Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Will Parrish: Wine Mogul Jess Jackson’s True Legacy

In Around Mendo Island, Will Parrish on May 19, 2011 at 6:40 am

From WILL PARRISH
Laytonville

It was a striking display of the corporate media’s capacity to dumb down and mislead: A billionaire wine mogul who perpetrated vast environmental harm and perhaps contributed more overall to the rural gentrification of California’s north and central coast regions than any single individual, during a period spanning more than the past two destructive decades, had passed away. The largest daily newspapers and television news programs universally failed to mention any of these controversial aspects of the billionaire’s legacy, instead hailing him as a fallen hero, paragon of the American system of free enterprise, and unswerving steward of the land. To the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, he was “a man of the earth, who walked the land in his grandfather’s boots, talked of farming as a spiritual experience and quietly gave back some of his vast wealth to the local community.”

The man in question, of course, is Jess Jackson, long-time owner and chief executive of the multi-national wine empire Kendall-Jackson. Jackson passed away at his home in Geyserville on April 21st, at the age of 81.

In the last three weeks, I’ve taken it on myself to comb through most of articles that currently pop up via Google News related to Jackson’s death — a total of 368 pieces in more than 200 separate news outlets, as of last count. The strongest criticism levied at him in any of these stories, which appear in newspapers ranging from the Press Dem to the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times to ESPN Magazine, was that he had high expectations for his employees, and that those sometimes made him impatient and difficult to be around.

At the very least, any worthy obituary would have least mentioned Jackson’s constant run-ins with environmentalists. It was not all that long, after all, that Press Democrat Business Editor Brad Bollinger bemoaned in his newspaper’s pages how “Kendall-Jackson has in some minds become a cross between a scofflaw and Sonoma County’s own version of Charles Hurwitz.”

The latter is a reference to the timber industry executive whose company, Maxxam, was at the time notorious for clearcutting the forests of Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

Yet, much of what makes Jackson’s life worthy of examination — a life full of complexities and contradictions, to be sure — is hidden in plain sight amid the deluge of puff pieces. At some point, during the late-’90s or early-’00s, Jackson adopted the practice of shuttling reporters and wine critics around to his varied, remote North Coast vineyard estates on his private McDonnell Douglas MD-600N helicopter, a brand of chopper more commonly used by the US Border Patrol. An April 27 Los Angeles Times story by wine and food writer Patrick Comiskey featured this passage:

“I met Jackson on a spring day in 2003, when he served as my guide on a mildly harrowing helicopter tour to admire some of his many North Coast properties. To look at him on the helipad he seemed indestructible — tall, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, with bright hazel eyes and an easy smile — he had a deep, dulcet-toned voice and a lawyer’s mastery of it, and a handshake so powerful it seemed he just might take you down with it.”

Comiskey continues, “We took off in the Russian River Valley, hurtling up the Sonoma coast before cutting inland to the company’s impressive high-elevation vineyards in the Alexander Valley, set on ridges so vertiginous it seemed as if the pilot might have a hard time finding a place to land. We toured a half-dozen properties that day, and with characteristic ebullience he spoke of each with a level of detail that astounded us; it would be hard to overstate the pride he exhibited in these estates and the depth of his conviction that they were among the greatest in California.”

Apparently, it didn’t strike Comiskey as odd that Jackson’s vineyards were located in such remote terrain. Mountain-top vineyards became all the rage in the premium wine industry during the 1990s.The notion that the distinct character of particular vineyard parcels are expressed through the wines produced from them, and that an appreciation for those signifies membership in a learned, privilege order of wine aficionados, were becoming increasingly popular with consumers who sought new forms of conspicuous consumption to indulge in. It was Kendall-Jackson that led the way as the corduroy-like rows of grapes marched steadily up into mountain ranges stretching across the north and central coasts. The vast number of “vertiginous” vineyards Jackson owns, however, came with a heavy ecological price tag.

Most of the acreage was previously forested, so the trees were removed and their roots ripped out prior to the vineyard plantings. Often, the hilltops were flattened out by massive bulldozers, removing vast amounts of soil and rock. Pesticides were applied in copious amounts. The vineyards not only require irrigation, but they command a massive amount of frost protection water due to their cool climates. That often means damming up all the available streams and building huge water reservoirs. Soil erosion invariably has resulted from the removal of trees and other anchoring vegetation. With the steepness of the sites, the soil washed down into creeks and streams.

