Kevin Parkers career as a biodynamic winemaker did not
get off to a promising start. Shortly after he purchased
Chateau Maris, in Frances Languedoc region, in 1997,
local vineyard owners, fearful that grapes grown without
chemical agents would hurt their own crops, nailed a bloody
sheeps head to his door and made threatening phone
Undeterred, the American sought advice from industry legend
Anne-Claude Leflaive, a biodynamic pioneer in the vaunted
Burgundy region. Today most of the best Bordeaux and Burgundies
are biodynamically farmed a little-known fact outside
the world of winemaking, Parker explains.
A longtime equity derivatives trader and asset management
executive who spent years at Deutsche Bank before co-founding
his own equity investment firm, Sustainable Insight Capital
Management, Parker has faced similar, albeit less bloody,
obstacles in his day job. Like biodynamic winemaking, so-called
ESG investing the practice of making investments that
adhere to environmental, social responsibility, and corporate
governance principles is often met with skepticism.
The conventional wisdom in the asset management world
is that you must give up returns in order to invest sustainably
and responsibly, says Parker. The wine world shares
much the same view that you give up taste and quality by
buying organic wine. It turns out that both of these notions
are generally wrong.
I arrived at Sustainable Insights offices, on the 12th
floor of an office building in Manhattans Flatiron
neighborhood, on a chilly evening a few days before Christmas,
just as the last of the dim winter sunlight was flickering out.
The firms 14 employees had left for the day, and Parker
was preparing a tasting of wines from Chateau Maris, which he
co-owns with Robert Eden, a nephew of former British prime
minister Anthony Eden.
Tall, with graying hair, Parker, 57, has the air of a Wall
Street financier but the business-casual attire one would
expect of a sustainable-investment executive. That winter
day he sported a blue-checked button-down shirt, a brown
plaid wool jacket, and khaki slacks. As he prepared to share
his wines, lined up on a high-top table adjacent to the small
kitchen in his whitewashed, open-plan workspace, he described
the course of his career.
Parker got his start in equity derivatives during a
seven-year stint at Morgan Stanleys Tokyo office. In
1993, at the request of the firms then-president,
John Mack, Parker took a detour to serve as chief information
officer back in the U.S., where he rolled out distributed
computing and all of the firms global trading
applications. We were the first firm in the world to have
a fully functional global intranet operating, he says
proudly of his days in IT. Despite that accomplishment, Parker
yearned to return to his roots.It was a fun time, but by
97 I wanted to get back to the business side.
He began running Deutsche Banks equity derivatives
business in 1997 the same year he bought Chateau Maris
building out the banks prime brokerage and
proprietary trading businesses. He rose to global head of
institutional equities in 2000. Four years later he was named
global head of Deutsche Asset Management.
That same year Chateau Maris was certified chemical-free.
Parker had spent years converting the property from a
traditional vineyard in France such vineyards are
permitted to use 65 different chemicals to a biodynamic
At our December tasting the first wine is a 2010 Oeuf Neuf
(egg nine), made from Grenache grapes. The cement
fermentation tanks that hold the wine are egg-shaped, and the
wine is aged for 999 days. Parker, who enjoys numbers, tells me
that he made 999 bottles of this wine.
Were putting all of our wines in the eggs now
for some period of time because of the effect its having
on the wines, he says. I am delighted by the rich,
Rhône-like quality of the Oeuf Neuf, with notes of red
cherry and dark chocolate. Parker is clearly pleased. If
you want to make a wine that has universal appeal, he
says, you search for elegance in the glass and that soft,
subtle feel in the mouth.
Parkers work as a biodynamic winemaker spurred his
interest in sustainable investing; he launched DB Climate
Change Advisors at Deutsche Asset Management in 2006,
appointing Mark Fulton as global head of climate change
investment research and Bruce Kahn as director and senior
In 2013 they opened their own shop, with seed capital from
Capricorn investment Group, the family office of Jeff Skoll,
who was the second employee at eBay. (Skolls movie
company, Participant Media, produced Al Gores documentary
on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth.) Sustainable
Insight Capital has since attracted an investment from the
Kresge Foundation, whose CIO, Robert Manilla, sits on its
The second wine of the evening, a 2012 Les Planels, is made
mostly from Syrah grapes, which along with Grenache are the two
leading grapes of the Languedoc region. It has the spicy,
peppery flavor typical of the grape but feels softer in the
mouth than most Syrahs. With a 93-point rating, its a
bargain at $25 retail.
Not unlike the challenges he encountered when starting a
biodynamic vineyard, Parker is facing major headwinds in
growing his investment firm, which manages $330 million in
assets. Not only does his firm have to contend with the stigma
surrounding the return potential of ESG investments, it is an
active manager at a time when passive management is king.
I honestly believed we were going to have more assets
on the platform by now, Parker admits, acknowledging the
mass migration to passive investing. ESG or no ESG, the
world doesnt need another long-only asset manager who
cant add value. We must have something that we know is
going in the bottle, that over the long term is going to
differentiate us. Otherwise wed be crazy.
Theres a lot going on in our final bottle of the
evening, a 2011 Les Amandiers. The well-balanced wine is aged
in new oak barrels and sold in a heavy bottle that befits its
top-of-the-line status. Its a dark, rich wine, still
young; despite its eminent potability this evening, it could
benefit from five more years in the bottle to integrate the
As he packs up samples for me to take home, Parker says he
is very confident of his firms position.
Perhaps that confidence stems in part from his success in
overcoming the early trials of Chateau Maris. Its hard to
imagine a more stubborn group than French grape farmers, but
ten years later all those hostile neighbors have converted
their own vineyards to biodynamic farming. And the
investors wines have won accolades. Wine
Spectator magazine in 2005 named us the 59th best wine in
the world, Parker notes.