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Chardonnay Crusader

Defining value wines in California made Jess Jackson a hero to the masses. Now he's leading us in an unexpected direction.

"Back at my law firm on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill, Friday was wine day," says Jess Jackson. The 69-year-old former constitutional-law attorney handles entirely different kinds of cases today: the ones filled with his wildly successful Kendall-Jackson wines, as well as wines from more than a dozen other Jackson-owned properties. But in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Jackson was a full-time lawyer and a weekend winemaker, albeit one with a knack for galvanizing popular opinion. On those wine Fridays, Jackson used to literally bring strangers off the streets and up to his law offices to sample his latest efforts. "These were blind tastings against some of the best wines of the time," Jackson recalls. "But Kendall-Jackson was always the wine they preferred. I knew that I had something." And so, although his law practice was earning him millions, he quit to make wine full-time. "I lost my first wife [Jane Kendall, half of the brand's namesake] because she thought I was leaving a position of great security, which I was," Jackson admits. But what an adventure it has turned out to be.

Kendall-Jackson Vineyards and Winery began in 1982 with a small parcel of land just north of Napa County, making 2,000 cases of Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. At $5 a bottle, the wine filled a void for the value-conscious crowd. That and its slight sweetness (the result of a snafu in the fermenting process that left a little more sugar than normal in the wine) soon turned Kendall-Jackson into America's favorite Chardonnay. "Americans love forward fruit flavor and a good price," Jackson explains. "That's what drove our success."

By focusing on a white wine with robust pineapple and citrus aromas and an easy-to-handle flavor, Jackson stirred up nothing less than a revolution in American winemaking. "From day one, Jess made a wine for people, not a wine for winemakers," says Kendall-Jackson's chief wine master, Randy Ullom. "Jess has always had a remarkable palate not only for what tastes good but also for what tastes good to the general public." And the public is still in firm agreement: Kendall-Jackson currently sells 2.3 million cases a year of the Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay ($12).

Kendall-Jackson now maintains 11,000 acres of vines in California, an annual production of more than 3.5 million cases of wine and 17 brands, including La Crema, Pepi, Camelot, Cardinale and Cambria. Yet as big as it is, the key to its success, according to Jackson, has been its ability to think small. "We've grown, but we still view ourselves as a collection of boutique wineries. We grow most of our own grapes and hand-fashion our products. We keep experimenting with different ways to celebrate wine."

The latest way is with two new lines at the top end of quality and price. A new series of elite wines under the Kendall-Jackson label represents a challenge Jackson put forth to his various winemakers a few years ago: to make the finest wines they could regardless of the cost. The results, which will be on the market later this year, include two Chardonnays from the Cambria estate and a huge, concentrated Veeder Peak Cabernet. Prices will range from $30 to $125.

There's also a series called JSJ Signature, Jackson's four favorite wines from his various vineyards. The 1997 Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley seems particularly promising. "This wine has a total synchronization and harmony of flavor, aroma and overall experience," Ullom says. "It's so soft and seamless that it makes you want to cry." Which is exactly the effect Jackson was after. To him, wine is an emotional part of his everyday life, even if it's an easy-drinking wine like the value-priced Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay or one of the reasonably priced wines from holdings like Calina in Chile and Tapiz in Argentina. Jackson is clearly as proud of the wines from his less expensive properties ashe is of those from prestige labels like Legacy and Lokoya.

Jackson has much to be proud of in his long career. Before practicing law, he worked as a lumberjack, an ambulance driver, a policeman, a longshoreman, a teamster, a carpenter's apprentice and even a candymaker. "I made peanut brittle and those little mints with the green things in 'em," he says, laughing. 

Today, Jackson is making time to pursue an equally eclectic list of passions. In January, he turned over responsibility for the winery's day-to-day operations to Lew Platt, the former head of Hewlett-Packard. "I'll do more of what I want to do instead of what I don't like," Jackson says. "I like to go fishing, play golf, ride horseback, raise cattle, raise children."

It doesn't, however, mean Jackson will stop caring about wine. "I hope I'll live to see the time when wine becomes just another beverage on the American table," he says.

David Hochman is a senior staff writer at Entertainment Weekly.

Published February 2000
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