Jess Jackson: The 'billionaire underdog' who put chardonnay on America's tables

Chardonnay, the wine that put California whites on the map in the '80s, still is the first wine we think of when asked, "Want to drink a white?" Some say one man's vision is responsible for this: Jess Stonestreet Jackson of the Kendall-Jackson wine empire. Edward Humes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of the Jackson biography A Man and His Mountain.

Noelle Carter: What was it that drew you to Jess Jackson?

Edward Humes
Edward Humes

Edward Humes: Jackson was a game-changer. He really was the Steve Jobs of wine in his own way and invented a whole category. He cast aside a very successful law career, mortgaged his house and invested everything into opening a winery that pretty much everyone said would fail. He ended up putting chardonnay on America’s tables.

NC: You describe him in the book as this bigger-than-life man with the Midas touch. He’s passionate, charismatic and at times ruthless.

EH: That’s a good summary. I don’t have too many billionaires in my Rolodex, but he was a very easy person to be around, very knowledgeable and kind of a Renaissance guy.

The thing that I found most interesting about him was his very complete contrarian streak. His Midas touch really emanated from doing things that people said probably would fail. That was his motivation to then prove them wrong. He just seemed to be ahead of the curve on a lot of things that became trends after he blazed the trail.

NC: You described him as the Steve Jobs of the wine industry and Kendall-Jackson itself as the Starbucks of the industry. How exactly did he transform the industry?

EH: He was one of the relatively small band of winemaking pioneers in the late '70s and early '80s who changed California’s image and put it on the map of quality wines in a way that hadn’t been true before.

Kendall-Jackson became very large, but it remained a family enterprise. In fact, other than the very different Gallo family company, Kendall-Jackson is the last of the great California wine family-owned companies. Jess was a micromanager for much of the life of the company, even when it had become so vast.

He had this vision of the affordable luxury of wine. This first chardonnay he made became a cash cow. It’s been enduringly popular -- one of the most popular chardonnays in the world for many, many years -- but it wasn't very expensive. People could afford to have it. It was catering to the everyday person’s palate rather than the very elite wine culture. That both irritated and entranced his critics and his peers.

NC: It seems that, as successful as he became and as successful as Kendall-Jackson and his other enterprises became, he always viewed himself as the everyman and the underdog.

EH: Yes -- the billionaire underdog, a bit of a contradiction in terms. Again, there’s the contrarian streak. It goes back to his roots.

He grew up very poor in San Francisco and worked a zillion jobs. We tried to count how many different jobs he had over the course of his life and we stopped at 50. He was a Berkeley cop, he was a lumberjack, he sold newspapers on the corner in San Francisco when he was a kid. He ended up putting himself through law school and had a very successful career that he worked hard to build.

Then he put all that aside and threw himself into wine in a way that had a huge impact on his industry. I say it’s one of the great second acts in American entrepreneurial history. But that wasn’t really where he was at the start of Kendall-Jackson.

He had a winery that was hanging by a thread financially, a vintage in which the fermentation had become stuck for the chardonnay grapes that he was growing in Lake County, and he needed a solution. He brought in these consultants, these young winemakers, the skunkworks of wine, to try and fix it. Their idea was to respect the terroir of different grapes that he had either grown or bought, and do seven or eight different vintages, very small ones, and try and stanch the losses and stay alive financially.

He said, "I’m one guy with a winemaker and my daughter is working for me. I can’t market eight different kinds of wines." It was really necessity that drove him to this idea of making a blend, which horrified all these winemaking consultants he was working with.

He said, "No. I want to make a wine that blends all the best grapes from the coastal regions of California and call it a super blend. Let’s see, let’s taste it. Don’t you think it tastes good?"

"Yes, but you can’t do that. It tastes fine, but you can’t do that."

"Why can’t I do it? I can do it."

NC: What I loved was he took something that would have horrified other winemakers and not only does he market that, but that becomes the whole selling point for the wine.

You mentioned when he started doing these tastings, he would invite people to blend their own wines just so they could see what a wonderful blend his was and how difficult it is to do the right blend.

Jess Jackson
Jess Jackson (Photo: Courtesy of Kendall-Jackson Wines)

EH: He brought in wine critics, writers, journalists and industry people. He fed them, and then sat them down in this room with all the different wines that were the components of his Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and said, "You make it."

NC: It was a fascinating way to sell.

EH: It was, and people loved it. It was fun.

There’s no arguing with success. It was hugely popular and became even more so after Nancy Reagan started pouring it at the White House. That made news in San Francisco and then nationally -- it was Nancy’s wine. It really caught fire after that. He hit something that people liked, and the critics be damned and tradition be damned.

Then he threw it out. Everybody started making blends. He said, "Now I’m going to make estate wines and I’m going to focus on the terroir."

NC: He started buying all the fine little wineries.

EH: And also acquiring raw land that he converted to vineyards in areas that hadn’t previously been used for winemaking but he felt had a lot of promise. He was really successful in that.

Featured recipe

Top Recipes

Featured recipe