The Robb Reader: Charles Banks
A conversation with the vintner and investor.
Charles Banks has had the good fortune—not to mention the energy and ingenuity—to build a series of successful enterprises around activities that many of us associate with leisure. At the San Francisco–based wealth-management firm CSI Capital Management, Banks managed the assets of professional sports figures; he also formed a partnership to purchase Screaming Eagle—the Napa Valley estate that produces California’s much-envied Cabernet—and to found Jonata Winery, now one of the most respected labels in Santa Barbara County. As a managing partner of Terroir Capital, LLC, an investment company focused on the wine and hospitality industries, he has acquired such restful destinations as Blackberry Farm, the celebrated resort in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, and more recently the historic Mayacamas Vineyards in Napa Valley.
When did you first become interested in wine?
I was 24 years old. Since I was in both finance and the sports business with athletes as clients, I couldn’t really relax by watching SportsCenter at night. So I unwound by learning about wine. It was something completely outside of my business at the time.
Was there a particular region that interested you?
California was where it started for me. My wife, Ali, and I were living in Atlanta, but my firm was in San Francisco, so I was coming to California often. I was reading much more about Bordeaux and Burgundy, but it was easy to drink California wine, and I’d been there. You derive a connection from a place when you’ve been to the vineyard. Somehow, the wine tastes better. But it was hard 23 years ago to find stuff to read about California. Most of the literature focused on France.
Many buyers still view certain French wines as investment grade.
I love the term investment wine, because there’s no such thing. What most people today call investing is actually speculating. You’re buying something and hoping it goes up. You can invest in a vineyard, because you’re actually purchasing a physical asset that has a use, whereas you’re merely hoping that the bottle of wine you buy and stick on a shelf goes up in value. It has no use, unless you drink it.
What regions most excite your palate these days?
I like wines that have a tension to them and some excitement. I’m happy to have a delicious red Burgundy or a really jammy Cabernet or California Pinot Noir. You’ve got to learn to love it all to be a true wine aficionado. I’m always stunned by how much I enjoy Chenin Blanc from South Africa, and if you and I are having dinner, I’m probably going to pull out a Chevalier-Montrachet or something like that. New Zealand is extraordinarily exciting. Some of its Syrahs are better than anything that we’re seeing here in the United States. And certain areas of France, like the Jura, are really coming on.
Besides wine, what do you collect?
The most important thing that Ali and I collect in our lives is friendships and relationships. I don’t spend a lot of time collecting books or cars. I love to drive cars. I love watches. I love craftsmanship. But wine seems to be the only thing that we actually collect—or accumulate to share. If you come to my house, I don’t care what you see in my cellar; if you want it, we’re drinking it.
What does living well mean to you?
Bringing joy to other people and making them feel good about themselves. In business, it means being able to provide opportunity and a culture for people to thrive doing something they are passionate about rather than just collecting a paycheck. I don’t think we’re happiest when we go home at the end of the day having just taken care of ourselves. But when we do something for somebody else, that’s when we feel absolutely at our best.