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Jess Jackson, Founder of Kendall-Jackson, Dead at 81

Jess Stonestreet Jackson, Jr. (February 18, 1930 - April 21, 2011)

Jess Jackson died at home, in Geyserville, CA on April 21, 2010 after a long fight with cancer. He was 81 years old. Born in Depression-era California, he took his first job at age 5. Jackson went on to work a wide variety of jobs, sometimes more than one at a time, to help his family and put himself through college. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law in 1951 and began a practice in land-use law.

His continuing hard work served him well. By 2005, Forbes Magazine estimated his wealth at 1.8 billion dollars, placing him in a tie for 366th in that publication’s list of the world’s wealthiest people. The winery to which he gave his name, Kendall-Jackson, makes this country’s most popular Chardonnay. The winery holding company he founded, Jackson Family Wines is the 9th largest in the country. In 2009, he was voted into the Vintners Hall of Fame which resides at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Jess Stonestreet Jackson
photo credit: Sarah K. Anderson/Jackson Family Wines

Jess Jackson entered the wine business gradually. In 1974, he purchased an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, CA (in Lake County on the west shore of Clear Lake). He planted vines there and eventually began selling grapes to local vintners. He didn’t start making wine until nearly a decade later when he was left with a large quantity of grapes which a customer had declined to take. His first release of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay was in 1982. Roughly 20,000 cases were made.

The circumstances of that wine’s rise to become America’s best-selling Chardonnay are not unlike those that led to Bob Trinchero’s success with White Zinfandel. A failed fermentation resulted in a batch of Chardonnay with above average residual sugar. Like White Zinfandel, the sweet-tasting Chardonnay was an immediate hit with casual wine drinkers and a gateway wine for people who would normally drink sodas, sweetened tea, fruit wines and the like.

Today, Jackson Family Wines’ total production volume exceeds five million cases per year. It owns more than 14,000 acres of vineyard land, spread over six counties, and several wineries. Among the California wineries are: Arrowood, Cambria Winery, Cardinale, Carmel Road Winery, Freemark Abbey, Hartford Winery, Kendall-Jackson, La Crema Winery, La Jota, Lokoya, Matanzas Creek, Murphy-Goode, Stonestreet Winery and Vérité Winery. Many have earned Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing approval. Jackson Family Wines also has wineries in France, Italy, Chile and Australia.

Though Kendall-Jackson is known primarily for it’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and also sells large volumes of sub-$20 varietal wines, it also offers high-end, single-vineyard wines under its Highland Estates label. Likewise, several of the Jackson Family Wines brands focus on low-volume, high-quality wines with price points to match. With Vérité, Jess Jackson aimed to rival the best wines of Bordeaux with wines made by Pierre Seillan from Alexander Mountain, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill fruit. Vérité offers three wines. In 2007, they scored 98, 99 and 100 points from Robert Parker and one garnered 100 points for 2008 as well. Jackson’s interest in low production wines extended beyond his own companies though. He co-founded the Family Winemakers of California, which supports wineries with production under 10,000 cases per year, and was its first president.

Jess Jackson’s legal background came into play on occasion in the wine business. In the ’90’s, he successfully sued former winemaker Jed Steele for revelation of trade secrets related to production of Vintner’s Reserve. In 1997, Jackson lost a lawsuit against E & J Gallo in which he claimed their Turning Leaf livery infringed on Vintner’s Reserve trademarks. In the last few years, his plans to open a large winery and open tasting room in Knights Valley for Pelton House Winery met with substantial opposition It’s provisional approval was rescinded by Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on September 28, 2010 after a ruling by the Sonoma County Superior Court that supported a lawsuit by by the Mayacama Watershed Alliance and Concerned Citizens of Knights Valley who alleged the development would have a seriously negative impact on the surrounding lands and residents’ quality of life.

In the last decade, Jess Jackson took an interest in horse-racing. He pursued it with the same commitment he’d shown in the business world, but his success came much more quickly. In 2008, he received the Sportsman of the Year 2008 Insider Award from In May 2009, he purchased Rachel Alexandra which had won the Kentucky Oaks and all of her 2009 races to that point. Less than two weeks later she won the Preakness Stakes. She was also voted 2009 American Horse of the Year.

Jackson was also a significant philanthropist. He donated millions of dollars to various community charities and schools. In January, 2011, he and his wife, Barbara Banke, announced that Jackson Family Wines would donate $3 million to help fund U.C. Davis’ new winery, brewery and food-processing center. Planned to be one of the most technically advanced wineries in the world, it will advance research in wine making and sustainable agriculture.

Jess Jackson is survived by his wife, five children (Jennifer Hartford, Laura Giron, Katie Jackson, Julia Jackson and Christopher Jackson) and two grandchildren. Jackson had been transferring management responsibility at both Kendall-Jackson and Jackson Family Wines over the past few years. His death should not result in significant operational difficulties at either company.


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