Passion Points: Food/Wine
In the spring of 2010, while on a date at Blackberry Farm, Charles and Ali Banks made a list of things they wanted to cultivate during the next decade of their lives. At the time, they were living any aspiring vintner’s fantasy – running Napa’s Screaming Eagle Winery, a producer of very expensive cult wines and one of the world’s truly special vineyards. Despite the fact that they were consistently making wines that scored over 95 points, sold for hundreds of dollars a bottle, and drew waiting lists numbering in the thousands, there were items on their own list that needed some attention – and perhaps new room to grow.
Out of a conviction that wine should be a means of bringing people together (and a hunch that it could also be a powerful instrument of humanitarian ministration), a new brand was born. Cultivate, its name a tribute to the conversation that inspired it, would give its founders the opportunity to make wines to which a much greater number of people could relate – wines that were artfully crafted yet down-to-earth – wines that were sharable. But wine wasn’t the only thing Charles and Ali wanted to share; they also wanted to share the returns – 10% of their gross revenue, to be exact – with non-profit organizations working on behalf of education and basic human needs.
And so they did. Here’s how their innovative business model works: Cultivate’s team creates bespoke blends using grapes that they’ve hand-selected from the best harvests of the season at the best value in the industry. These blends are the product of years of experience, tireless world travel, and obsessive tastings (in Chile last year, chief winemaker Nat Gunter sampled no fewer than 900 lots of Cabernet, Carmenere, and Merlot in order to ensure the label’s now popular Copa Cabana would deliver the perfect amount of spice). Cultivate then donates 10% of quarterly revenue from the sale of these wines to charitable organizations chosen by its consumers. This process, called “The Give”, takes place on the company’s website, where non-profits eagerly campaign for sponsorship, and in turn, visitors vote for the causes they find most compelling. At the end of each quarter, the organizations with the most votes collect their winnings. Cultivate sold its first bottle last November and was able to give away $100,000 this quarter. In just five months, it has already funded 22 different charities.
Indagare spoke to the Ali and Charles about their unique concept and company.
What inspired you to embrace a business model based on giving away a portion of the earnings?
“We’re convinced that integrating business and charity ultimately renders them both more sustainable, and resourceful entrepreneurs are beginning to catch on. Tom’s Shoes is an exemplary success story (for every pair it sells, the wildly popular shoe retailer donates another pair to a child in need). The better we do what we do best, the more money we give away, the more profoundly we impact our community. We believe that this is the future of philanthropy in our country – capitalism that has a ‘give-back’ piece baked into its DNA.”
What are some of the ways in which grant-winning organizations have turned their Cultivate dollars into material support for education and basic human needs?
“Our first $10,000 winner was Jones Valley Urban Farm of Birmingham, Alabama. In 2001, the organization’s founders turned an abandoned downtown lot in into an organic teaching farm. After the transformation was complete, JVUF partnered with local public schools to offer hands-on agriculture and nutrition education to elementary students. The steadily growing program, called “Seed to Plate”, gives children the opportunity to experience the pleasure and satisfaction of planting, growing, harvesting, and preparing their own healthy food. With its Cultivate grant, JVUF was able to add an entire school to its roster.”
Cultivate recently took part in a collaboration between Outstanding in the Field and Blackberry Farm. What will you most remember about the experience?
“Definitely the company. It was wonderful to collaborate with such a passionate team of people – people for whom work is not a job, but a calling. Of course it was also a thrill to debut our wines in a place that is so special to us both.”
Among the Cultivate wines currently in distribution, which is your favorite pick for spring?
Charles: “Spring lamb is one of my favorite seasonal rituals, and it pairs beautifully with rich, rustic Malbecs. I would pick The Gambler, and I would enjoy it with a roasted leg of lamb outside in the garden.”
Ali: “I look forward to drinking brighter, more refreshing wines in the springtime. I would wait until one of those luminous Saturday afternoons when spring and summer are barely distinguishable, and I would load up the boat with friends and a few boxes of Wonderlust, our easygoing Chardonnay from Chile’s Colchagua Valley. Nothing else needed for a perfect East Coast cocktail cruise.”
Which emerging wine regions are most exciting to you right now?
“For its sheer immensity—Argentina. There is just so much land! Someone in Patagonia will make a fabulous Pinot Noir in our lifetime. Priorat in Catalonia also has a really special pioneer energy. The enthusiasm of all of the young people who are getting involved in winemaking is making it feel like a grassroots movement. The region is known for its Grenache, which is one of our favorite underrated grapes. For whites, we are wild about South Africa, which is just beginning to come into its own. Before long, South African winemakers should be making the best white wine for their money in the world. It’s going to be a really fun ten to fifteen-year run.”
Wine and travel can make great companions. Do you have a favorite indulgent vineyard escape (or two) that you’d recommend to oenophile travelers?
“It doesn’t hurt that great wine tends to get made in beautiful places with fabulous weather. For a dreamy Napa getaway, we love the Poetry Inn and its magnificent sweeping views of the surrounding vineyards. For travelers interested in venturing further afield (and further back in vinicultural history), the French medieval village of Saint-Emilion, whose first vineyards were planted by Roman monks in the 2nd century, is home to Hostellerie de Plaisance, a Relais & Chateaux haven with an outstanding restaurant. Then again, as far as natural beauty is concerned, the drama of South Africa’s Cape Winelands is simply unrivaled, with Atlantic and Indian Oceans ever converging in the distance.”
Any vineyards in particular that you’d recommend as part of an easy daytrip from Cape Town?
“The Stellenbosch Valley is famously scenic and less than an hour from Cape Town. We actually own a vineyard there, Mulderbosch, which has a beautiful new tasting room with outdoor seating, bocce courts, and a wood-burning pizza oven. DeMorgenzon would make another interesting stop in the area. The owners have studied the relationship between plant growth and sound energy, and they play classical baroque music to their vines from sun up to sun down! Even more convenient to Cape Town than Stellenbosch Valley is the Constantia Valley, less than 15 miles from the city center. Klein Constantia is one of its oldest and best producers. They make a sweet wine called the Vin de Constance that is off the charts delicious.”
“Todd Rushing’s Midtown Atlanta empire is always a sure bet. You couldn’t go wrong with any of his restaurants, but Two Urban Licks (820 Ralph McGill Blvd.; 404-522-4622) is especially fun, with soulful small plates and great live music. The menu at Holeman and Finch Public House (2277 Peachtree Rd.; 404-948-1175), another favorite, is wonderfully creative and unpretentious. We also love Local Three (3290 Northside Parkway; 404-968-2700). The three locals who run it are serious about libations. It has a great funky wine list.
“As for the West Coast, dinner on the Stonehouse Terrace at San Ysidro Ranch is one of Santa Barbara’s greatest pleasures. The setting is magical at almost any time of year, with a wood-burning fireplace and gorgeous views to the Pacific. Tre Lune (1151 Coast Village Rd.; 805-969-2646), also in Montecito, is our local go-to for classic northern Italian fare and wines to match.
What will you “cultivate” next?
“Fable, our new vineyard in the Tulbagh Valley. More remote and challenging than Mulderbosch, Fable is tucked into the folds of the majestic Witzenberg Mountains. We’re excited about our plans to add rustic accommodations – perhaps tree houses or yurts, and open Fable to overnight visitors. We farm biodynamically there, battling severe weather, fires, leopards and baboons, but we make beautiful wines that tell the story of the place and its environment.”
Read Indagare’s destination report on Santa Barbara.
Read an article on blending your own wine.
Read a Q&A with a wine maker from Oregon.
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