Jess Jackson, billionaire founder of Kendall-Jackson winery, dies at 81

Jess Jackson, 81, a self-made billionaire who built his fortune promoting California chardonnays from his Kendall-Jackson winery, died April 21 at his home in Geyserville, Calif. He had complications from cancer.

Mr. Jackson transformed what began in 1974 as an 80-acre pear and walnut farm in Lake County, Calif., into a vine-covered empire with properties in Chile, Australia, Italy and France.

In California alone, he owned 14,000 grape-growing acres, including vineyards in Napa, Mendocino and Sonoma counties. His company produces more than 5 million cases of wine a year, and the Kendall-Jackson label is one of the most popular brands in the United States.

For Mr. Jackson, who spent 35 years as a real estate lawyer in San Francisco — and before that was a lumberjack, candymaker, grocery-bagger and police officer — grapes served as the bedrock of his success.

According to Forbes magazine, Mr. Jackson’s wine business made him one of the 400 richest Americans, with a net worth exceeding $1.8 billion last year.

Armed with his fortune, Mr. Jackson became a prominent thoroughbred owner and breeder. He was the majority owner of Horse of the Year winners Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, both of which won the Triple Crown series Preakness Stakes.

Under Mr. Jackson’s ownership, Curlin became the first North American-based horse to win $10 million in purses, and in 2009 Rachel Alexandra became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years.

Mr. Jackson first sold wine under the Kendall-Jackson name in 1982, with an emphasis on chardonnays. He is credited with helping familiarize American palates to the crisp and citrusy white wine.

But his love affair with the chardonnay grape began by accident.

In the early 1980s, one batch of wine did not complete fermentation, an error that caused the bottles to be filled with more sugar than usual.

Unable to fix the problem, Mr. Jackson sold the chardonnay anyway. The result was his award-winning 1982 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve.

All 18,000 cases sold out, and the slightly sweet and fruity wine firmly established the Kendall-Jackson reputation. Today, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is the top-selling chardonnay in America.

As demand for his wines began to grow, Mr. Jackson bought large swaths of land in California’s coastal belt and planted more grapes. In economic downturns, he bought out unprofitable wineries and lured reputable winemakers away from other operations.

The Kendall-Jackson company has 35 wineries around the world. Bottles of Mr. Jackson’s wine sell from $10 to $150 under brand names including La Crema, Arrowood, Cambria, Matanzas Creek and Freemark Abbey.

“We built this company against the odds,” Mr. Jackson once told Wine Spectator magazine. “So I can’t be a pussycat. I’m a hard-nosed competitor, but I have a compassion for what got me here and I still have compassion for the little guy.”

Jess Stonestreet Jackson was born Feb. 18, 1930, in Los Angeles. He grew up in San Francisco and supplemented his family’s income during the Depression by selling eggs and chickens on street corners.

He became interested in viticulture as a teenager working for a winemaking Italian uncle, picking and crushing grapes.

Before graduating from the University of California at Berkeley law school, Mr. Jackson held a number of jobs, including as a police officer in Berkeley.

His marriage to the former Jane Kendall ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, Barbara Banke, and their three children, Katie, Julia and Christopher Jackson, all of Geyserville; two children from his first marriage, Jennifer Hartford and Laura Giron, both of Santa Rosa, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Jackson’s late-life foray into thoroughbred racing was an impressive coda on a long career.

In 2007, his horse Curlin placed third in the Kentucky Derby and nosed out Derby winner Street Sense at the wire for the Preakness victory in Baltimore.

Curlin later won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup on his way to becoming the richest horse in U.S. history, with total earnings of more than $10.5 million. He was named American Horse of the Year in 2007 and 2008.

In 2009, Mr. Jackson bought Rachel Alexandra shortly after the dark-bay filly won the Kentucky Oaks by a record 201 / 4 lengths. In addition to her Preakness win that year, she won the Haskell Invitational Handicap, Woodward Stakes and the title of 2009 Horse of the Year.

Mr. Jackson’s two horses are both retired, and Rachel Alexandra is pregnant with a foal by Curlin, expected in early 2012.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.