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An Unprecedented Peek Inside Kendall-Jackson

Looking at the past, present and future of the empire Jess Jackson built
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 17, 2012 11:00am ET

Jess Jackson was a force of nature. Anyone who knew him could tell you that. A big guy, he had shoulders like a fireplace mantel and a bold swath of white hair in his later years. He was charming and had a big heart, but at times could be mercurial and stubbornly private. He was driven and unashamedly competitive. He was also a self-made billionaire who started from scratch—less than scratch, really.

That's how I describe Jackson in "The House That Jess Jackson Built" for the Nov. 15 issue of Wine Spectator. Jackson, who created a wine empire around Kendall-Jackson wines, died in April 2011 yet his legacy looms large.

His company for the uninitiated is Jackson Family Wines, which includes 35 different brands that produce 5 million cases annually. Kendall-Jackson is by far the largest brand, with La Crema approaching it rapidly. Other key wineries include Arrowood, Matanzas Creek, Byron, Cambria, Lokoya and Yangarra from Australia.

Over the course of several months I sat down for a series of interviews with his wife, Barbara Banke, and family, winemakers and current and former executives of Jackson Family Wines. I tasted dozens of wines and toured wineries and vineyards.

I'm not a big navel-gazer, but it was among the more demanding stories I've written in 30 years in journalism. There was a love-hate relationship between Jackson and the California wine industry, and that's not something that's easy to navigate.

I met Jackson several times over the years but I have to say that I learned a lot about him researching the story. He was raised during the Great Depression, for example, and his family scraped to get by. He was just a kid when he started his first business, selling eggs and chickens at a trolley stop in San Francisco's working-class Inner Sunset district. He went on to be a successful San Francisco lawyer and later launched one of the most influential wine brands in California history.

The company guards its privacy, not unusual for most private firms, but I was allowed uncommon access, and my goal was to write the most intimate portrait I could of Jackson and his company—past, present and future. It was a fascinating story for me to explore and I believe consumers and industry insiders will feel the same way when they read it.

What's your perspective on Jackson, his company and wines? If you knew Jackson, are there any memories you'd like to share? Any thoughts on the future of Kendall-Jackson and the other wineries? I'd also welcome any feedback on my article, "The House That Jess Jackson Built."

Tim Mc Donald
Napa,CA —  October 17, 2012 2:23pm ET
A very very nicely done article Mr. Fish... Jess was a very tenacious man and contributor to us all in the wine biz. I would compare him a bit to Mr Jobs at Apple. You wrote a completely balanced story in the "cabernet" issue which could easily have been double the 7 pages. I always wanted to work there but did not have the opportunity. One time, Jess said to me in 1999 whilst I was at Geyser Peak(which edged out KJ for most awarded winery), to enjoy it while it lasts and that he was going to beat us next year...and did just that! Cheers!
Steve Spadarotto
St. Helena, CA —  October 17, 2012 5:06pm ET
I had the pleasure of working for Mr. Jackson and the family for seven years, first as General Manager of Cambria Winery and then as COO of Jackson Family Farms. While he was indeed driven and competitive by nature, he was also a remarkably kind and generous man. His legacy was built on quality, and I think that legacy is in good hands today.

I look forward to reading your article with great anticipation.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 18, 2012 6:52am ET
Jess Jackson was instrumental in pushing thru the Federal Approval of the Bennett Valley Appellation. After this was approved, and at no small expense, he held a tasting/media event at Matanzas Creek Winery (one of the wineries that he owned, located in Bennett Valley). Very generously, he invited other wineries who made Bennett Valley wines to not only show their wines at that event, but also to participate on various media panels and talk about Bennett Valley as a growing region.

Both Mike Officer, who owns Carlisle Winery, and I were invited to pour. I distinctly remember, just prior to the beginning of the event, Mike and I talking about how difficult cash flow can be as a small winery, and Mike's difficutl decision as to whether they were making sufficient money to purchase a new car. I commiserated with him, and we were talking about how we didn't know if there was any real money to be made in the wine business. Fairly suddenly, our conversation was interrupted by Jess, arriving in his personal helicopter, seemingly showing both me and Mike that truly there is money to be made in the wine business, if you just do it the "right way."

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Dave Pramuk
Napa, CA, USA —  October 19, 2012 1:40pm ET
When I went to work for Kendall Jackson in sales and PR in Napa Valley in 2000, they forewarned me that the company "was an aircraft carrier that the captain operated like a speedboat." Because he started the whole thing later in life - like a second career - he managed with urgency. Jess thought big and made bold, visionary decisions - seemingly on the fly and at the risk of throwing the company for a loop and frustrating managers.
In my opinion, his success grew from surrounding himself with highly talented sales and marketing staff and winemakers and providing them with a platform for success. Marketing won out over accounting. His competitiveness raised raised the ante and made the whole industry try harder.

Dave Pramuk
Robert Biale Vineyards

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