Jess Jackson died of cancer recently at the age of 81, after a life of achievement that made him a titan of American wine. Unlike silver-spoon millionaires who [I borrow here from the great Red Smith] were born naked into the world and had to inherit everything they have, Jackson was in the grand but fading tradition of the self-made man.
Born during the Depression, Jackson pitched in early to help his family, starting as a paper boy at five and going on to work at many other jobs— cop, teamster, stevedore and ambulance driver, among them—to put himself through law school.
After success as a lawyer he stepped away from the bar and in 1974 proceeded, with his first wife, Jane Kendall, to buy and replant, 80 acres of pear and walnut trees. He was a grower until a late-cancelled order left him lumbered with a crop, so he began making wine himself. Kendall-Jackson’s first Chardonnay was the 1982 vintage [below]. It was successful, attracting many new recruits to wine largely because of its evident sweetness [which was, some say, a happy accident resulting from a slip-up during fermentation].
Many more successes followed. Although devoted to Thoroughbred racing, as Rachel Alexandra fans well know, Jackson also reinvested in the company that would become Jackson Family Wines. Perhaps heeding the wisdom of Will Rogers [“Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff”] he bought land in California to the extent of needing a helicopter to tour it all: 14,000 acres under vine and just as many not. The company’s portfolio in the U.S. includes K-J [and Kendall-Jackson Extra Virgin Olive Oil], La Crema, Cardinale, Vérité, Murphy-Goode, Robert Pecota Winery, Edmeades, Matanzas Creek, Stonestreet, Arrowood, Lajota, Cardinale, Atalon, Lokoya, Carmel Road, Cambria, Hartford Family Wines, Vérité, Archipel, Chateau Potelle, Freemark Abbey and Byron Winery [which just introduced two new Santa Barbara County wines, the 2009 Chardonnay and 2009 Pinot Noir. Abroad are Château Lassègue in Bordeaux, Tenuta di Arceno in Tuscany, Viña Calina in Chile and Yangarra in Australia’s McLaren Vale
His wine to a large degree established Chardonnay as America’s favorite wine and K-J as its favorite Chardonnay. Snobs never forgave Jackson for that: as Americans have grown what some like to think of as more ‘sophisticated’ about wine a coterie of snobs and geeks has bred and inbred apparently for the sole purpose of scorning success. As so it follows as the night the day that such folk amuse their self-important selves by heaping scorn upon K-J. they are, they think, far too good for a wine produced in such quantities that ‘bottles’ and ‘cases’ have no real meaning and the only graspable unit of measure is probably metric tons. K-J Chardonnay may not be the artisanal or ultra-natural or bio-confragable stuff so beloved of the snooty but showed and still shows showed thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people that there is life moistened only by Coke, Fanta and Mountain Dew.
In 2009 Jackson was inducted into the Vintner’s Hall of Fame in a ‘class’ that included Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap; Jack & Jamie Davies, revitalizers of the old Schramsberg estate; the legendary Beringer Brothers, Frederick and Jacob; and wine writer Gerald Asher. At the time Jackson said ‘Wine is a part of our cultural heritage. . . . Wine celebrates friends, family, and love—all of the best things in life. . . . From day one we have been a family-owned and family-run business. It is a distinction that is rapidly becoming a rarity in our industry. Our family culture is built on the time-honored principles of hard work, integrity, and uncompromising desire for quality and the long-term stewardship of the land.’
Jackson is survived by his wife, Barbara Banke, and five children. All are active in Jackson Family Wines, something of which Jess was extremely proud. The Family will welcome anecdotes and recollections sent to [email protected].