I’ll confess to a sense of ambivalence when I write about what used to be called Kendall-Jackson and is now Jackson Family Wines. After all, this is the company — let’s call it an empire — that was launched, in 1982, with the Kendall-Jackson Vintners’ Reserve Chardonnay 1980, a wine that did not change how America drank chardonnay but confirmed its secret and terrific yen for a ripe, fruity, slightly sweet white. Proprietor Jess Jackson, an attorney and horse-racing enthusiast, bought an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, Calif., with his first wife in 1974 as a getaway from San Francisco, planted grapes and sold them to wineries including Fetzer. When an order from that winery fell through, the opportunity to make some chardonnay arose, with, apparently, a mistake in fermentation leaving the wine with a touch of residual sugar. Bingo! Selling at $4.50 a bottle, the first Kendall-Jackson Vintners’ Reserve Chardonnay created a niche and a craving in the wine-consuming habits of American consumers.
Jess Jackson died in 2011, at the age of 81. The company is still closely held by the family, with Jackson’s widow, Barbara Banke, as chairman.
Soon after the winery produced its first vintage in 1982, Jackson started acquiring properties. In 1988, for example, he bought Edmeades Vineyards in Mendocino. In 1994, he purchased Robert Pepi, the winery and vineyards. (Pepi cannot use his name on labels now and makes cabernets under his Eponymous label.) The year 2006 saw Jackson in high acquisition mode; within two months that summer, he took in Robert Pecota and Murphy-Goode and then for $97 million purchased Legacy Estates, which owned Freemark Abbey, Arrowood and Byron, a purchase that included winery facilities, brands, inventory and vineyards, all of these brought under the Kendall-Jackson umbrella.
In fact, let’s go ahead and list the labels and brands that fall under Jackson Family Wines’ broad banner.
The top of the line is the Spire Collection, consisting of Anakota (Knights Valley); Arcanum (Tuscany); Capensis (Western Cape, South Africa); Capture (Sonoma County); Cardinale (Napa Valley); Cyneth (Napa Valley); Chateau Lessegue (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Chateau Vignot (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Galerie (Napa Valley); Hickinbotham (McLaren Vale, South Australia); La Jota Vineyard (Napa Valley); Lokoya (Napa Valley); Maggy Hawk (Mendocino County); Mt. Brave (Napa Valley); Verite (Sonoma County);Windracer (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County). I have tasted wines from 12 of these 16 estates, and they are impressive in every sense.
Also under the Jackson Family Wines rubric but not included in the Spire Collection, are Champ de Reves and Edmeades (Mendocino); Carmel Road (Monterey); Atalon and Freemark Abbey (Napa Valley); Byron and Cambria (Santa Barbara County); in Sonoma County, Arrowood, Carneros Hills, Hartford Family, La Crema, Matanzas Creek, Murphy-Goode, Stonestreet, Silver Palm and the recently acquired Siduri; and in Oregon, Gran Moraine, founded in 2014.
Kendall-Jackson is now a brand inherent in the Jackson Family Wines stable, and it too is divided into a roster of labels and categories that includes K-J Avant (three wines); Vintners’ Reserve (10 wines); Grand Reserve (eight wines); Jackson Estate (eight wines); and Stature (two wines). Yes, just under the Kendall-Jackson label are 31 wines. Stonestreet offers 17 wines, primarily single-vineyard chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon: Murphy-Goode produces 19 wines, including chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. You get the point. Add all the brands and labels together, from the heights of the august and costly Cardinale and Verite down to the common denominator of its least expensive offerings, and the company oversees the production, at many levels and price-points, of close to 100 different wines each year. That’s a lot of territory to cover, geographically, varietally and stylistically, but the gratifying fact is that, while of course variations in quality and style inevitably exist, the diverse range of wines tends to be consistently and thoughtfully well-made, with my ratings typically ranging from Very Good+ to, in a few instances, Exceptional.
That assessment is not the same as saying that all of these brands, labels and wines seem absolutely necessary. No winery or group of wineries can be all things to all people, and at prices, say, between $18 and $30, the line-up of Jackson Family Wines might be competing with itself, though I suppose that marketers and strategists take that aspect of the business into consideration.
In the rarefied echelon of the Spire Collection, where prices rise to a dramatic $250 a bottle for Cardinale, the competition is the realm of California’s famous and highly sought-after cult cabernet sauvignons. Certainly the wines from Cardinale, Cyneth, La Jota, Lakoya and Mt. Brave in Napa Valley and Anakota and Verite in Sonoma display the remarkable detail, depth and dimension and the capacity for long-aging that great wines must evince. I have tasted a number of the Spire Collection wines in the past, and in March spent a day in Napa Valley and a day in Sonoma County tasting the most recent vintages of these labels, as well as the sauvignon blanc wines of Galerie, the pinot noirs of Maggy Hawk and the chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons of Stonestreet. In a few days, I’ll post an assessment of these individual wineries that fall under the rubric of the Spire Collection.