Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com
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Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

On the beach in Hanalei, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a large house looks out over the bay and the Hanalei pier. It is one of the most beautiful beachfront locations in the world, and as I have gazed at it, I have thought to myself that if I was one of the world’s richest people, that’s where I would have spent my money.

Two years ago, the day before the Kentucky Derby in 2009, a horse named Rachel Alexandra, a filly, captured the attention of horse-racing fans by winning the Kentucky Oaks by an amazing 20-1⁄4 lengths. It was one of the most amazing performances ever seen on a racetrack, and less than a month later she would come from the 13th post position to win the Preakness Stakes, the first filly to do so since 1924. The horse was so majestic when she ran that every soul who saw her thought she would be a joy to own.

What do these two amazing things of beauty have in common? Both were the property of Jess Jackson, a wine industry giant who passed away earlier this month at the age of 81.

You likely know Kendall-Jackson wines, and it is a safe bet that most of you have tasted their iconic Vintners-Reserve Chardonnay. The best selling Chardonnay in America, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintners Reserve is a wine that sparked more than just a fortune; it created a craze for the Chardonnay grape that was in turn a catalyst for a nationwide explosion in wine appreciation.

Jess may not have changed surfing, though he was a passionate waterman who loved riding the waves of Hanalei, but he was a significant figure in his other two passions. In February, just two months before Jess’s death, it was announced that Rachel Alexandra was bred to another horse he owned, two-time horse of the year, Curlin. Rachel Alexandra is in foal with what could be, based on lineage, a super horse. The colt is due on Feb. 1, 2012.

If the plans that Jess made hold true, his legacy will live on for generations.

There is no doubt that Jess’s forward thinking as a vintner and his acquisition of 14,000 acres of prime California vineyards on behalf of his eponymous winery (Kendall was his first wife’s maiden name) will yield many great wines for future generations as well. Over the last decades of his life he went on a spree, acquiring a number of vineyards for Jackson Family Wines. Today California wineries such as Freemark Abbey, Cambria and LaJota are under the Jackson Family moniker as are wineries in Chile, Australia and even Bordeaux in France.

Jess put himself through the University of California’s Boalt Law School while working as Berkeley cop. In the middle of a successful career as an attorney (it should be noted that he was not shy about filing lawsuits in either of his later careers), he purchased a farm in Lake County, Calif., in 1974. When he had difficulty selling the farm’s wares he decided to make wine and sell it himself. In 1982, Jess released the first vintage of his Chardonnay and the off-dry, slightly sweet, sufficiently oaked wine was an instant hit. That wine shipped 20,000 cases. At the time of his death the company was shipping more than 5 million cases of their wines.

Part of Jackson’s success can be attributed to placing a high value, both conceptually and financially, on all of his products. The perception of the Vintners-Reserve, even as it grew into a mass-produced wine, was that it came from a family-owned company and that the grapes were “Estate Grown.” While true on both counts, it allowed the wine to be sold at a higher price than other similar wines that were not accorded the same status in consumer perception. The result was a wine that built an empire, bought a house in Hanalei and led to the merger of the two greatest racehorses of the last decade.

A letter on KJ.com, the company’s website, concluded with a request to “take a moment this week to lift a glass and join us in a toast to our friend and founder, Jess Jackson.”

Consider it done.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@wineink.com.


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