A tribute to Jess Jackson
The tributes to Jess Jackson have been coming in all day, and they are heartfelt, touching. This was a man beloved by many, and even if you worked for him and didn’t belove him–for he could be a taskmaster–you respected the hell out of him.
Look what he did. A lawyer by trade, he basically stumbled into the wine business and changed it forever. In a good way. Most people know him for Kendall-Jackson’s Proprietor’s Reserve Chardonnay, which he (or Jed Steele, his then winemaker) so famously (or accidentally) made a little sweet. This was the rise of the fighting varietal, and K-J quickly took the field over and won.
Had that all Jess done he still would be worthy of a major paragraph in the history of California wine. But it wasn’t. What most people–even many in the industry–don’t know is how much more Jess accomplished. At some point, when he was already fabulously successful, he decided that inexpensive wine wasn’t enough. Compare that to Fred Franzia; that’s the difference between the two. Jess had ambition, yes, but he had taste. He wanted to leave his mark on California not just at the fighting varietal level but at the highest level and every level inbetween. And may I suggest, as a critic, that he succeeded in doing so.
Jess created the Highlands Estates single vineyard line of K-J. Believe me when I say these are extraordinary wines. Jess’s philosophy was that no vineyard could qualify for a Highlands Estates designation until he personally had tried it over a period of years and it met his exacting standards. (This is basically what Bill Harlan does with BOND.) And Jess had a good palate. Once a vineyard was admitted to Highlands Estates, Jess’s strategy was to have it be good enough to compete against wines much more expensive. His wines weren’t cheap by any means, but they were 50%-75% on average the cost of the competition. Why did Jess do that? Partly it was good marketing. Partly it was because he genuinely believed in providing quality for value.
Jess also had an eye out for small boutique wineries that were faltering but had enormous potential. He scooped them up and reinvigorated them. There is a business model in California where somebody buys a prestigious but troubled winery and then exploits its reputation, milking it of profits and lowering quality before the public realizes it’s a ripoff. Jess did exactly the opposite. At Jackson Family Farms, he assembled one of the most prestigious portfolios in California. And then he made it higher.
I obviously was not a good friend of Jess’s but I feel like I knew him well. We met on many occasions. I can’t remember once when he did not engulf me in a bear hug. Jess was a big man, I a small one, and I always felt the warmth and affection coming out of him. It was like being enveloped by some massive, living, loving force. My most vivid memory is at Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Awards, where some years ago we gave Jess our Lifetime Achievement award. I sat next to him at the big, hours long dinner. Afterward, when we were all going home, Jess signaled me for another bear hug. He was crying, from gratitude and joy.
I can’t think of anyone else like him in the history of California. Robert Mondavi probably was more important, but I’ll leave that to historians. Jess was warmer, more human, and in the end more successful; he did not lose control of his company because he ran it the way he lived his life: with exquisite taste, always sensing the right move. Years ago, he decided not to compete against Franzia and that level. Instead, he announced all his wines would be made from coastal vineyards, not the Central Valley. It was a courageous move, and it meant he would have to raise prices, which he did. But it was brilliant. Jess did not want to be a bottom feeder.
Jess really was a giant figure in the history of California wine. I wish simply to add my condolences to Barbara and the rest of the family, his friends and his staff. He will never be replaced, and he will be missed. You can read my formal obituary at Wine Enthusiast.