I thought about our founder, Jess Jackson, the other day when I came across an article in Decanter, the British wine magazine, about how Jess came to co-own a stave mill in the 1990s, in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France, one of the world’s premier forests for superlative wine barrels. That act halved the cost for barrels for the company, further helping Jess achieve his goal of keeping his wine prices moderate. In an era of steadily-inflating sticker shock for wine, Jess always wanted to hold the line in favor of consumers; and being able to manufacture his own French oak barrels (which today can approach $1,300 per) enabled him to pass those savings along to the people who bought, and continue to buy, his wines. There was another, twin advantage to controlling the source of his barrels: Jess could control their quality. To this date, investing in that stave mill has proven to be one of Jess’s most enduring legacies.
That Jess was a visionary is beyond question. Others who bought a walnut and pear orchard in Lake County, as Jess did in 1974, might have been content to spend summers on the ranch, selling off the produce and maybe keeping some fruit for homemade jam. Not Jess, who saw something far grander. Today, of course, we know that Kendall-Jackson, and Jackson Family Wines, is a worldwide force for innovation and quality. But imagine the vision that filled Jess’s mind as it ranged freely into the future. Did he know, even back then, how fulfilled that vision would become? Probably he had a sense of it, even if he couldn’t anticipate every detail of its accomplishment.
On a personal level, Jess meant a lot to me. I was “just” a wine writer (although I recognized that I had some fame in my field), and sometimes the powerful men and women who control wine empires can be a little aloof and dismissive of us critics. Not Jess. For some reason, he took a liking to me (and I to him), and while we didn’t see each other all that often, whenever we did, for me it was like running into a guy who might have been my Dad. I don’t know what it was like to work directly for him (I’ve heard he could be tough), but for me, he was nothing but warmth and charisma and the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. I’ve met just about everyone in the wine industry, men and women of great achievements and wealth, and quite frankly, most of them have failed to inspire me. Jess did, along with one or two others. But no one was in his league, or even came close. I count having known Jess as one of the delights of my career.
Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.