Jess Jackson, who died last week, was one of the most important figures in the modern American wine business. If Robert Mondavi gave Americans a reason to love wine, Jackson gave them a wine to love. His Kendall-Jackson chardonnay is one of the most popular wines in the country, and has been almost since he introduced it in 1982.
How big a deal is the K-J Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay? That first vintage sold 20,000 cases. Today, K-J sells some 2.5 million cases of the chardonnay, which would make it alone the 12th biggest winery in the country, according to Wine Business Monthly.
Yet Jackson's death will probably elicit little of the admiration and respect that marked Mondavi's passing in 2008. One reason, say people who knew him, is that Jackson was not an easy man to get along with — something, they say, he often acknowledged. A lawyer, he liked to sue people, and that included Jed Steele, the winemaker who made that first vintage of chardonnay. He sued E&J Gallo, the biggest fish in the pond. And when, later in life he raced thoroughbreds (his horses won the Preakness twice), he sued horse people, too.
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The other reason? Jackson made cheap wine for people who weren't sure about wine. That first vintage cost $4.50, and it was fruity and almost sweet. Even 30 years ago, those were fighting words in the California wine business.
"Jess gave people a wine they could like," says George Rose, who did K-J's PR from 2003 to 2009. "He found a taste profile that resonated with people. His wine was Two Buck Chuck before Two Buck Chuck. So when Jess came on the scene, he took the wine universe by storm."
Or, as Jackson told the New York Times in 1992: "Our goal is to broaden the consuming public, to bring neophyte people to wine. I ?m making wine for the consumer, not the wine writers."
And, to add insult to injury, Jackson did it well. The two biggest chardonnays in the early 1980s were Fetzer's Sundial and Glen Ellen's Proprietor's Chardonnay, and Rose says K-J's chardonnay practically destroyed them. In this, the Kendall-Jackson wines, and the chardonnay in particular, are as close to national brands, like Tide or Heinz, as the wine wine business has. Which is not the way to become beloved in the California wine industry.
It is a way to be successful, which Jackson was.