Telling Jess Jackson's story
Published: Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 8:52 a.m.
Barbara Banke had been waiting for three days outside an executive's office at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa.
A critical deal hung in the balance. It was the late 1980s, and Banke, who was working for Kendall-Jackson Winery at the time and married to its founder Jess Jackson, was plotting with him to buy the better half of the Tepusquet vineyard near Santa Barbara.
But they didn't have the cash, so Jackson secured an option to buy the vineyard should anyone else make an offer. When Beringer Wines did just that, Jackson still couldn't afford the vineyard.
So he and Banke convinced Mondavi Winery to go in on the deal and buy the less appealing part of the vineyard — the part with the cabernet grapes that Jackson and Banke thought tasted like “rancid bell peppers.”
When the Mondavi team stopped returning Banke's phone calls, jeopardizing the transaction, Banke showed up — and waited and waited while the executive who had promised to sign the deal dodged her.
Finally, he emerged from his office and she shamed him into signing the contracts.
The tale is part of “A Man and His Mountain: The Everyman Who Created Kendall-Jackson and Became America's Greatest Wine Entrepreneur,” an authorized biography of Jess Jackson written by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes.
The 336-page book hit the market six weeks ago, and both Humes and Banke attended a book signing last week at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate north of Santa Rosa, an event co-sponsored by Copperfield's Books.
The anecdote showed the critical role Banke, 60, played in developing Jackson Family Wines into an industry powerhouse. Originally a lawyer, she has been chairman of the company since her husband's death in 2011.
“I thought it was fun,” Banke said, recalling the standoff with the Mondavi executive. “I figured that they had to sign the paper because the executive had no excuse ... and it would have been a mess.”
It was one of the book's many anecdotes in which Jess Jackson, a lawyer-turned-vintner who wasn't afraid of legal battles, pitted himself against the Wine Country establishment, and often prevailed.
The descriptions of Jackson and his competitors aren't always flattering. The competitive side of the wine industry was a surprise to author Humes, and his book is peppered with soap opera dramas involving wine industry titans.
“I sort of had this view that it's this very genteel business, but its true cutthroat nature is beneath the surface,” Humes said. “Jess certainly went for the throat when need be.”
The scene also struck Katie Jackson, Jess and Barbara's daughter and an executive at Kendall-Jackson's parent company Jackson Family Wines, as indicative of her mother's tenacity.
“It really showed that aspect of my mother's personality, and that they were very determined and devoted to making this company work,” Jackson said. “I thought it was great that Ed did a wonderful job capturing my dad's personality.”
The narrative follows Jess Jackson from early childhood to his first grape-growing forays in Lakeport to the final days of his life.
“I always thought that Jess should tell his story,” said Banke, who was married to Jess Jackson for more than two decades.
But Jackson, a compulsive businessman who even in his 80s couldn't fully retire, wasn't inclined to sit for interviews. He finally agreed to the idea in 2009 when his health was declining, Banke said.
She and Caroline Shaw, chief communications and marketing officer at Jackson Family Wines, interviewed several authors for the job before settling on Humes, who hit it off with Jackson when they met.
Humes was given access to interview Jackson, his immediate and extended family, and his current and former employees. Other than fact-checking, Banke did not have a say about what was written, she said. That was left in the hands of Humes.
“The critical point was that it wasn't going to be a vanity piece, that Ed had control over the editorial content,” Shaw said.
What resulted was a story that surprised even Banke with little-known details about Jackson's life.
“There were some stories about his childhood that he never told me,” Banke said. “Jess was a private person, and he kept some things to himself, and even from me, although we lived together for over 25 years. So it was surprising, but I was glad that Jess was comfortable enough to share his stories with Ed.”
Among the surprises were passages about Jackson's difficult childhood with a father who was physically abusive to him and his mother.
“Jess was very committed to the Family Justice Center in Santa Rosa, and victims of violence, women and children,” Banke said. “And he really wanted to see that finished, and it was. But I didn't know that he had such a personal experience with violence in his life.”
Humes said Jenny Hartford, one of Jackson's daughters from his first marriage, provided a good deal of information about the birth of Jackson Family Wines.
“We spent a lot of hours talking, mostly about the early days,” Hartford said. “Our whole family planted the vines in Lakeport, and at the time we considered it slave labor, but we grew to appreciate it.”
The early days of Kendall-Jackson as recounted in the book reveal Jackson's adventurous side.
Humes recreates scenes from when Jackson, a San Francisco lawyer, was looking for a vineyard retreat. He drove around Wine Country in a Cadillac nicknamed the “yellow banana” — given to him by a client who couldn't pay cash for his legal services — with his first wife, Jane, and children Jenny and Laura in tow, knocking on the doors of esteemed winemakers to learn about the trade.
In a similar tale of moxie, Jackson traveled to New York City to find a distributor and talked his way into the city's famed Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, which agreed to sell his wines.
Humes also delves into the tensions that arose as Jackson bought a new family home without consulting wife Jane and then expanded the wine business against her wishes, making decisions on his own to invest the family's savings.
“I remember some things differently, but there are always going to be some differences in perspective,” said Hartford, who is now proprietor of Hartford Family Winery. “But I think it's very thorough and historically accurate, and I think Ed tried to show the heart and soul of my father, and I think he did that.”
Randy Ullom, senior vice president and winemaster at Kendall-Jackson, is depicted in the book as the globe-trotting vintner who led Jackson and Banke through wild vineyard searches in South America. Ullom said passages of the book brought tears to his eyes as he recalled meeting upon meeting with the charismatic personality.
“It was a very candid book, which brings legitimacy to the story,” Ullom said. “It's not glossed over. It's reality.”
“A Man and His Mountain” is available at locally owned Copperfield's Books and other outlets.
You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @cbussewitz.
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