Who wouldn’t want to be top dog of Screaming Eagle, one of the world’s most prestigious wineries? Once that position was secured, who would want to give it up?
Charles Banks, that’s who.
The Westminister Academy and University of Georgia graduate, co-owned and operated Screaming Eagle from 2006 to 2009. He and his business partner, billionaire Stan Kroenke, bought the property from founder Jean Phillips to renovate and improve the winery and its vineyards.
Banks, 44, spent 18 years as an investment banker and president of CSI Capital Management prior to jumping into the wine business in 2000. He and his wife, Ali, purchased 600 acres in Santa Barbara, Calif., to start Jonata, a winery focusing on a wide range of varieties, mostly reds. Banks pulled out of Screaming Eagle when Kroenke wanted more say so in the winery’s operation. “I think a great winery needs one boss,” Banks said.
Hardly lost in the woods, the Banks have been busy the past three years. They launched two wine groups, purchased several wineries, started a high-tech wine bar in Hong Kong and created an innovative charity called The Give. The Banks subscribe to a business/philanthropic philosophy called connected capitalism. The Give is the tangible outcropping of the belief that for-profit companies with a socially responsible mission are powerful enough to shake the foundations of the world.
The Give generates its funds from Cultivate Wines, essentially a global wine négociant. Cultivate donates 10 percent of gross revenue to The Give. The Give has donated more than $150,000 since November to an array of causes—from building shelters for orphans in Kenya to blindness prevention programs in Atlanta. GIVE will fork over another 100,000 at the end of June.
Selection of organizations receiving The Give funds is left to the general public. By logging into the Cultivate website (www.cultivatewines.com) or Facebook page, you can choose from several dozen charities to vote for. The charity with the most votes—like the Belwop Project that builds housing for abused and neglected children in Kenya—receives $50,000, the five runners up get $10,000 a piece.
“[The Give] was all my wife Ali’s idea,” said Banks, who is every bit the philanthropist as he is the capitalist. “Our favorite thing about Screaming Eagle was the impact we could have helping charities raise money. This is an extension of that feeling. We just wanted to be able to do it everyday and let everyone participate, not just a few rich folks.”
One would need a scorecard to keep up with the Banks’ business and charitable enterprises. One recent acquisition, perhaps, stands out from the rest. In 2011, the Banks purchased Mulderbosch, the well-known South African winery and its 136 acres of vineyards. Reinvigorate is not a strong enough word to describe the Banks’ plans for Mulderbosch. Re-inventing Mulderbosch is probably closer to the mark.
Banks is in the process of completely re-building the winery and he has enlisted Andy Erickson, the winemaker Banks brought in for Screaming Eagle, to consult on the winemaking at Mulderbosch. He’s also hired Adam Mason, former winemaker for Klein Constantia, one of South Africa’s iconic wineries. Plus, highly regarded viticulturist Lucinda Heyns will oversee the estate’s vineyards and contract growers.
The wines are going to be more serious, but still everyday drinkers,” Banks said. “We will make some single-vineyard, old-vine chenins that I believe will push the envelope for South Africa. There will be much less residual sugar and sweetness in the wines.” Banks will eventually establish Mulderbosch’s Faithful Hound label, which focuses on Bordeaux varieties, as a separate operation. “The potential to make a top-notch Bordeaux blend is there, but it requires a separate team and full focus.”
While his current endeavors are exciting and fulfilling, Banks realizes his time at Screaming Eagle will always be a topic of discussion for him. His tangible connection to Screaming Eagle, the dozens of bottles of the cult cabernet he kept upon his departure, has dwindled to but a few. He sold the majority of them to launch Cultivate. Don’t cry for him, however. He’s happy. “It felt great to sell these old and rare wines sitting in my cellar to fund a dynamic new business that gives back.”
With so many bottles of Screaming Eagle, which can retail well over $4,000 a bottle, at his disposal, I had to ask if he’s enjoyed a bottle with more pedestrian dishes like a hamburger. His reply?” Many, many times. What’s better than a cabernet and a burger?”
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog