Jess Jackson always managed to leave a footprint, no matter what arena he ventured into. He was a successful San Francisco lawyer and rural grape grower whose tryst with wine was accidental and resulted in the creation of one of he largest family-owned wine empires in America. His passion extended to horses and he ended up owning two of the most acclaimed thoroughbreds in a generation. During the years before his death he was trying to persuade the U.S. government to rename a mountain after one of his wineries.
Listed among the top 500 of Forbes list of world billionaires, Jackson’s net worth was estimated at $1.9 billion last year, making his story one of the most inspirational rags to riches stories of our time. Jackson grew up in San Francisco during the Great Depression. His humble beginnings instilled the values of dignity and integrity of work at a very young age. To help support his family, he got his first job as a paper boy, which was followed by a variety of careers, including candy maker, post office temp, lifeguard, ambulance driver, and policeman, among other things till he found his way into UC Berkeley’s prestigious law school, graduating in 1951.
Jackson went on to become a successful San Francisco attorney while pursuing other business interests. In 1974, he purchased an 80 acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport and converted it to growing premium Chardonnay grapes. He studied the market and upon realizing that there was a dearth of high quality wines at affordable prices, undertook extensive efforts to bridge the gap. The result was the first Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay in 1983, which became the first ever wine to win a Platinum Award in the American Wine Competition. In no time, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve helped Chardonnay become the most popular grape varietal among American wine drinkers. Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay continues to be the most popular selling wine made from that varietal in America and is a staple in many American households, including Barrack Obama’s.
In 2009 Jess Jackson was inducted into the Vintner’s Hall of Fame for his outstanding contributions to the wine industry. Other industry stalwarts inducted that year were winemaker Warren Winiarski (whose Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon won first place in the 1976 Judgment of Paris) and the legendary Beringer Brothers (whose award-winning wines established Napa Valley among the world’s top wine regions).
Jackson was known to be a man of all seasons who made an impression on people he crossed paths with while serving as an inspiration for others.
Kerry Demskey, a Winemaker from Geyserville, who has been a consultant to Sula Vineyards since its inception also shared a personal relationship with the family through their wives and kids. He says “Jess was a larger than life individual. His unabashed style worked well for him. He took no prisoners and was an industry leader, refusing to play by the old rules. Clearly, one of the great current icons in the California wine industry.'
Aman Dhall, owner of Delhi based Brindco has been importing Kendall-Jackson wines since 2003. He met Jess Jackson 8 years ago and fondly recalls, “Mr. Jackson was an amazing person with great leadership and vision. Although he did not visit India he believed in Asia as the new frontier for growth of wine consumption and was one of the very few people in the American wine industry to establish an office in Thailand to look over Asia in 2006.”
Bruce Cakebread, President and co-owner of the Napa based family winery Cakebread Cellars, currently in China on a promotional tour, informs delWine that “Jess Jackson and Barbara were big supporters of many charities but the one that impacted me for our family was his support of some of the local schools like Sonoma Country Day school where our daughter went to school in her junior high school years. His support of UC Davis' new state-of-the-art green winery will continue to serve winemakers well for many years to come.'
A letter on his company's website ended by asking friends to "take a moment this week to lift a glass and join us in a toast to our friend and founder Jess Jackson."
Rishi Vohra, CSW
Rishi Vohra is the California Correspondent for DelWine and is a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) from the Society of Wine Educators, USA. He has done MBA in Sustainable Business from San Francisco State University and a Masters Diploma in Environmental Law from WWF-India. Vohra is based in Berkeley and often visits Napa and Sonoma Valley wineries.