WineInk: Remember a wine lover, ABC’s Keith Jackson |

WineInk: Remember a wine lover, ABC’s Keith Jackson

by Kelly J. Hayes
The author holds a hefty bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay.

While it was a sad passing, no one wanted the gathering of friends to be downcast. Rather, the intent, in fact the name of the event we had all come to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to attend was a “Celebration of Life.” And the life we were celebrating, that of the famed ABC Sportscaster Keith Jackson, boomed with a vitality that was as big as his voice.

Keith passed away this January at the age of 89. Even if you don’t know who he is, if you ever watched a college football game, an Olympic Games, The World Series, or a plethora of other televised sporting events from the 1970s until his retirement in 2006 you surely heard his work. “Whoa Nellie!,” “The Big Uglies” (his term for offensive linemen) and “Welcome to The Big House” (the name he coined for the University of Michigan’s mammoth stadium) have become touchstones for those who grew up as fans of the gridiron in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and the first half of this century.

What does this have to do with wine, you ask? Well, Keith was an inveterate consumer of the stuff. Grapes were a passion for the man with many loves. Following a Saturday afternoon tilt in Eugene, Columbus, Ann Arbor or Tuscaloosa, there was always a bottle and a glass around to help him relive the events of the day.

As I was fortunate enough to run around the country for a decade with the man to stadiums large and small on the ABC and ESPN college football circuit, I, too, was fortunate enough to consume more than my share of fine wines. Keith was generous in that, as he was in so many ways. He always included everyone in the crew and on the show in his post-game revelry.

So it was only appropriate that as we gathered for a celebration of his life, “bottoms up” would be expected. The question was what wine to drink, as he had so many favorites.

It was determined that Keith, a man of many relationships, would prefer that we drink wines that were made by friends, people he had admired. Two names came to mind, both of whom created, helmed and grew their Napa Valley passions into internationally loved, eponymous brands. Jack Cakebread and Koerner Rombauer are both legends in the wine world. Both have roots in Napa that extend back to the Golden Days, circa 1973. And both were friends of Keith who, knowing great chardonnay, became as good a customer as he was a buddy.

Jeri Fouts, who organized and produced the Celebration of Life event at the Rose Bowl, reached out to the Cakebreads, and I reached out to the Rombauers. Showing the loyalty and hospitality that is omni- present in the wine world, both generously agreed to participate. In fact, both said they were honored to provide wines for those who came to toast “Mr. Jackson.”

So it was that we came to be in possession of a three-liter, double magnum of the Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay to pour at a dinner the night before the celebration. A select group gathered to tell stories, laugh from deep in the belly and, of course, raise a multitude of glasses to their friend.

The bottle that Rombauer sent was special. In addition to its heft, which lent an air of substance and authority to the proceedings, it had an etched label and the Rombauers had inscribed on the back: “To Keith Jackson: The Original Granddaddy of Them All.” It was a welcome homage to the name he had given to the Rose Bowl, a game he broadcast a record 15 times.

As I poured the wine, I reminded the esteemed group of a story that Keith had told us a few years back. Keith and his wife, Turi Ann, maintained a stunning residence above the Pacific in Pender Harbor British Columbia. The pair would often drive from their house in Los Angeles across the Canadian border to the vacation home. Of course, Keith liked to sip a glass of his favorite wine as the sun set over the Sunshine Coast.

“I took the drive so I could take some of Koerner Rombauer’s finest chard with me,” he said in his stentorian tone. “I had to make sure the Mounties would let us pass as I had the cases in the back, tucked away in a hidden place. Anyway, I would always chat them up at the crossing, they didn’t want to search an old fart’s car. When I was 5 miles up the road I knew I had made it. Yippie!”

It was quintessential Keith.

The event on the playing field of the Rose Bowl featured three Pro Football Hall of Famers, Keith’s kids and grandkids, live music, video clips of the biggest moments of our sporting lives, and, of course, fine wine.

In short, everything the man loved.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at

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