GEYSERVILLE — Jess Stonestreet Jackson, the wine visionary who popularized Chardonnay in America in the early 1980s with his immediately-successful Kendall-Jackson winery and then became a pioneering architect of the ascendant American wine industry, died today at his Geyserville home after a long battle with cancer. He was 81.
A one-time longshoreman and police officer, who put himself through University of California Berkeley’s Boalt Hall law school, Jackson became one of the best-known figures in American viticulture, as Kendall-Jackson became the best-selling Chardonnay in America for over two decades.
Raised in San Francisco during the Great Depression, Jackson worked as a farmer, policeman, and land-use lawyer. He started the Kendall-Jackson wine business with the family’s 1974 purchase of an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, California that he converted to a vineyard. In 1982, he produced his first bottle of wine under the Kendall-Jackson label. In 1983, the wine won the first double Platinum Award ever presented by the American Wine Competition. Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates remains today one of the most awarded wineries in the United States.
Jackson’s vision and outspoken manner often ran counter to conventional industry practices. When he realized that the quality of the French oak barrels used to age his wine was inconsistent, he invested in his own mill in France to provide barrel staves, and became a partner in a cooperage located in Missouri. He created his own California distribution company to remain free of industry consolidation there. He was a leader in the sustainable farming movement within the wine industry, implementing dozens of environmentally-friendly farming innovations throughout the vineyards of Jackson Family Wines. As a philanthropist he and his wife Barbara Banke, quietly donated millions of dollars in support of local and national charitable organizations.
Jackson was a founding member of Family Winemakers of California. In 2009, Jackson was inducted into the Vintner’s Hall of Fame. At that time he remarked, “Wine is entirely different from liquor and beer, and I’d like to see our industry free itself from the images that are used to sell those products. Wine is a part of our cultural heritage. It has always been the traditional partner with food. Wine celebrates friends, family, and love — all of the best things in life.
“When my family and I founded Kendall-Jackson in 1982, we simply wanted to create extraordinary wine from California’s best vineyards,” Jackson wrote in his biographical notes. “We grow grapes on our own 14,000 acres of California coastal vineyards. We take the no-compromise, high road approach to quality required to grow our world-class grapes and produce acclaimed award-winning wines.
“From day one we have been a family-owned and family-run business. It is a distinction that is rapidly becoming a rarity in our industry. 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.”
Among the wines made in the Jackson Family collection are Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, Cambria, Stonestreet, Edmeades, La Crema, Cardinale, Lokoya, Hartford Family Winery, Verite, Atalon, Carmel Road, Murphy Goode, La Jota, Freemark Abbey, Bryon Estates, Arrowood, in the U.S.; Chateau Lassegue in France; Tenuta di Arceno in Italy; Yangarra in Australia; and Calina in Chile.
Jackson Family Wines is one of California’s few remaining family-owned winery groups, with family members working full-time in a vaJackson’s passion for farming and horses led him later in life to thoroughbred breeding and racing.
In 2007, he became majority stakeholder in the racehorse Curlin who then won Horse of the Year for two consecutive years (2007 and 2008). The following year, Jackson’s filly, Rachel Alexandra became the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in 85 years. She also won 2009 Horse of the Year. An outspoken leader in the reform of racing, Jackson won the Sportsman of the Year 2008 Insider Award.
He is survived by his wife, Barbara Banke, five children: Jennifer Hartford, Laura Giron, Katie Jackson, Julia Jackson and Christopher Jackson and two grandchildren, Hailey Hartford and MacLean Hartford.
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