"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).