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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.

  1. Well said. When one thinks of all the energy and funding that has gone into the CA wine business over the last forty years, Jess Jackson, more than anybody else, carved out the biggest niche during that time. His place in history will rank alongside the Gallos and Robert Mondavi. His commitment to vineyard land was established by his becoming the single largest holder of vineyard land in California. He may ultimately be more remembered for oceans of Vintner’s Reserves, but his Highland Series wines, his Verite label and his Jackson Park Merlots were and will be important members of the high-end trade as well.

  2. Everyone seems to point to R.S. in the staggering success of KJ Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, but in fact its sugar level usually hovered at or below threshhold perception for most people, and it was not unusually high for its category and time. KJ was an important pioneer in other ways. It was the first winery to use previously high end techniques like barrel fermentation on a massive scale, for a moderately priced wine. The KJ VR was also a key wine in the development of the cooler climate Chardonnay vineyards of the south Central Coast region.

    Speaking of vineyards, one of the most interesting ways Jess zigged where others zagged was in his vertical integration of a huge winery with vineyard resources. Most other large scale fighting varietal and superpremium producers elected to remain buyers or grapes and bulk wine, rather than invest in vineyards.

  3. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    Well said Steve! Jess Jackson is and will always be a wine icon!

  4. Great piece Steve. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Timothy A. Smith says:

    Very well written Steve. Having been in this wonderful industry for over 37 years, and had represented the Jackson Estate Wines, and Bronco Wines, (Fred Franzia), Jess indeed take the high road, and made you proud that your represented the different quaility wines that they produced.

    I met Mr. Jackson on several occasions, and again, as you mentioned he was touch, but human, and wanted you to be successful in life and in business. He is and will remain an icon in the industry, we need more like him in this day and age.

  6. Thank you Steve, for sharing this. I started working for Jess and Kendall Jackson Winery when I was a teenager, and literally grew up at the winery. When I was 18 he asked me if he could be my mentor. I told him that I didn’t know what a mentor was. He explained it to me, and I liked the idea. I was incredibly fortunate. He was an incredible visionary, leader and human. He shaped California’s wine business, and, my life, in many ways. He will be missed tremendously.

  7. Steve,
    What a nice accolade and tribute to Jess.
    I had the great fortune of helping him launch KJ with Jed Steele (when it was just the two of them for the “Dog and Pony” show on the road) and with Bob Mondavi in the Opus One adventure.Tara,both were tremndous mentors to me and I feel blessed having them in my life.Ironically, the last two times I saw Jess were at the Wetzels(owners of Alexander Valley Vineyards)who passed away 3 months apart.Jess informed that he had just gotten back from 6 countries in 2 weeks.I said “Jess, why are you doing that to yourself-you have built an incredible empire and legacy?!” He said:” I’m afraid what might happen if the bus stops!” Well the bus has stopped,but the Legend will forever continue on-cheers to Mr.Jackson for all that he has done for so many around the worild!

  8. So am I to understand that those of us who enjoy Charles Shaw wines, ie Two Buck Chuck are “bottom feeders” in your estimation?

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