Jess Stonestreet Jackson, visionary winemaker noted for popularizing Chardonnay with his Kendall-Jackson Winery and one of the most successful independent winery owners in the world, died today at his home in Geyserville, California. He was 81.
The cause was complications from cancer said Caroline Shaw, Chief Communications Officer at Jackson’s company, Jackson Family Wines.
Known for his fearless, iconoclastic approach to business, Jackson became one of the world’s most successful self-made men by taking chances in businesses that were anything but a sure thing; first by selecting grapes from the best vineyards in California and turning them into a small bottling of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve that soon became the most popular Chardonnay in America, and later when he purchased two racehorses that are among the most lauded thoroughbreds in decades.
A one-time longshoreman and police officer who put himself through University of California Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, Jackson became one of the best-known figures in American viticulture, as Kendall-Jackson became the best-selling Chardonnay in America for over two decades. He went on to found Jackson Family Wines, a winery holding company that, in addition to Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, owns and operates more than 35 individual wineries located around the world.
Raised in San Francisco during the Great Depression, Jackson worked as a farmer, policeman, and later as a land-use attorney. The law firm he founded went on to argue several cases before the Supreme Court. He started the Kendall-Jackson wine business with the family’s 1974 purchase of an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, California that he converted to a vineyard. In 1982, he produced his first bottle of wine under the Kendall-Jackson label. This decidedly unique Chardonnay was an instant hit with consumers. In 1983 the wine won the first double Platinum Award ever presented by the American Wine Competition.
Jackson’s vision and outspoken manner often ran counter to conventional industry practices. When he realized that the quality of the French oak barrels used to age his wine was inconsistent, he invested in his own mill in France to provide barrel staves, and became a partner in a cooperage located in Missouri. He created his own California distribution company to remain free of industry consolidation there. He was a leader in the sustainable farming movement within the wine industry, implementing dozens of environmentally-friendly farming innovations throughout the vineyards of Jackson Family Wines. As a philanthropist, he and his wife Barbara Banke quietly donated millions of dollars in support of local and national charitable organizations. Jackson was a founding member of Family Winemakers of California.
In 2009, Jackson was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame. At that time he remarked, “Wine is entirely different from liquor and beer, and I’d like to see our industry free itself from the images that are used to sell those products. Wine is a part of our cultural heritage. It has always been the traditional partner with food. Wine celebrates friends, family, and love — all of the best things in life.
“When my family and I founded Kendall-Jackson in 1982, we simply wanted to create extraordinary wine from California’s best vineyards,” Jackson wrote in his biographical notes. “We grow grapes on our own 14,000 acres of California coastal vineyards. We take the no-compromise, high road approach to quality required to grow our world-class grapes and produce acclaimed award-winning wines.
“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.”
Among the wines made in the Jackson Family collection are Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, Cambria, Stonestreet, Edmeades, La Crema, Cardinale, Lokoya, Hartford Family Winery, Vérité, Atalon, Carmel Road, Murphy-Goode, La Jota, Freemark Abbey, Bryon Estates, Arrowood in the United States; Chateau Lassegue in France; Tenuta di Arceno in Italy; Yangarra in Australia; and Calina in Chile. Jackson Family Wines is one of California’s few remaining family-owned winery groups, with family members working full-time in a variety of positions.
In recent years, Jackson’s passion for farming and horses led him into horse breeding and racing. In 2007, he became majority stakeholder in the racehorse Curlin who then won Horse of the Year for two consecutive years. The following year, Jackson’s filly, Rachel Alexandra was the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in 85 years. Rachel Alexandra also won 2009 Horse of the Year. An outspoken leader in the reform of racing, Jackson won the Sportsman of the Year 2008 Insider Award.
He 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.