Charles Banks: The New Man Behind Mayacamas

When Charles Banks, one of the former owners of Oakville’s Screaming Eagle winery and the head of investment firm Terroir Capital, recently bought a big stake in Wind Gap Wines, it raised some eyebrows. The contrast between cult Cabernet and concrete-egg-aged, cool climate, 12% alcohol Grenache couldn’t have been stronger.

But when Banks announced a week ago that he was buying the venerable Mayacamas Vineyards, you could hear wine geeks all over the country falling off their chairs. Then when the news emerged that former Screaming Eagle winemaker Andy Erickson might be brought in to make the wines at this supremely old-school winery, some were even outraged.

Despite my own awareness that Banks’ involvement in the wine world was broader and deeper than one big Napa Cabernet (he’s notably a partner in sommelier Rajat Parr’s Sandhi Wines) I must admit I was intrigued by his purchase of a winery that, for all intents and purposes hasn’t changed a thing about how it makes wine since the 1960s.

Could these two recent investments demonstrate a shift in Banks’ taste for wine — away from the high-scoring wines of his Central Coast project Jonata and Screaming Eagle, and towards the kind of wines that sommeliers pass around to each other after all the guests go home?

There was, as they say, only one way to find out. Banks was kind enough to spend some time with me on the phone last week, and so I’m happy to present to you the notes from our conversation.

Vinography: So Charles, you’ve made some news this week with the Mayacamas acquisition, just like you did a few weeks ago with the Wind Gap investment. What’s your take on the reaction?

Charles Banks: In the end, I’m the least interesting part of the equation. Those wines, those people, and those places are what it’s all about. To be frank I’d much prefer that our wines were making the news, not talk about the acquisitions. When we started Sandhi, people didn’t give a damn. They said, “Oh, whatever, who knows what those guys are trying to do.”

I think that when you buy something like Mayacamas, of course it’s going to be newsworthy for a lot of reasons. None of which really have anything to do with me, thankfully. When you’ve got an historic winery that has made some of California’s, and frankly the world’s, greatest Cabernets, and there’s been one guy doing all of that since 1968 in something like a time capsule up there, and then you have a transition like this, it’s news.

Vinography: Should the broader world read anything into these two purchases, which seem to move away from the territory held by Jonata and Screaming Eagle and towards something new?

Charles Banks: The world should read a lot into that shift over time. I’m growing up. Our feelings change over time. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have caught me dead making a $10 bottle of wine for instance, but now we own Cultivate, and we’ll produce 50,000 cases of inexpensive wine this year. There’s plenty of room for us all to grow and change. My palate has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Whose hasn’t?

With Jonata I had no idea what I was doing. That’s how I first met Andy Erickson. We brought in winemaker Matt Dees, and decided to do the best we could do with the piece of land that we had. And we did exactly what we set out to do. No one was making wines like that at the time in Santa Barbara. But they were what the land gave us. I didn’t pick the piece of land. My partners found it, I came in and took it over and decided what to plant. It was a unique opportunity, but I couldn’t exactly decide what style of wine I wanted to make. It was a place that made big ripe wines.

Then Screaming Eagle came along. Most people haven’t actually tasted it. It’s not a big extracted wine. Of course, compared to Sandhi, it’s a ripe wine, but alcohols were always in the low 14s. The wines were elegant and feminine, but again, that was the place. We made wines with what the site gave us.

When we started Sandhi we went out and found vineyards and grapes that were very cool climate. My whole wine drinking life, I have preferred fresher-style white wines. Certainly my palate has evolved. There are still big wines that I enjoy — I drink a lot more Chateauneuf-du-Pape than Raj does — but that’s OK. When you look at Wind Gap, Pax [Mahle] was finding sites and making wines that he wanted to make. I absolutely prefer that style of wine.

With Mayacamas it boils down to the specific site. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t make Screaming Eagle up there. The place is going to give us that mountain style, and it’s a place with a story behind it.

But you should know that in addition to being driven by my personal tastes in wine, what I’m doing now in the wine world is influenced by the people I want to be in business with and like working with. I like these people, what they’re doing, and their vision. I’m a venture capitalist in the wine world, but without the upside — there is none. So when Pax has this idea, and I’m excited about it, I can provide help and capital and expertise on how to make it better than it is.

Vinography: Is there more investment to come in these kinds of wine projects?

Charles Banks: There’s two aspects of where we’re going with our investments. We’re looking for wineries that are pushing the envelope. I want to make investments, to back guys like Raj and Pax, that are doing phenomenal things that people weren’t trying to do several years ago. I’m all for that. The other angle is the tack that we’ve taken with Mulderbosch in South Africa. It’s a winery that used to have a great reputation, but has floundered a bit for lack of focus and investment. The wines went from being the talk of the town to being over-oaked, or with high residual sugar in their Sauvignon Blanc. The wines went downhill, but we saw the potential to revitalize the company.

We don’t do a lot of deals. I look at new deals every week and pass on almost everything. You have to weigh all these different things, to see if the opportunity is right and the place is right, and if you have right people and all other things in place.

Vinography: Let’s come back to Mayacamas. Why did you buy it?

Charles Banks: I was up talking with Bob Travers [Mayacamas owner and winemaker]
the other day for lunch and we were tasting through the 2011’s which are brilliant, and I was asking him about how he did that in such a hard vintage. He laughed and said that he was above all those problems. I said to him, “Bob for the last 40 years you’ve been above all the noise.” The guy is the John Wayne of the wine business. He’s not taking shit from anyone.

Not only did I respect that, and was very interested in that — I’ve been talking with him since 2008 about trying to buy it — the place itself is just incredible. You don’t feel like you’re in Napa. It’s so remote, so alone. 465 acres up on the mountain, but 57 acres planted. But those acres are so spread out, it’s like buying 15 different 5-acre Napa estates. It would take you a couple of hours to walk from the furthest block to the furthest block.

