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The Passing of Jess Jackson, Wine Industry Innovator

You might be drinking his wine tonight.

Jess Jackson, innovator, wine pioneer, environmentally-friendly entrepreneur and late-to- life thoroughbred horse breeder died in California last month at the age of 81. Known as a maverick, he created much from little and his eponymous Kendall-Jackson chardonnay is featured on the menus of thousands of restaurants and wine bars across the country. I’ve got a few bottles sitting in the wine rack myself. The family-owned company he leaves behind is the 9th largest wine producer in the U.S., a business he got into almost accidentally.

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In 1974 he and his then wife (the Kendall in Kendall-Jackson) bought a pear and walnut farm in Lake County California and converted the acreage into a grape farm. In the early 1980s he began to produce his own wine when he was having difficulties selling his grapes. As the story goes, there was a fermentation problem with the production of his 1982 chardonnay which left it with a somewhat sweet and fruity taste and Jackson, ever the contrarian and risk taker, took it to market anyway where it won awards and was a hit with consumers. Today it is the best-selling chardonnay in America and continues to win awards with a shelf price of about $10.

Like many other successful innovators and entrepreneurs, Jackson was visionary and was driven by that vision. He had a passionate and competitive spirit and in the many articles written after his death, people who knew him described him in similar ways. “I think he enjoyed a good scrap,” said one acquaintance. “Outspoken.” “Unabashedly competitive.” “A pistol.” “He zigged when most people zagged.” Yet, he was also a private man and a quiet philanthropist. There is a difference between doing well and doing good. By most standards, Jackson achieved both.

Although he died a billionaire, he came from modest means and worked as a longshoreman and a policeman to put himself through college at UC-Berkley, where he went on to earn a law degree. From there he became a successful land-use lawyer in the Bay area before buying the aforementioned farm in Lake County.

While not a household name like other legendary California wine families such as Gallo, Mondavi, or Sebastiani, Jackson was well known to wine geeks everywhere and over the years had acquired many upmarket brands and wineries such as Le Crema, Freemark Abbey, Arrowood and Byron Estates. Through his many brands, he helped to popularize the mid-market of $10-$20 wines on the shelves.

Also a shrewd businessman, he created his own distribution company to maintain his independence and he was a leader in the sustainable farming movement in the wine industry, having installed many environmental-friendly practices in his vineyards.

Kendall-Jackson’s ubiquitous chardonnay has made a lot of money for a lot of restaurateurs over the years. People who are only occasional wine drinkers are often intimidated looking at a wine list and “K-J” chardonnay represents a safe choice for the diner. Knowing that, restaurants tend to mark it up dramatically, often to three times shelf price whether by the glass or by the bottle. Since the restaurant bought it wholesale, it represents both a high volume and high margin menu item. Ka-ching.

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Late in life he became an investor in racehorses and thoroughbred breeding and owned the horse Curlin who earned more prize money than any horse in history. Another of his horses, Rachel Alexandra, became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years. Not surprisingly, he was also known as an outspoken advocate of reform in the racing industry.

Fast Company has featured many articles about innovators and business builders over the years and one theme that seems to stand out is a strong set of personal values that guided their efforts and their energy. Jackson was no exception. He had said, “From day one we have been a family-owned and family-run business. Our family culture is built on the time-honored principles of hard work, integrity and uncompromising desire for quality and the long-term stewardship of the land.”

Without the patriarch, it’s unclear whether Kendal-Jackson will remain family-owned. There has been much consolidation in the industry and like in many family businesses the second generation might not have the same commitment to the business as did the founder.

I’m sure I speak for many other cork dorks when I say that I’m grateful for Mr. Jackson’s passion and accomplishments. He is quoted as having once said: “Wine celebrates friends, family, and love–all the best things in life.” That’s a good way to end this commentary piece.

Mike Hoban is a management consultant in his day job and can be contacted at business-at-large@sbcglobal.net.