December 8, 2023

Jess Jackson Dies at 81, a Wine Grower With a Taste for Thoroughbred Racing

The cause was complications of cancer, a spokeswoman for Jackson Family Wines said.

Mr. Jackson was a successful lawyer looking for a little excitement in his life in 1974, when he and his wife, the former Jane Kendall, bought an 80-acre pear and walnut farm in Lakeport, Calif., north of San Francisco. He planted vines and sold his grapes to local wineries. In the early 1980s, when Fetzer Vineyards canceled an order and left him with a bumper crop of grapes, he began making his own wines.

In 1982 he produced his first bottle of Vintner’s Reserve, a chardonnay whose $4.50 price put it midway between a blended jug wine and the wines termed superpremium in the trade, and whose sweet fruitiness found favor with American palates.

Kendall-Jackson shipped fewer than 20,000 cases of its first Vintner’s Reserve. It soon became the most popular chardonnay in the United States, selling millions of cases annually and igniting a craze for California chardonnay.

“The original business plan was to break even at 50,000 cases, but we kept growing,” Mr. Jackson told Food and Wine magazine in 2000.

Mr. Jackson began expanding, creating or acquiring more than 30 wineries and brands that today produce more than five million cases annually. His umbrella company, Jackson Family Wines, includes in its portfolio La Crema, Cardinale, Arrowood, Cambria, Lokoya, Matanzas Creek and Vérité in the United States, Château Lassègue in Bordeaux, Tenuta di Arceno in Tuscany, Yangarra in the McLaren Vale region of Australia and Viña Calina in Chile.

In 2003 Mr. Jackson threw his considerable energies and assets into thoroughbred racing, acquiring top horses that race under the colors of Stonestreet Stables.

In 2007 he bought a controlling interest in Curlin, who went on to win the Preakness Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year, and the $6 million Dubai World Cup in 2008.

A year later, with his partner Harold McCormick, Mr. Jackson bought Rachel Alexandra after she won the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths. He ran her in the Preakness, where she became the first filly to win the race since Nellie Morse in 1924. Curlin won Horse of the Year honors in both 2007 and 2008, and Rachel Alexandra won in 2009.

Mr. Jackson, who as a child saw Seabiscuit run, told Daily Racing Form in 2010, “My ancestry is cowboys and Texans and Westerners.” A lifelong love of the races, which he enjoyed handicapping, lured him to the track as an owner. “The joy of the sport brought me back,” he said.

Jess Stonestreet Jackson Jr. was born on Feb. 18, 1930, in Los Angeles and grew up in San Francisco. He supported himself while attending the University of California, Berkeley, by working as a Berkeley policeman and a longshoreman. After earning a law degree, he worked as a lawyer for the state, specializing in land-use issues. In the late 1950s he started his own law firm in San Francisco.

Mr. Jackson’s appetite for litigation did not stop after he entered the wine business and thoroughbred racing. He sued his chief winemaker at Kendall-Jackson, Jed Steele, accusing him of revealing trade secrets — the formula for making Vinter’s Reserve — when Mr. Steele left the company in 1990. A county court, in a surprise ruling, found in Mr. Jackson’s favor and stated that the formula for making wine belongs to a winery, not the winemaker.

A few years later Mr. Jackson unsuccessfully sued E. J. Gallo, the world’s biggest winemaker, charging that its Turning Leaf wines copied the bottle and label design of Vintner’s Reserve. As a horse owner, he sued three of his former bloodstock advisers in 2005, saying that they had sold him horses at inflated prices and pocketed secret commissions from the owners.

Mr. Jackson went on to campaign for a new law in Kentucky that would require an agent representing both sides of an equine transaction to disclose the fact to buyer and seller. Such a law was passed in 2006.

Mr. Jackson’s first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Barbara Banke; two children from his first marriage, Jennifer Hartford and Laura Giron; three children from his second marriage, Katie, Julia and Christopher; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Jackson stumbled on the success of Vintner’s Reserve. A misstep in the fermentation process left the wine with residual sugar and a pronounced sweet taste. It turned out to be an ideal flavor profile for aspirational wine drinkers ready to move beyond jug wines but still attracted to fruity, off-dry whites — chardonnay with training wheels. “Americans love forward fruit flavor and a good price,” Mr. Jackson told Food and Wine in 1999. “That’s what drove our success.”

Critics sneered. Consumers cheered. “Our goal is to broaden the consuming public, to bring neophyte people to wine,” Mr. Jackson told The New York Times in 1992. “I’m making wine for the consumer, not the wine writers.”

In a business littered with ambitious failures, Mr. Jackson showed a remarkable ability to expand aggressively while keeping his operations profitable. Year after year, he acquired faltering small wineries and bought thousands of acres in prime wine regions, including Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Santa Barbara and Monterey Counties. The company owns more than 14,000 acres of California vineyards and an equal amount of land not currently planted.

Although the company has concentrated on producing well-made affordable wines, in 2005 it began offering a premium-price line of single-vineyard wines called Highland Estates. These include Camelot Highlands Chardonnay, Alisos Hills Syrah and Trace Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon.

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