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Undercover Wine Boss

Kendall-Jackson president Rick Tigner gave viewers (and himself) a candid look at daily life in the vineyards and warehouses of a big winery
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 30, 2012 4:00pm ET

Kendall-Jackson president Rick Tigner made his reality television debut last night on CBS' Undercover Boss, in which executives at large companies pretend to be new low-level hires to get a look at a typical day in the life of one of their blue collar (or no collar) employees. Having met Tigner, I have to say that the makeup and disguise made him fairly unrecognizable.

For a first-time viewer of the show, it impressed me on several fronts, perhaps most because it embraced the inner workings of the wine business. Most shows that cover wine still portray it as a romantic endeavor. Not Undercover Boss.

Here are a few observations I jotted down last night:

• The show presented winemaking as mostly about farming and hard work in the vineyards. It also touched on production (the bottling line) and distribution (trucking).

• Without Hispanics, California wine as we know it probably wouldn't exist. Those who work in the vineyards, or cellars, or tasting rooms are by and large dedicated and loyal to their firms. But there is no perfect company to work for; Rene the truck driver told Tigner what he really thought. And while language barriers exist, most people I know who work directly with Hispanics at least know some Spanish.

• I was surprised that Kendall-Jackson is reportedly making 5 million cases of wine a year.

• Tigner's wife, Wendy, is delightful. I had the pleasure of meeting the couple recently. Wendy is bravely battling Parkinson's disease, and Rick gets emotional several times during his time away from his family during the episode.

Kendall-Jackson's late founder, Jess Jackson, put K-J in a great position for the future. He better than most understood wine as an agricultural business, with vineyards the key to quality and success.

• The segment in the episode on K-J's tasting room reminded me that tasting rooms really are like bars, where the emphasis is less on "tasting" and more on "drinking." Unlike bars, however, customers get huge discounts (something along the line of 50 percent at K-J) which makes them quite the draw.

Did you see this episode of Undercover Boss? You can check it out on the CBS website or buy it on iTunes if you missed it. What did you think?


Linda Rush
Camarillo, California, USA —  January 30, 2012 10:17pm ET
What impressed me most was the show’s focus on Rick Tigner’s own humanity and compassion for the company’s labor base. In this era of corporate greed, that Tigner could be so moved by the real life challenges of the company’s employees in both their work and personal lives was hopeful. It makes me want to buy Kendall-Jackson.
Deborah Tulchin
New York, NY —  January 31, 2012 11:06am ET
What shocked me most was that K-J did not have a 401K plan for its employees. Tigner claimed that was a 1 million dollar expense, when many 401Ks are primarily funded by employee contributions. I'm glad to hear he was planning to reinstate the plan, but dismayed that this was targeted for cost cutting in the first place.
Tim Mc Donald
Napa,CA —  January 31, 2012 3:40pm ET
I too saw this show for the first time and was impressed with the way that the "Boss" explored the very inner workings as un-romantic as they really are at a winery. Frankly, it was a bit surprising to learn how out of touch the boss was as it relates to shipping, bottling, delivery, grape growing, tasting rooms, etc. I was shocked by the fact that they did not have a solid retirement plan in place or health care options for an employee working 38 hours a week. Makes you wonder. Cheers to KJ for doing it!
Ray Ondrejech
San Luis Obispo, CA —  February 1, 2012 10:27am ET
Having seen Undercover Boss numerous times -- my wife loves it -- it pretty much fit the standard pattern of events. And as someone who deals with drivers like Rene, I can certainly understand his attitude. So many vendors/bars/restaurants are ridiculously tough on drivers. It's the "You come back when I ready to receive you" attitude, except the driver has 29 more stops and they all think they're the number one account. As for language in the vineyards, as a Californian, I can certainly say that management has a responsibility to have at least a basic level of Spanish to effectively and safely manage their workers. The flip side to that is that as a worker, working in the U.S., he or she should make some effort to be able to communicate with their management at a basic level. The paycheck is in U.S. dollars. Having lived in Italy for 2 1/2 years, I certainly didn't expect the local population to communicate with me in English -- I learned some basic Italian... And out of curiosity, how much longer can this show last? If some reality show came in my place of work and said a potential new employee was curious about the job and then screwed up every task, I think I might be suspicious. I think the show is on it's third season or so, and it's the same drill every episode...
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  February 2, 2012 6:34pm ET
Doesn't it seem like anyone obtaining a degree in enology should be required to take some basic language courses depending on the country where they plan to work? That's just common sense.
Vinnin Square Liquors
swampscott, ma usa —  February 2, 2012 7:54pm ET
just curious, how come there are no KJ wines reviewed in the Wine Spectator since the 2006 vintage?
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  February 4, 2012 3:18pm ET
Well, there are some other Jackson Family labels with some later ratings, but they all seem to kind of disappear after 2007 or so....

Eric Hall-
Roadhouse Winery
Michael Henderson
Martinez, CA —  February 4, 2012 10:29pm ET
It was apparent to me that the communication problem the CEO spoke about starts at the top. Mr. Tigner didn't have clue what employees do. From the driver to the bottling line. Having workers work 35 hours as a part timer with no benefits is disgraceful. Then announcing on TV that they were reinstating their 401k program was even worse. And they sell 5M cases a year!!

KJ is a very successful wine company. However, after watching this program I doubt I will buy KJ wines in the future.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  February 5, 2012 5:33pm ET
I finally got to watch the episode, and I was shocked at apparently how little Mr. Togner knew about the everyday workings of the business. Of course, that could have been played up (or edited) for TV, but it still was amazing to me. Winemaking isn't all that complicated. And while KJ is a big company, it's core business is actually very focused and simplistic, from a process standpoint.

And I think the truck driver got a raw deal. Mr. Tigner kept using his buzz word phrase "concierge service", whithout actually listening to Rene. Rene was right - his customers are the people he delivers to - and they should be his focus. And it sounded like those were the people he cared about and "fought" for. I think Mr. Tigner blew it; he should have addressed Rene's issues instead of throwing him under the bus.

And I always wonder what it will do for company morale when a few workers get selected for special treatment/rewards.... Wouldn't it have been better to address issues company-wide? Maybe Mr. Tigner did, which is my hope.
Paul P Ritter
San Jose, CA —  February 5, 2012 8:35pm ET
Brian, I just finished the episode online and agree completely with you. Though I think Rene came out of it pretty well... he was not "Trumped". BTW, still working out my spring order.

Vinnin Square and Eric as to KJ wine reviews, I believe (and could be wrong on this) but wines must be submitted for review by WS. No submission no review.
Amy Gardner
Sacramento, CA —  February 21, 2012 10:23pm ET
Hi Mr. Laube,
I am a ravenous fan of Undercover Boss, and was so thrilled when KJ and Rick were a part of it. I think it is easy to forget some of the most important jobs in the wine industry, and the show did a great job of representing those. For many of the show's viewers, the jobs shadowed would be very relevant. I think Rick showed a lot of humanity, and I am glad he's at the helm now.

I agree with an earlier post that someone has got to get a clue soon when a "job changer" is coming in to a position and getting video taped the entire time. Luckily no one has tried to do that at my company--yet.

I really liked the areas the show covered, viticulture, bottling (the best part I think of the show), shipping and tasting room. It is great to make the wine, but without people buying it in the tasting room, or at a restaurant or a store, the whole thing falls apart. So I will happily don my viking helmet and toast to KJ and Rick Tigner. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

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