Jess Jackson dies: $5-a-bottle, '82 chardonnay led to worldwide wine empire for Kendall-Jackson founder

Jackson's path from child of the Depression to powerhouse lawyer to self-made billionaire was marked by a flinty perfectionism and an unbending vision to do things his way.|

Kendall-Jackson winery founder Jess Jackson, whose chardonnay found the sweet spot in the American palate and made him the richest man in Sonoma County, died Thursday in his sleep at his Geyserville estate after a battle with cancer. He was 81.

One of the most influential figures in the California wine industry, Jackson leaves behind a vast Santa Rosa-based wine empire, which his wife, Barbara Banke, has pledged to continue running, and a strong legacy of philanthropy in Sonoma County.

"Jess Jackson was one of America's greatest wine industry entrepreneurs," said industry analyst Jon Fredrikson.

Today, the family-owned winery holding company, Jackson Family Wines, owns and operates more than 35 individual wineries around the world, led by flagship Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. His various companies own thousands of acres of vineyards in Sonoma County, where they pay more property taxes than any other wine company, according to the county assessor's office.

Jackson's path from child of the Depression to powerhouse lawyer to self-made billionaire was marked by a flinty perfectionism and an unbending vision to do things his way. He released his first wine when he was 52, turning it into one of America's favorites. And he was in his 70s when he barged into the closed circle of Kentucky thoroughbred racing, changing the rules of the sport while becoming the owner of champions.

The intensely private Jackson also was a man of the earth, who walked the land in his grandfather's boots, talked of farming as a spiritual experience and quietly gave back some of his vast wealth to the local community.

Jackson got a late start in the wine industry, but he soon made up for lost time.

Already a successful Bay Area attorney when he began growing grapes in Lake County in the 1970s, Jackson began making wine when he couldn't sell his grapes.

His Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay, released in 1982, was an immediate hit with critics and consumers alike for its crisp, slightly sweet style and bargain price, then just $5.

Sales took off and Jackson made the transition from gentleman farmer to wine industry tycoon with astounding speed.

The winery quickly became a juggernaut, disproving skeptics who said wine drinkers wouldn't trust a California appellation wine blended from grapes from various regions. Jackson was convinced that cool coastal vineyards, meticulous farming practices and modern winemaking techniques would allow him to produce consistently great wines.

Assembled 14,000-acre empire

To meet growing demand for premium grapes, Jackson used his skills as a land use attorney to outmaneuver larger rivals as he assembled what has become a 14,000-acre empire of coastal vineyards from Santa Barbara to Mendocino.

His vast land holdings became the backbone of his success, providing his winemakers quality grapes and his bankers comfort to loan him the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to fuel Kendall-Jackson's rapid expansion, which was unlike anything Sonoma County had ever seen.

He wasn't afraid to step on toes along the way.

Relishing the role of outsider, the tall, white-haired former litigator brought tenacious business tactics to the genteel wine industry. He sued rival wineries, went to court to preserve his winemaking secrets and took on the powerful industry lobby, The Wine Institute, over policies he claimed favored large corporate wineries over family operations. "We built this company against the odds. So I can't be a pussycat," Jackson told The Press Democrat in 1995.

His success gave him fabulous wealth, with a net worth estimated at $1.9 billion by Forbes magazine in 2010. Yet, he found sanctuary in a simple life among the vines, often touring his vineyards in a pair of faded leather cavalry boots made by his grandfather. "There's something spiritual to being a farmer," he said in an 2005 interview. "It gives you a philosophical base to go back to. And I replenish my spirit that way. So it's not quite as good as going to church, but it's close."

Early days made imprint

Jess Stonestreet Jackson was born Feb. 18, 1930, in Los Angeles during the Depression. His father was out of work three times, an experience that shaped Jackson's work ethic and what he called his "entrepreneurial urges."

Jackson graduated from UC Berkeley's Boalt Law School, supporting himself by working on the San Francisco docks and as a Berkeley policeman. As a young lawyer, Jackson specialized in real estate law, invaluable training for a man who would become the state's busiest vineyard buyer.

To escape the rigors of trial work, Jackson and his family bought an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport in 1974. He converted it to vineyards and sold grapes to local wineries, never expecting to be a major player in the wine industry. But without a buyer for his harvest one year, Jackson began bottling his own wine. Jackson's first vintages were called Chateau du Lac, and by 1982, the name had been changed to Kendall-Jackson (Kendall is the surname of Jackson's first wife, Jane Kendall). His first tasting room was housed in a converted shed, with an oak plank laid over two upturned wine barrels. As sales soared, Jackson acquired thousands of acres of vineyard land in Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Napa and the Alexander Valley. Estates in Chile, Tuscany and France would soon follow.

