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Happy birthday Jess Jackson

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It took a posting by George Rose on Facebook to remind me that this past Tuesday, Feb. 18, would have been Jess Jackson’s 84th birthday.

George was, of course, the P.R. and communications guy at K-J, for years. He always was so helpful to a working reporter like me. People think my job is just drinking wine and eating at great restaurants, but the truth is, any wine writer depends on accurate and timely information–and for that, you have to have communications specialists at wineries who know how to get the skinny, fast. George was very good at that.

I don’t remember the first time I met Jess Jackson. We met perhaps ten times over the years, not a great deal of contact, but enough for me to get the measure of the man. I think the memory that remains firmest in my mind is when Wine Enthusiast gave him a Special Lifetime Achievement Award, back in 2006. (He’d previously been the magazine’s first Man [now Person] of the Year, in 2000.)  This was at our big black tie event (I don’t remember if it was at the 42nd St. Library or the Planetarium; we switched venues around that time). I was seated at Jess’s table. After he’d received the award and given his speech, toward the end of the night, he turned to me. With tears in his eyes, we embraced. He was a big man, physically. I am a small man. I felt like I was being wrapped into an energy field of love, warmth, power and emotion. It was really something.

As a reporter, I’ve always tried to maintain a professional distance from the people I cover. There used to be a political reporter for one of the big eastern newspapers who covered Washington. D.C. He was famous for never going to the cocktail parties the city is known for, explaining that he didn’t want to get too close to the politicians he might have to criticize. When you like someone, it’s harder to cut them up in print, or, in the case of a wine critic, to bash their wine. I thought that was good advice and tried to emulate it.

Nonetheless, I’m only human, and can’t help but liking some people more than others. Jess Jackson was one I liked, tremendously, and my affection for him was enhanced by my admiration for what he accomplished professionally. To start Kendall-Jackson is one thing, and would have ensured Jess’s place in the history of the wine industry. To launch Jackson Family Wines–and to make the radical move of using only coastal grapes for all his brands, which is far more expensive than depending on Central Valley fruit–was high risk to the extreme, considering the cut-throat nature of the business. I suspect some of his financial people warned him not to do it. But Jess knew what he wanted, which was the highest-possible quality wine, and he was determined to do what it took to get the job done. Not only that, but he kept his prices as moderate as he could. He always said he aimed to make wine at least as good as, if not better than, his competitors, but at a lower price. In this, he succeeded.

So happy birthday, Jess.

  1. That first dinner was much more starry, and it wasn’t at the library, we were at the other venue. I have the silver star box from that night, and I remember the registration naming a star in the heavens. The Jess many of us saw up close as we worked on his staff was often emotional, in a good way, and quietly kind in so many wonderful ways. Today, that hug would have been posted on Facebook a moment later, a photo I’d enjoy seeing!

  2. Steve,

    Groucho Marx is credited with saying behind every successful man is a woman.

    Barbara Banke is that person, standing shoulder to shoulder with Jess in building his wine empire:

    http://www.winemag.com/Web-2013/2013-Wine-Person-of-the-Year-Barbara-Banke/

    ~~ Bob

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