The key to Jess Jackson's early wine success was his realization that America's soda-pop palate was poised for a sweeter-styled chardonnay.
"He frankly put chardonnay on the map, so we've all benefitted from that," Gary Heck, owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars, said Thursday.
It all began with a quirky fermentation back in 1982 that produced a chardonnay with a sweet profile. Jackson began experimenting with "stuck fermentation," a process in which not all the sugar is converted to alcohol, and he discovered the slightly sweet chardonnay had broad appeal.
"With stuck fructose, the light went on. It was a crusade from 1976 to 1982 where I was searching for the vehicle," Jackson said in a Savor Wine Country magazine article in 2005.
Jackson recalled developing the Vintner's Reserve chardonnay style during three years of tastings in his San Francisco law office.
"We'd go down the elevator on Friday afternoons at 5 p.m. and ask people if they'd like a cocktail," he said. "They'd always pick the Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay because of that little bit of fructose."
Vintner Daryl Groom, co-owner of Groom Wines in Healdsburg, said Jackson was a clever, outside-the-box thinker.
"Sometimes winemakers make what they want to drink, whereas Jess saw that the consumer may have wanted something different."
The chardonnay was a hot seller, boosting Kendall-Jackson production from 35,000 cases to more than 750,000 annually in eight years.
The formula was so valuable that Jackson and his then-winemaker Jed Steele went to court in a fight over who had rights to the winemaking process. A Lake County judge ruled in Jackson's favor.
Vintner Richard Arrowood, who worked closely with Jackson for years, said: "Jess Jackson was well ahead of his time. Jess created the solidity of his portfolio by giving consumers what they wanted and he had the vision to see it."