"Everybody thinks K-J Vintners Reserve was the belle of the ball here, but in reality, it was all of his land holdings," said George Rose, former vice president of corporate communications for Jackson Family Wines. "The shrewdest aspect of Jess was his buying of some of the most prized vineyard land and potential vineyard land and holding onto it all these years."

Empire run from airport complex

Winery operations moved to Sonoma County in the early 1990s and are now managed from a complex of modern offices and warehouses near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

Former employees say Jackson could be a hands-on, demanding boss, creating a competitive, high-pressure environment in the company and a revolving door for executives.

As cash poured in from Kendall-Jackson sales, Jackson acquired a taste for higher-end wines and wineries. He reinvested K-J profits into an array of smaller wineries and luxury brands. These included Napa cabernet sauvignon brands such as La Jota, Lokoya and Cardinale, some of which sell for hundreds of dollars per bottle. He also acquired a host of well-known Sonoma County wine brands, including Matanzas Creek, Arrowood and Murphy-Goode.

There was a practical reason for expanding as aggressively as Jackson did. The more variety of wines he offered, the more clout he gained among the ever-consolidating ranks of distributors. While many winery owners are content to make wine, the fiercely independent Jackson fought to control as many aspects of his business operations as possible.

His frustration with the influence of wholesalers caused him to start his own distribution company in California, called Regal Wine Company. Similarly, when the price of French oak barrels soared, Jackson purchased a stake in a French barrel maker to control costs. "He was a guy that just didn't accept the status quo. He said 'If I can do it better, I'll just do it myself,' and he did," Fredrikson said.

By the late 2000s, total production of Jackson Family Wines exceeded 5 million cases. While dwarfed by companies such as Constellation Brands and E&J Gallo, Jackson's empire was the ninth-largest wine company in the U.S. last year.

In 1999, Jackson brought in Hewlett-Packard Co. Chairman Lewis E. Platt to lead the company, a move that was viewed as setting up the company to go public like Robert Mondavi did with his brand of wines. Jackson retired the following year, but by 2001 the family had rejected suitors. His wife, Barbara Banke, replaced Platt as CEO and by 2003, at 73, Jackson was back at the helm.

Benefactors of schools, charities

Jackson and Banke became part of the foundation of the county's philanthropic endeavors. They helped to start two elite private schools, Sonoma Country Day School and Sonoma Academy, and spearheaded the county's most exclusive wine auction, Sonoma Paradiso, which raised millions of dollars for a host of local charities.

One of their philanthropic arms, the Jackson Family Foundation, has donated more than $3.5 million since 1996 to community groups as diverse as the Santa Rosa Symphony and the Redwood Empire Food Bank. Earlier this year, the couple announced a $3 million gift to a new UC Davis winery complex.

"They've touched so many different aspects of this community," said Mario Zepponi, a Santa Rosa wine industry consultant. "There is a distant second to Jess and Barbara when it comes to the impact they've had in this community."

After ruling a wine empire for 20 years, Jackson turned his attention to the sport of kings, going on a $200 million spending spree to build a thoroughbred breeding operation in Kentucky and Florida. When he was hoodwinked by horse traders, Jackson -- who as a boy saw Seabiscuit win at Bay Meadows -- went on a one-man crusade to reform the industry, getting legislation passed banning undisclosed commissions in horse sales. In 2007, he became majority stakeholder in the racehorse Curlin, who then won Horse of the Year for two consecutive years. His filly, Rachel Alexandra, was the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in 85 years and also won 2009 Horse of the Year.

Company to remain major force

What happens next to Jackson's empire is uncertain. His family said it is committed to keeping the company as a central force in Sonoma County.

"We're interested in preserving our family business," Banke said in an interview last month.

His son-in-law, Don Hartford, had been serving as chief executive officer of the company. The company disclosed a succession plan in March, announcing that president Rick Tigner would be transitioning into the position of CEO. Hartford and Banke will oversee the family's interests on the board of directors.

In addition to Banke, he is survived by his five children, Jennifer Jackson Hartford, Laura Jackson-Giron, Katherine Jackson, Julia Jackson and Christopher Jackson, and two grandchildren. Information on services was unavailable Thursday.

Staff Writer Nathan Halverson contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writers Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or and Peg Melnik at 521-5310 or

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