Sonoma County Vintner Jess Jackson Dies at 81

The self-made man built a company of more than 30 brands on a foundation of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay
Apr 21, 2011

Jess Jackson, who built a wine empire around Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, becoming a self-made billionaire and one of the most influential and controversial producers in the United States, died in Sonoma County early this morning. He was 81 years of age. The intensely private Jackson reportedly had been undergoing treatment for melanoma for several years.

During nearly three decades, Jackson launched or acquired more than 30 wine brands in California, Italy, South America, Australia and France. Combined, they currently produce more than 5 million cases annually. In addition to Kendall-Jackson, the labels include La Crema, Stonestreet, Cardinale, Arrowood and Matanzas Creek in California, Villa Arceno in Italy, Yangarra in Australia and Château Lassègue in Bordeaux.

Jackson was a maverick by nature, often mercurial and unabashedly competitive. A savvy businessman, he preferred to meet challenges head-on. “I think he enjoyed a good scrap,” said winemaker Richard Arrowood, a friend of many years who later worked for Jackson for four years. “He was a pistol, no two ways about it. But no one could ever call him stupid.”

Jess Stonestreet Jackson was born Feb. 18, 1930, and was raised in San Francisco’s working-class Sunset District. His introduction to wine came while breaking bread with Italian neighbors who made wine at home. Laboring at the docks in San Francisco and as a Berkeley policeman, he worked his way through the University of California at Berkeley, where he also graduated from Boalt Law School.

By the early 1970s, he was a successful attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area, specializing in land-use and property rights issues. He was one of the founders of the American California Trial Lawyer’s Association, penned legislation and rewrote sections of the California Code of Civil procedure.

In 1974, Jackson and his first wife, Jane Kendall Jackson, bought a farm in Lake County, north of Napa Valley, and began converting the pear and walnut orchards into vineyards. But by the early 1980s Jackson was having trouble selling his grapes and began making his own wine.

Jackson combined his name with his wife’s maiden name to create the Kendall-Jackson label. The winery’s initial success was quite by accident. While making the 1982 Chardonnay, the fermentation became stuck, which meant the yeast stopped converting sugar into alcohol, leaving the wine slightly sweet. Jackson brought in various winemakers to resolve the situation but to no avail.

Jackson decided to release the wine anyway, labeling it Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. It was a hit with consumers.

The popularity of California Chardonnay first soared in the 1980s, thanks in part to the success of Vintner’s Reserve, and in doing so created a new category of wines, the so-called Fighting Varietals. They were good-quality wines called by their grape variety, priced at $5 to $10 to compete with generic blends like "Mountain Chablis" and "Hearty Burgundy.” As Jackson explained to the Santa Rosa, Calif., newspaper in 1995, “There was a hole in the market I could drive a truck through.”

Jackson and his first wife divorced in the early '80s and he soon married Barbara Banke, who became his lifelong partner in wine. Originally an attorney, Banke took on numerous landmark cases during her 12 years practicing law and argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the early days of their marriage, Banke helped with the winery’s legal department but her role quickly expanded from overseeing specific wineries to sharing overall management with Jackson.

During the '80s and '90s Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates grew at a phenomenal rate, and Jackson relocated the company headquarters from remote Lake County to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County in the early '90s. “We built this company against the odds,” Jackson told Wine Spectator in 1995. “So I can't be a pussycat. I'm a hard-nosed competitor but I have a compassion for what got me here and I still have compassion for the little guy.”

Backed by the Kendall-Jackson cash machine, Jackson focused increasingly on quality by launching or acquiring artisan-scale wineries such as Stonestreet in Alexander Valley and Cardinale and Lokoya in Napa. He was also a founding member of Family Winemakers of California, a trade group that now includes 650 members.

By 2000, Jackson began positioning the Kendall-Jackson brand for sale, reportedly drawing the interest of Diageo and other international wine and spirits firms. After Jackson reportedly turned down a $1.6 billion offer from Brown-Forman Corporation, he took the winery off the market.

Instead of selling, Jackson began a buying spree. Between 2000 and 2006, his company acquired Arrowood, Freemark Abbey, Murphy-Goode, Matanzas Creek, Byron, Robert Pecota and La Jota in California, and Château Lassègue in Bordeaux. It also created new brands such as Carmel Road, Verite, Anakota, Archipel and Ray’s Station.

Below the radar of most observers, Jackson was building an extensive holding of vineyards and other real estate. At one point, the company reportedly owned about 25,000 acres along the California Coast, of which 14,000 acres were planted to vines. “It’s a huge farming operation,” one former high-ranking employee said.

Forbes magazine first named Jackson to its list of the wealthiest people in the world in 2000, estimating his wealth to be in the billions, and with wife Banke he enjoyed an affluent lifestyle, often touring his vineyards by helicopter and traveling around the world in a private jet.

Growing up during the Depression, Jackson had a fascination with horses. At age 6 he had his own pony at his grandfather's ranch in Yoakum, Texas, and at age 9 he saw Seabiscuit race in California. Returning to those roots in 2003, he began investing in racehorses, reportedly spending more than $200 million.

He clearly had an eye for champions. His first thoroughbred, Curlin, earned more prize money than any racehorse in history. The horse won both the Preakness Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2007, as well as the 2008 Dubai World Cup, on its way to being named Horse of the Year in both 2007 and 2008. Jackson’s filly Rachel Alexandra won the 2009 Preakness.

Most wine producers suffered during the recent recession and Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates was no exception. Since 2000, high-ranking managers came and went, and at one point Jackson officially retired, only to retake the reins again a few years later. In the past two years there were a series of high-profile layoffs that included longtime winemakers, and Jackson sold vineyards and closed or consolidated many winemaking facilities, including his original Lake County winery as well as Matanzas Creek and Freemark Abbey.

Jackson was always one to trust his instincts, never shying from controversy. “Jess liked to zig when most people zagged,” said one former executive. In 1992 Jackson won a bitter lawsuit against former winemaker Jed Steele that prohibited Steele from divulging the winemaking formula for Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. In 1997 he lost a suit against industry giant E. & J. Gallo Winery that claimed its Turning Leaf label was a copycat of Vintner’s Reserve. More recently, he sued several thoroughbred horse traders, but later settled out of court.

As Jackson’s health began to fail in recent years, rumors about sales and succession plans were widespread in the Northern California industry. Officially, the company is owned by the Jackson family, with Jackson and Banke at the helm and each of his five children holding a stake: Jenny and Laura from his first marriage and Christopher, Julia and Katherine with Banke.

Jackson had frequently stated that individual wineries would be inherited by specific family members. Daughter Jenny and her husband, Don Hartford, for example, are expected to become sole owners of Hartford Family Winery. The fate of the juggernaut Kendall-Jackson brand remains the biggest unknown, but former insiders say a sale is not out of the question.

Obituaries United States California News

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