Wine Diarist

Jess Jackson 1930-2011

Jess Jackson died yesterday of cancer. He was 81. The founder of Kendall-Jackson, he was one of the pioneering figures of American wine, arguably as significant in his own right as the Gallo brothers and Robert Mondavi. He had an amazing life. From a childhood spent in the throes of the Great Depression, he put himself through law school by working as a cop, became a successful San Francisco attorney and then the billionaire head of a global wine empire. According to the Wine Spectator obituary, Jackson owed his success in no small part to a winemaking accident. In 1982, the first year that Jackson produced wine under the Kendall-Jackson label, the chardonnay suffered a stuck fermentation. The Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, as it was called, had a slightly sweet taste as a result of the cellar snafu, and that turned out to be catnip for consumers—the Vintner’s Reserve quickly became one of the country’s most popular wines, and its sweet, supple, buttery profile became the signature style of California Chardonnay.

The real significance of the Vintner’s Reserve, however, was that it brought premium varietal wines to middle market consumers. In both price and quality, it bridged the gap between jug wines and higher-end offerings (think Ridge Monte Bello or Montelena). That part, at least, was a deliberate move by Jackson, a famously savvy businessman.  “There was a hole in the market that I could drive a truck through,” as he put it in a 1995 interview. “I saw that hole in the market and I created a new category—really good wines that the average person could afford.” This was a seminal development in the evolution of American wine culture. It’s easy to scoff now at the Vintner’s Reserve, a formulaic wine whose chief selling points were its roundness and consistency. But it was a gateway product that turned countless people on to wine.

It was a gateway product for Jackson, too: the success he had with the Kendall-Jackson brand enabled him to both establish and acquire a number of highly regarded boutique wineries, including Cardinale, Vérité, Stonestreet, and Hartford Family. In addition, he launched a line of upscale single-vineyard wines that went out under the Kendall-Jackson name. (The wealth he accumulated also financed his very successful foray into thoroughbred racing; two of his horses, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, won the Preakness). What began with the acquisition in 1974 of an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in northern California is today a wine conglomerate consisting of over 30 brands that put out a combined total of more than 5 million cases annually. It is a remarkable story, made all the more so by the fact that Jackson didn’t bottle his first wine until he was already in his 50s. Jackson was a singular figure on the American wine scene, and he will be missed.

courtesy of Kendall-Jackson