Jess Jackson, who passed away today, thrived on competition, and often confrontation.
It didn't matter whether it was the legal profession, where he was a high-powered trial lawyer, or wine, where he became an industry titan with a global empire, or horse racing, where his thoroughbreds challenged the best. He was one of the three most influential vintners of his times, right there with Ernest Gallo and Robert Mondavi.
I met Jackson in 1986, when he was still an attorney, shortly after he had started K-J with the famous stuck fermentation, "sweet" Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. At the time, he represented Joseph Gallo, Ernest and Julio's younger brother, in their lawsuit. Joseph had started the Joseph Gallo cheese company; his brothers claimed a trademark infringement. Both sides claimed the right to the Gallo name and trademark, and Joseph, with Jackson's counsel, raised the ante, seeking a one-third interest in the Gallo winery, then worth about $1 billion.
Ernest and Julio eventually prevailed after a long, drawn-out legal battle. By the time the case ended, Jackson was a full-fledged vintner. Years later, Jackson again tangled in court with the Gallos in a copycat lawsuit. He claimed the Gallos' Turning Leaf label traded off K-J's label dress. Both labels had similar-looking leaves. The Gallos prevailed.
When it came to wine, Jackson proved a quick study, starting in Lake County, but eventually becoming a force in both Napa and Sonoma counties, with dozens of labels. He borrowed from the best. He had the innovative spirit of Robert Mondavi. He adopted the aggressive marketing and distributing clout of the Gallos. He even shared the Gallos' penchant for secrecy; he ended up in court claiming that he had a "secret" formula for K-J Chardonnay, the secret being that he added sugar to the wine before bottling.
He also understood better than most the importance of great vineyards, and the company he built relied on securing the best vineyards. He waged vineyard battles with both Mondavi and Beringer over Central Coast vineyards, which drove his K-J Chardonnay, and often outflanked both of them, beating them at their own game.
Jackson had a surprisingly good palate. I say that because many winery executives don't. But he did, and could hold his own in blind tastings, which he staged with me on occasion to showcase his wines against the best. He actually knew great wines and hired top-flight winemakers and executives to run his company, even luring one of Mondavi's best winemakers, Charles Thomas, to work for him.
I enjoyed Jackson's intellect and even his confrontational style. He insisted, for example, that his K-J Chardonnay was the best wine in the world, based on sales. It was similar to Ernest Gallo's assertion that Gallo Hearty Burgundy was the world's greatest wine. What he really meant was it was the biggest seller.
At some point Jackson seemed to tire of the wine business. Perhaps he felt he had accomplished all he needed. He turned his energy to thoroughbred racing, where his competitive and combative style led both to many victories, along with a few lawsuits, suing some of racing’s big names.
Whatever the sport, he usually ended up in court and the winner's circle: An odd combination, but one that in part defined his personality, a true warrior.
Mike Olszewski — Newcastle, WA, USA — April 22, 2011 12:07am ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — April 22, 2011 12:11am ET
Rick Garced — Miami Beach, FL USA — April 24, 2011 8:21am ET
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