Jess Stonestreet Jackson, founder of one of America’s greatest wine empires and most trusted name, Kendall-Jackson, passed away today at the age of 81. The cause of death was complications due to cancer.
In 1983, Jackson released his first Kendall-Jackson wine, a 1982 Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay with a touch of residual sugar. “That was deliberate, because I liked it that way,” he said in a 2003 interview about his first release. Along with releases by his friends, the Fetzer and Benziger families, that wine established the “fighting varietal” tier of inexpensive wines, making it easy for consumers to buy well-made wines at affordable prices.
Over the years, Jackson expanded his base. Not content with limiting his production to everyday wines, he created a Kendall-Jackson Highlands Estates tier, consisting of single-vineyard varietal wines with limited production.
With his wife Barbara Banke he established a separate company, Jackson Family Wines, with small wineries up and down the California coast that produce nearly three dozen prestige brands, including Cambria, Pepi, Matanzas Creek, Cardinale, Hartford Court, Vérité, Stonestreet, Freemark Abbey, Byron, Murphy-Goode and Arrowood. The company also owns properties in South America, Italy, France and Australia.
In 2006, at the age of 76, he and Banke also created White Rocket, a company whose brands, Camelot, Dog House and Tin Roof, were aimed at “upcoming generations.” Jackson described White Rocket as “a small, fast-moving company that fosters an entrepreneurial culture and a drive for innovation and new brand development,”—words that in essence describe his wine career.
Born in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, Jackson had a number of occupations, ranging from farmer and policeman to land-use lawyer. In 1974, he bought an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard that he converted to vineyards and began selling grapes to local wineries.
Following the success of Kendall-Jackson in the early and mid-1980s, Jackson began an adventurous two-decade expansion, in both brands and vineyard holdings that has seen few rivals in the modern wine industry. By 2005, the Jackson family grew grapes on 12,000 acres of California vineyards, and it was with evident pride that Jackson announced, henceforth, the only grapes that ever would go into a Kendall-Jackson or Jackson Family wine would be sourced from cool-climate, coastal vineyards.
He briefly considered retirement in 2000, when he put the company up for sale for $1.7 billion, but changed his mind and instead began Jackson Family Wines. It was almost as if he rediscovered a commitment to what he called “the principles of hard work, integrity and uncompromising desire for quality and the long-term stewardship of the land.”
By the mid-2000s, it was hard for anyone in America to pick up a magazine and not find a picture of Jackson in an advertisement touting “mountains, hillsides, ridges or benches.” Eschewing bottomlands and river valleys for his top wines, Jackson was fascinated by these aspects of terroir, and never stopped, with Banke beside him, exploring possible new vineyards to include in his Highlands Estates tier, which Jackson’s longtime winemaker, Randy Ullom, described as “the ultimate expression of terroir.”
Ullom recalls the painstaking vineyard-selection process for the Highlands Estates portfolio: “Jess can be a stickler,” says Ullom. “First of all, Highlands Estate has to be pure and simple, the best. He wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a happenstance that the wine was good, that it was repeatable to the tune of four-plus years.
“That’s the modus operandi of our company,” continues Ullom. “Regardless of what wine you’re going to try, the MO, in theory, is if we’re providing a $12 bottle of wine, it’s probably going to be good enough to be in a $24 category. You’re over-delivering on the quality for the price.”
Toward the end of his life, Jackson and Banke decided to become involved in thoroughbred racing. He spent more and more time away from actively running the winery, traveling the world to races and stables. One of the highlights of his life was when his horse, Rachel Alexandra, won the Preakness Stakes, in 2009, the first filly in 85 years to gain that distinction.
He is survived by his wife, Barbara Banke, five children and two grandchildren.
Jackson was the recipient of two Wine Star Awards, 2000's Man of the Year and in 2007, Lifetime Achievement. Visit www.winemag.com and scroll down to Wine Enthusiast TV to watch his acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award.