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."