal influence on our sites is aromatically very distinctive especially for Sealift Vineyard: the salinity of the soil shines through! Acidity levels are naturally higher in cooler climates and Nikki picks earlier than most winemakers. The beauty of fruit with high natural acidity is that you retain freshness and fruit flavors and the wines are super capable of aging. I can’t wait to see how they evolve over the next 10-plus years! The extreme viticulture is a major attribute to the flavor profile which adds another layer of complexity to our wines year after year.

It’s also a challenge to farm these sites for Shaun because there are years the fruit just doesn’t ripen and it can rot quickly in those cold, damp areas, so there may be years we won’t be able to pick fruit from all these vineyards to make WindRacer Wines at this quality. It’s all part of working with these challenging, but delicious single vineyard sites, where Shaun and Nikki pick specific rows of fruit for our WindRacer Wines.

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