Jess Jackson, founder of California’s Kendall-Jackson and owner of 30 other brands and 14,000 acres of vineyards, died April 21 after a long battle with cancer at the age of 81. Although he didn’t plant a vineyard until he was in his mid-40s, and didn’t bottle his own wine until he was 52, Jackson packed more accomplishments into his 37 years in the wine business than any other American.
Those who follow the industry are obviously aware that Jackson was one of the most powerful vintners in the United States, if not the world. Through the founding of new wineries and brands, and the acquisition of others, Jackson and his wife, Barbara Banke, built a Jackson Family Wines empire that today includes, in addition to Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, the Arrowood, Edmeades, Hartford Family, La Crema, Matanzas Creek, Murphy-Goode, Stonestreet and Verite brands in Sonoma County; Atalon, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, La Jota and Lokoya in Napa Valley; Byron in Santa Barbara County; Carmel Road in Monterey County; Calina in Chile; Chateau Lassegue in France; Tenuta di Arceno in Italy; and Yangarra in Australia. (Cambria Estate Winery, in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley, is separately owned by Banke.)
That’s a whole lot of wine, and wine business, that will need to be attended to now that the founder is gone. Yet it appears that Jackson, through shrewd estate planning and trust establishments, has left the company in secure hands: To his wife, children, grandkids, son-in-law Don Hartford, and CEO Rick Tigner.
Hartford and Tigner have worked for the company for two decades. Banke, an accomplished attorney in her own right, has seemed to be a level-headed influencer of her husband’s business decisions. The empire will not crumble with Jess’ departure; if it does, those to which he entrusted the business will be held accountable.
True, the recession forced Jackson to consolidate production in the last few years, as it did many California wine companies.
Matanzas Creek, previously made at the Bennett Valley winery founded by Sandra and Bill McIver in 1978 and purchased by Jackson in 2000, is now produced at Stonestreet Winery in Alexander Valley, although the tasting room remains open at the original site. Winemaking for Sonoma Valley icon Arrowood Vineyards & Winery is, sadly, now in Napa Valley, at Jackson’s Cardinale Estate in Oakville. Freemark Abbey wines are also vinified and bottled at Cardinale, although the 1889 St. Helena stone winery is still used as a tasting room. The Zinfandels of Edmeades, originally located in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, and the Murphy-Goode bottlings, are produced at the giant Vinwood Cellars in Geyserville (Alexander Valley).
The understandable downsizing also brought layoffs of a guestimated 170 Jackson Family Wines employees; the company refused to confirm numbers, and has always had an “our business is not your business” stance with the media and others seeking information. Even after the intensely private Jackson was diagnosed with melanoma a few years ago -- reported by employees, not company spokespeople -- he continued to lead the company, and as it turns out, restructuring it to thrive after his passing.
In 1974, Jackson and his first wife, Jane Kendall, purchased an 80-acre walnut and pear orchard in Lake County. At the time, he was an accomplished San Francisco attorney, and the Lakeport property, which the couple replanted to wine grapes, was supposed to be a get-away second home. Yet by the time Jackson and Kendall began selling their grapes to other wineries, they decided to create their own, Chateau du Lac. In 1982, they bottled the now-famous Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, which would become the best-selling wine in America, and continues to hold a strong sales position today.
It’s a story often-told, yet bears repeating: The Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay was created by a happy winemaking mistake -- a stuck fermentation that left some residual sugar in the wine. It was bottled, and sold, and earned tremendous consumer support. Americans unaccustomed to drinking wine, yet eager to embrace the custom, lapped up this slightly sweet, rich, oak-influenced Chardonnay, and it skyrocketed to stardom.
Among his other efforts: Jackson formed his own California distribution company, Regal, to bypass the large wholesalers whose consolidation left little time for salespeople to hand-sell wines. He started his own cooperage, to get better barrels than those he was purchasing. He helped create the Family Winemakers of California organization, to market the wines of family-owned producers.
But Jackson didn’t win every battle. He took E&J Gallo to court for trademark infringement, claiming that Gallo’s Turning Leaf label looked very much like the trademarked Kendall-Jackson leaf, and lost (Healdsburg elders snickered that Jess actually stole the city’s grape leaf logo). In the late 1990s, he sought approval, and was denied, for a California Coastal American Viticultural Area, a 14 million-acre appellation that would have encompassed the North Coast, Sonoma Coast, Central Coast and South Coast AVAs, from Mendocino County to San Diego County. The federal government wisely said no to this ridiculousness.
Successful businesspeople make as many enemies as they do friends, and Jackson had his share of both. Yet he should be remembered for his and Barbara’s philanthropy. They donated huge sums to charitable organizations in Sonoma County and elsewhere, including the Redwood Empire Food Bank. As recently as February 2011, they gave $3 million to UC Davis for a wine research center devoted to sustainable agricultural practices.
In the last decade of his life, Jackson spent millions on his horse racing and horse breeding business in Kentucky, Stonestreet Stables. That story is another column entirely, best suited to the sports pages and full of conflict and intrigue, yet know that Jackson was as successful at the ponies as we was at Pinot Noir. Two of his horses, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, won Triple Crown races and were honored as Horse of the Year (Curlin in 2007 and 2008, Rachel Alexandra in 2009). The two mated in February, and a potential superhorse is in gestation.
Jess Jackson is gone, yet he leaves a legacy of excellence and successful commerce for his family and close associates to continue. It’s up to them to make good on his trust.