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Thinking about mountains, media, and Jess Jackson

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Spent yesterday up at Stonestreet, the Jackson family-owned winery on the slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, above the Alexander Valley and the peaceful little town of Geyserville.

Stonestreet’s 900 acres of vineyards are an awesome testament to mountain viticulture. Some years ago I had taken a helicopter ride over them and witnessed how the vine rows snake their way through the rocky outcrops and along the rolling vales. Located as high as 2,500 feet (among the highest-elevation vineyards in Sonoma County), they follow the contours of these rugged hills, on the other side of which lay Lake and Napa counties. Yesterday, we explored the land in winemaker Graham Weerts’ 4-wheel drive, going up and down the most precipitous dirt roads. The view was tremendous. Although it was a weirdly hot, muggy day, with billowy high clouds courtesy of the monsoon (yes, California has a monsoon), the air was crystal clear, with views affording the horizon. With Graham and me was Adam Beaugh, the young man who had entered, and lost, Murphy-Goode’s “A Really Goode Job” contest, only to find himself awarded the “consolation prize” of being hired as Jackson Family Farms’ permanent Director of Social Media.

On the ride up from Oakland (Adam had just flown in from Texas to begin his new life in California), Adam told me all about his hopes and dreams. He’s a smart, ambitious guy who, I learned, also is savvy about the technological side of social media, which will help him in his new job. I couldn’t help but foresee some speed bumps ahead for him. What happens when he asks the winemakers at all of Jackson’s many wineries to blog on a regular basis, and some of them don’t or won’t? After all, it’s neither easy or natural for a winemaker to gravitate to heavy use of blogging or Facebook, much less Twitter. Some of them just won’t do it, or won’t do it frequently enough to make it worthwhile. What will Adam do? He’s not their boss, and it’s not clear to me he’ll be able to persuade them all to get onboard. But then, maybe he will.

Adam fully realizes that any commentary through social media, including blogging, has to be authentic and uncensored, which may be difficult in a big outfit like Jackson’s. He understands, too, that there’s a difference between somebody who blogs just for the joy of it (like me) versus somebody whose underlying purpose is to sell product. He knows these things intellectually, but I wonder how he — and his superiors — are going to deal with them. I guess we’ll see. I did make a prediction to Adam: that his job title will change in a year or two. Personally, I don’t foresee the sphere of “social media” (however you define it) to be big enough to demand full-time attention at the level of a Director. I imagine it will sooner or later get rolled in to sales, P.R. and marketing. That means Jackson Family Farms is going to have to tinker with its corporate structure, never an easy task.

Anyway, back to Stonestreet. That the vineyards are spectacular sources of great fruit has been known to me for a long time. Stonestreet’s Christopher’s Vineyard Cabernet is a great wine which I wrote about in “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” From these vineyards other Jackson properties source fruit: Verité, K-J’s Highlands Estates and Legacy. The Chardonnays, some of whose vines are 40 years old and date back to the old Gauer Ranch days, are absolutely spectacular, reminiscent of Peter Michael’s, with a limpid purity. And Graham has a very important White Graves-style Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon project underway, although it may be many years before it bears fruit (no pun intended).

Jess Jackson has been trying for years to get the mountain its own AVA, since calling it Alexander “Valley” is stupid. (The only other currently legal choice is Sonoma County, which is insulting to a vineyard of this caliber.) His choice is Alexander Mountain, but some of the neighbors want it to be called by its historic place-name, Black Mountain. Whatever it’s called, it’s obviously its own place and is deserving of its own AVA.

Later on, Jess Jackson himself asked to see me to say goodbye. At the age of 79 he still exudes a power and spiritual aura that make him stand out in a crowd. A tall man, he must have been extraordinairly good-looking when he was younger, with a square jaw and a high, proud forehead. He hasn’t slowed down a bit. Not only (and obviously) does he own Rachel Alexandra and other racing thoroughbreds (a few of which were on R&R at Stonestreet), but he’s more involved in his wines than ever. Graham told me Jess has ordered that every block off the entire Stonestreet estate is to be vinified separately, so that Jess can taste it and figure out what to do with it. Jess also told me about some plans he has that I promised not to talk about, but will, when the time is right. It will be headline-grabbing.

I have always had the highest regard for Kendall-Jackson and all of the Jackson family’s other properties. It takes many things to make great wine — money, talent, good vineyards, luck — but the supreme ingredient may be good taste, without which all the others count for little. Jess Jackson has impeccable taste.

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    I’m glad you were treated well by the Jackson empire. I guess “impeccable taste” is in the eye of the beholder. I did not think it was in good taste to sue a former winemaker for allegedly revealing “trade secrets”, putting residural sugar in Chardonnay, (B.F.D.) and not paying him severance that he was due. Unless, of course, bullying is good taste.

    Neither do I find a person who would have the nerve to copy Mondavi’s packaging and then sue another vintner, Gallo, who also copied Mondavi’s packaging. There are many people who have contributed to California winemaking by other actions than making a lot of money. In my book, these people exhibited my definition of “impeccable taste.” I think many of us in the industry were quite happy to see that Jackson is focusing his litigation these in the horse racing industry.

  2. Is that 4 in a row on social media? Keep it going!

  3. Jim Caudill says:

    Ah, Morton, just to set the record straight, Jed sued Jess, not the other way around. You could look it up. Many of the items you check off have a bit of urban legend attached to them. Equine or wine, he’s winning his fair share.

  4. I am not defending Jess Jackson but anyone who rises above the crowd is an easy target for the aimless.

  5. I love it when a strong opinion is laid out as fact and turns out to be mostly fiction. Thank you Jim for setting the record straight… you should know, you were there.

  6. George Parkinson says:

    Good Piece Steve. If only the population could see that property the way you experienced it…majestic is an under-statement. as far as tinkering with the corp. structure for social media is concerned, Mr. Jackson re-writes the 5 year plan on a cocktail napkin every day. Tinkering got KJ from 200 cases of Chardonnay to where they are today. (4 countries, 20+ wineries, 16K+acr. of vineyardland) not too shabby for a tinkerer.

  7. That winemaker had to sue to attempt to get money owed to him as per his employment contract with KJ after he had left the company. Apparently Jess felt the winemakers cunsulting gigs violated the contract.

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