It reminds me of a painter’s palette — all those colors — to have that many different diverse blocks to choose from.

In the end, the reason I bought Mayacamas (and I should say, this was a personal purchase that my wife and I and two friends made outside of Terroir Capital — not one of our official investments) is so that I have the freedom to make wines the way I want to, which is to pay attention to what is there and that is it. Nothing else is relevant. I won’t have to think about what any wine critic thinks of the wine. I can make wines the way Bob made them. I can keep that style and not worry whether people think it should be ready to drink when it’s young. It’s incredibly challenging, exciting, and appealing.

Vinography: I appreciate you are a fan of the Mayacamas style, but you’re a new owner, and you’re going to come in with winemaker Andy Erickson and start making the wines, and what most of us want to know is whether this is the end of Mayacamas as we knew it?

Charles Banks: In a way yes, in a way no. When you’ve had one guy doing everything for more than 40 years, and then he’s done, something goes. I respect and appreciate what Bob has done over the last 40 years, and what the vineyards have done over the last 40 years. But Bob is going to Hawaii. He’s ready to go. He’s going to stay at the winery for a few months — it’s an important transition for him, but he’s excited to work with Andy. A lot of people think Andy’s going to come up there and try to make another Screaming Eagle. That’s what Andy’s done but that’s not what he’s about. We are absolutely not going to change the style of the wines.

Vinography: Since you’re quite focused on the style, how do you describe Mayacamas’ style?

Charles Banks: The style as I see it is a strange combination of finesse, elegance and rustic mountain power. The wines can be surprisingly floral, but incredibly tannic. I like that balance you can get in years when you achieve a perfect marriage of finesse and power. The wines last for a really, really long time. In the best vintages, the wines are good when they’re young, when they’re old, for their whole life. But there will be vintages when you can’t achieve that, and you get rustic, hard tannins. But the style is that combination of finesse, elegance and power.

Vinography: OK, but certainly with new ownership there will be changes. What can fans of the wines expect?

Charles Banks: Certainly there will be changes. There will be an evolution over time. The forklift is still an airplane tug with bald tires. We’re going to be upgrading some of the equipment. For now we’re only doing some cleaning and putting in a new press. We’re certainly not married to the equipment, but we are married to the style. We have the freedom to do that.

We will also be slowly replanting some vineyards. I want to get to the point where we’re producing wines like they were in the Sixties, Seventies, and early Eighties. We’ll be sticking with the style, but making the execution better.

Vinography: But if you’re investing a bunch of money in this effort aren’t you going to want to get a return? Won’t that reality alone drive changes? You’re going to want to sell more wine and sell it better than Travers has been able to do. Won’t that drive you to make things more… ahem… commercially viable?

Charles Banks: Let’s start with the fact that from an investing standpoint, if I was a really good businessman, I wouldn’t be investing in the wine business. I’m doing this for a lot of reasons, a lot of which don’t have an opportunity for me to make a return on my capital. I look at this as an opportunity to become a steward.

This is not a suitable investment — not like the ones we make at Terroir. We’re long term oriented at Terroir, but we’re not generationally oriented. When we invest we don’t expect it to take thirty years to turn a profit.

While I don’t want to be bleeding money, I am definitely looking at this as a 20-30 year project.

Now it sounds like you’re asking about what this is going to do to prices. That is a good and reasonable question. In the short term, there will be very little change in pricing. This business has a symbiotic relationship between ownership and the consumer. The consumer gets to vote with their dollars. Do they keep buying, or don’t they, it’s all just whether the wine is living up to their expectations.

But we are making an investment, and that means the price is going to go up. If that price creeps upward over five or six years, and the consumer says “No! these investments are not paying off enough to make me want to pay $65 or $70 a bottle instead of $60,” then we’re in trouble. But ultimately the reality is that the consumer does have to subsidize the investment, but hopefully paying more for wines that are better.

We’re not talking about Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate here, where the pricing equation is all about the power of brand and supply and demand. Our singular goal is to make the best wines we can make. We’ll have to figure out what our customers need to pay to allow us to do that, and be fair at the same time. I’d like my dad to be able to afford a bottle. We’re not going to be jacking up the prices to see what people will pay.

Vinography: I know you’ve done a lot of work with Michel Rolland. Will he be involved at all?

Charles Banks: No. He’s an amazing guy with an amazing palate, that has done some incredible things, but that doesn’t mean he should be doing everything.

Vinography: How involved will you be personally?

Charles Banks: I’m going to be VERY active. Andy and I have been talking for almost two years about the Mayacamas style, and really thinking philosophically about how we are going to do this. I haven’t just hired him and told him to go do his thing. We want to keep things the same, but just make the execution better, and that isn’t easy to do. We’re going to keep our ears and eyes peeled. We’re going to be detailed. I realize how high the stakes are.

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As someone who appreciates Mayacamas wines, I was certainly among those who wondered about what this purchase would mean for the wines. After this conversation with Banks, I’m actually somewhat enthusiastic to see the fruits of his investments into the property. I’ve had my share of funky bottles from Mayacamas over the last few years, and while I definitely still appreciate the idea of a winery that hasn’t changed a thing in decades, I certainly think the wines in some cases could be better.

We will all just have to wait and see what Banks and Erickson manage to do, high up in their mountain hermitage. Given that the current release Cabernet from Mayacamas is still the 2007 vintage, we’ve got another seven years before we truly see what this new chapter in the winery’s history will taste like. But then again, the wines of Mayacamas have always required more than a little patience.

Image of Charles courtesy of Sandhi Wines