Feature Story

Jess Jackson: A Remembrance

Jess Jackson died at his home on April 21, after a long battle with cancer. The founder of Kendall-Jackson Vineyards and Jackson Family Farms, he remained active in the companies until the end, though he had long ago passed most of his 14,000 acres of vineyards, along with his interests in Kendall-Jackson and 34 other wineries and brands, to his family and foundations.

Jackson, who came to wine as a second career at the age of 53, had previously worked in law. His practice had focused on just compensation when the government takes real estate, protecting landowner rights as guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment. His own real estate investments included a property in Lakeport, California, purchased in 1974, where he raised livestock and grew grapes. “I thought of it as a return to farming,” Jackson said in an interview in 2008. “My grandfather in Colorado taught me how to hoe corn when I was eight. My grandmother in Texas taught me how to ride a horse, milk a cow and shoot a pistol. My dad moved us to San Francisco, so I grew up a city boy.”

Jackson had not set out to enter the wine business on a large scale. While working as an officer for Bank of America, he helped Barney Fetzer get a loan for barrels. They became friends, and Fetzer started purchasing Jackson’s grapes. Fetzer’s winemaker, Paul Dolan, helped Jackson build a winery on the Lakeport property and find a winemaker for the first wines of Chateau du Lac. As Dolan recalls, Fetzer contracted for the fruit from the Sundial Ranch in the early 1980s and no longer needed Jackson’s grapes. With no buyer for his fruit, Jackson set out to make wine.

In 1982, Jackson purchased chardonnay grapes from what he believed to be the top vineyards in the state. Those included Brice Jones’s Les Pierres, now famed for the single-vineyard bottling from Sonoma-Cutrer, and Tepusquet, a vineyard in Santa Barbara he would buy four years later. Meanwhile, Freddy Nichols, his winemaker, couldn’t get the fermentation to finish on his Lakeport chardonnay, and Jackson brought in a series of consultants to help out. “There was Bill Pierce, Chuck Ortman and also Ric Forman, who lived in a trailer up in Lakeport for a few weeks,” Jackson said. “I met Jed Steele at a Grateful Dead rally at Edmeades. They were all helping us figure out what to do about this stuck fermentation, trying to stabilize things.”

In the end, Ric Forman helped the team create a blend, assembled from individual lots of ten vineyards. A small part of the first Vintner’s Reserve blend was the Lakeport stuck fermentation. “It was a mistake,” Jackson acknowledged, “but it gave a silken–smooth tactile feel. It added to the midpalate.”

“I saw a hole in the market you could drive a truck through, between Dick Arrowood’s chardonnay at $15 and jug wine at $2. So we brought out a wine at $4.99. We made 18,000 cases and sold out in six months.”

Jackson’s early success led him to invest in vineyard land. Tepusquet was among his first targets, a property that had been owned and developed by Louis and George Lucas with Al Gagnon. The Lucas brothers had restructured their holdings and retained a right of first refusal when Wells Fargo put the property up for sale. Beringer made an offer to the bank; Jackson worked out a deal directly with Louis Lucas, who exercised his right and then farmed the vineyard for Jackson. The arrangement did not last long, however, and the two parted ways.

Jackson became a commanding figure in the California industry, establishing his own distribution company in the state and purchasing a cooperage in France to supply barrels. He took an artisanal form of winemaking and applied it on a large scale. As if echoing his ancestry in Texas ranching, he was not afraid to stand his ground, battling to build his estate, to raise the image of prime vineyard land in California’s coastal zones and, most famously, fighting to protect what he believed to be the distinctive process for making Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. That latter dispute arose after the departure of Jed Steele, the winemaker who helped build Kendall-Jackson in the early years. The legal battle centered around trade secrets Jackson claimed, a concept that remains controversial in an industry where information is widely shared among winemakers. Though Jackson antagonized some colleagues in the industry, he also sustained a lot of talent in his organization, including loyalists such as Randy Ullom, Kendall-Jackson’s winemaster; Pierre Seillan, winemaker at Verité; Christopher Carpenter, winemaker at Lokoya; and Gilian Handelman, Jackson Family’s director of communications (an enologist who took a five-year hiatus from Jackson’s empire to work as marketing director for W&S before returning to the fold).

For the last two decades, Jackson made his home at the base of Alexander Mountain, the property once known as the Gauer Estate. The 5,400-acre estate was originally eight homesteads consolidated by William D. Dana and bought by Edward Gauer in 1968. “He paid more than I could at the time,” Jackson said back in 2000. He eventually purchased it from Gauer in 1995; today, 774 acres are planted to grapes and the rest remain wild, with sightings of cougars and black bears not uncommon.

Jackson continued to sell fruit from Alexander Mountain to a limited number of winemakers, including Peter Michael and Helen Turley. “We always make our fruit accessible to people who are small, creative, evolutionary,” Jackson said. “Most new things come out of the heart and the spirits of small winemakers. Lane Tanner makes a beautiful pinot noir from one of our vineyards…”

As Jackson consolidated his prime vineyard holdings in Napa Valley; Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties; and the Central Coast, he was constantly scouting for talent to mine their potential. In 1996, Jackson met Seillan, a winemaker working in Bordeaux. “He was managing seven châteaux for Raoul Quancard, all peripheral estates he had raised to great quality,” Jackson said. “So I asked Pierre, ‘Could you make a great Pétrus in America?’” Charged by Jackson to make “the best wine,” Seillan ranged all over California before deciding on five or six locations with 30 to 40 terroirs and micro crus within each terroir: Chalk Hill, Knights Valley, Alexander Mountain, Mount St. Helena and Carneros. Seillan launched Verité in 1998. Jackson proudly pointed out that the selection was largely, if not totally, Sonoma — only the Carneros component was Napa.

Seillan’s research led Jackson to an interesting idea he spoke to me about several months before his death. “We’re hoping to share the information we’ve learned,” he said at the time. “Only two percent of French terroir is château or estate terroir — only two percent of French wine gains recognition based mainly on terroir.”

It’s the sort of statement not surprising for a man whose personality always seemed outsized for the wine business, a man whose great-great-grandfather and three great-grandfathers ran King Ranch, the place the Mexican-American war started. “I’ve spent a lifetime being a contrarian and I’ve always gone up in price — or held price — in the face of bad times, because world-class wines are so rare. France expresses itself in terms of châteaux. In California, there is no equivalent. I want to educate the consumer to trust that the true châteaux are estates in France and to draw an analogy with the great estates of California. It’s two percent in California as well, typically hillsides, mountains and benches. Napa is the known appellation: There’s a great culture in California of exclusivity. But the vine doesn’t know whether it’s in a vineyard in Napa or Sonoma: it only knows if it is in a great terroir.”

The wine business in California is a family business: Gallo, Franzia, Mondavi, Trinchero, Martini and Sebastiani are just a few of the Italian families that have colonized the North Coast. Jackson was an outsider in that community, but he was as committed to the concept of family wineries as any. One of his lasting contributions will be the group he spearheaded, the Family Winemakers of California, dedicated to sustaining the family-oriented business model.

Jess Jackson is survived by his wife, Barbara Banke; five children: Jennifer Hartford, Laura Giron, Katie Jackson, Julia Jackson and Christopher Jackson; and two grandchildren, Hailey Hartford and MacLean Hartford.


This feature appears in the print edition of April 2011.
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