Kendall-Jackson winery owner Jess Jackson dies at 81

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Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 8:04 a.m.
Kendall-Jackson winery founder Jess Jackson, whose chardonnay found the sweet spot in the American palate and made him the richest man in Sonoma County, died Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 81.
One of the most influential figures in the California wine industry, Jackson leaves behind a vast Santa Rosa-based wine empire, which his family has pledged to continue running, and a strong legacy of philanthropy in Sonoma County.
“Jess Jackson was one of America’s greatest wine industry entrepreneurs,” said industry analyst Jon Fredrikson.
Jackson got a late start in the wine industry – he didn’t release his first wine until he was 52 – but he soon made up for lost time.
Already a successful Bay Area attorney when he began growing grapes in Lake County in the 1970s, Jackson began making wine when he couldn’t sell his grapes.
His Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, first released in 1982, was an immediate hit with critics and consumers alike for its crisp, slightly sweet style and bargain price, then just $5.
Sales took off and Jackson made the transition from gentleman farmer to wine industry tycoon with astounding speed.
The winery quickly became a juggernaut, disproving skeptics who said wine drinkers wouldn’t trust a California appellation wine blended from grapes from various regions.
Jackson was convinced that cool coastal vineyards, meticulous farming practices and modern winemaking techniques would allow him to produce consistently great wines.
To meet growing demand for premium grapes, Jackson developed a rapacious appetite for vineyard land, outbidding and often outmaneuvering larger rivals as he assembled what has become a 14,000-acre empire of coastal vineyards stretching from Santa Barbara to Mendocino.
His vast land holdings became the backbone of his success, providing his winemakers quality grapes and his bankers comfort to loan him the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to fuel Kendall-Jackson’s rapid expansion, which was unlike anything Sonoma County had ever seen.
In 2009, Jackson was inducted into the Vintner’s Hall of Fame.
In addition to owning the Santa Rosa winery, the life-long racing fan also owned Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.
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.