Jackson Family Wines CEO Rick Tigner mixes business with advocacy in fight against Parkinson’s disease
Rick Tigner’s day job as chief executive officer of Jackson Family Wines is pretty demanding on its own.
After all, the 56-year-old Tigner has to guide Sonoma County’s largest wine company with 1,700 overall employees into an increasingly competitive marketplace. His wines must vie for the attention of American consumers who have around 125,000 different selections to choose from - more than double the number from less than a decade ago.
His day-to-day worries include everything from more restrictive policies that make it harder to find land for new vineyards within California coastal regions to major rivals such as E&J Gallo Winery and Constellation Brands. Both are angling to expand their share of the premium wine market, which Tigner’s company has long dominated since Jess Jackson introduced his Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay to customers 35 years ago.
In recent years, Tigner also has carved out another role as a top fundraiser for research and treatment for Parkinson’s disease, working with the Michael J. Fox Foundation. The issue is personal for Tigner. His wife, Wendy, was diagnosed in 2006 at the age of 46 with the central nervous system disorder that makes it difficult to control body movements.
And for the fifth year in the row, Tigner is spearheading the Wine Country stop for the Tour de Fox charity bicycle ride to raise funds for the actor’s foundation as well as the local GOALS Foundation, which supports special needs children and adults sport activities. It will be held Saturday at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Garden, located at 5007 Fulton Road.
“Rick and Wendy Tigner are the heart and soul of the foundation’s Tour de Fox Series,” said Deborah W. Brooks, co-founder and executive vice chairman of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, in a statement.
Tigner estimates the local rides - which have featured celebrities such as former Giant Barry Bonds and local U.S. Olympian cyclist Levi Leipheimer - have raised around $2 million.
“We got to keep it a really cool ride,” Tigner said. “I don’t want to be so worried about the money that it becomes an uncool ride. The money will come.”
But those two worlds - wine and biking - come together much more frequently for Tigner. He is an avid bike rider, one who has completed Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo ride. He also leads his employees on weekly “Ride with Rick” excursions to promote wellness and camaraderie within the ninth-largest U.S. wine company, which produced around 6 million cases last year, according to Wine Business Monthly.
Bicycling has become more popular as a recreational activity for those ages 50 and over, Tigner notes. It is a trend that Sonoma County, with its bucolic rural roads, is primed to capitalize upon. “Ten years ago, what did they do? They played golf,” he said of his cohorts.
The bike treks also allow him to appreciate the beauty of the local area - from its rugged coastline to its green and gold hills - and have propelled him into another prominent role as a top tourism booster for Sonoma County.
That job is especially crucial as Jackson Family Wines’ fortunes are very much tied with its home in Sonoma County, where the company farms more than 3,000 acres of vineyards. The fastest-growing sales channel in the wine industry is the direct-to-consumer model - whether through wine clubs or via the internet - and attracting tourists to tasting rooms throughout the North Coast is key into turning them into loyal customers for the region’s wine.
“I travel all around the world. This is the best place to live,” Tigner said. “I want to expand our local footprint to have Kendall-Jackson Wine Country events in other parts of the world.”
After graduating from San Diego State University, Tigner went into sales jobs at Miller Brewing Co., Gallo and Louis M. Martini before coming to Jackson in 1991. He has been there ever since.
He still retains much of his persona as a salesman. For example, Tigner is on the board of directors for Vinexpo, a worldwide wine and spirits trade organization, and persuaded the trade group to hold its next conference in Sonoma County this September. Key global wine buyers and media will come to the area to learn more about the county’s different wine regions, from the old-vine zinfandel of the Dry Creek Valley to the premium cabernet sauvignon of the Alexander Valley, which is much more affordable than similar wines produced in Napa Valley.
“We still got a job to do to educate people around the world about Sonoma County,” he said. “People in China don’t understand the diversity of California appellations.”