To understand the uniqueness of Kendall-Jackson’s ecological impact, it’s useful to look at the matter in historical perspective. Large-scale land clearances have been a part of agriculture for thousands of years. In recent decades, however, agribusiness in California has mostly gotten away from clearing new land, instead rotating crops on land already under cultivation. Thanks to the wine industry, however, large-scale land clearances for agribusiness purposes returned with a vengeance in the ’80s and ’90s, most often owing to the hillside vineyard segment.

The only concerted effort to date to quantify the impact of the hillside and mountain-top vineyard planting binge was undertaken by Adina Merelender of the University of California, Berkeley and the Hopland Research Extension Center, reflected in a study she published in September 1999 (available at http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/grants/Reports/Merenlender/merenlender96-47.htm). She noted that whereas only 6% of Sonoma County vineyards prior to 1990 were on slopes greater than 10 degrees and 18% were planted above 328 feet in elevation, 25% of vineyards developed between 1990 and 1997 were on slopes greater than 10 degrees and 42% were planted above 328 feet in elevation. No data is available for the period post-1997, although it is widely assumed that the trend has accelerated.

During the same seven-year period, Merenlender estimates at least 6,600 acres of dense oak woodland were lost to vineyard development in Sonoma County alone. In Santa Barbara County, more than 2,000 oak trees were felled to make way for vineyards in 1996 and 1997 — a larger number than all rural development and subdivisions were responsible for removing in the previous ten years.

Of the more than 14,000 acres of vineyards Kendall-Jackson operates across California, nearly 11,000 acres are on land classified as mountaintops or hillsides — far more than any other mega-vintibusiness can claim. Jackson’s penchant for buying up remote parcels for grapes was once described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a magnificent obsession.”

Jackson relished his role as the wine industry’s most successful outsider and greatest frontiersman. “All good grapes are mountain grapes,” he commonly said — a fact he attributed to “natural selection.”

“People don’t have a brain if they don’t understand the relationship between open space and agriculture,” he complained to Wines and Vines Magazine in 1995. “Open space IS agriculture. There’s no one who is a better protector of open space than a farmer. The population thinks food comes in plastic at Safeway. They don’t know how to kill a chicken. Citizens who live in the city and never experience growing a crop live in a Disney fantasy. Everything on earth eats something else! I love Bambi as much as the next one, but the coyote and the cougar need Bambi as food. All that seems so crass and crude to the average person.”

Growing up, Jackson worked on a family ranch in Colorado. He earned a law degree at the prestigious Boalt School of Law at UC Berkeley in the 1950s. His specialty throughout his career as an attorney was an opaque field of property law known as reverse indemnification. His clients included some of the biggest landowners in California. He once even won a $3 million judgment on behalf of a developer client against the County of Sonoma.

Jackson bought a weekend property in Lake County in 1974. After striking it big with his Vinter’s Reserve chardonnay brand, Jackson went on a buying spree throughout the coastal zones of California, and especially in Sonoma County. He bought and cleared thousands of acres of land and purchased over a dozen already existing wineries. By 1996, KJ had surpassed Sebastiani Vineyards as the top revenue-generating winery in Sonoma County.

Jackson also ushered in the first big battles the wine industry ever conducted with environmentalists. Outcry from residents led the Sonoma County Planning Division to ask Jackson to conduct the first — and, to date, only — Environmental Impact Review by a county winery. Then, in 1996, KJ chopped down about 50 oak trees along a stretch of road between Windsor and Santa Rosa, on land stretching from East Shiloh Rd to Old Redwood Highway and into Larkfield, to make way for chardonnay and pinot noir. Many of the oaks were close to 200 years old. The damage was modest by KJ’s existing standards, but it led local residents and environmentalists to raise a large hew and cry, and to propose a county ordinance to restrict cutting of oak trees.

Next, in 1997, the company casually bulldozed some 843 stately oak trees in northern Santa Barbara County, near the town of Los Alamos, on a stretch of land right off Highway 101 — not the largest clearing the company had ever undertaken in the region, to be sure. As in Sonoma County, however, the visual assault galvanized environmentalists, who were even joined by many local grape growers in gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to ban cutting native oak trees in Santa Barbara County. The initiative was narrowly defeated, with a counter-measure funded by the wine industry helping stave it off.

For a brief time, it seemed like things might get even hairier for KJ. A piece in the wine industry’s most popular lifestyle magazine, Wine Spectator, sounded the alarm in 1998 about “Reports of Threats Against Wineries Spread[ing] Through California.” The piece was written in response to an Earth First! Journal article that not-so-subtly endorsed acts of eco-sabotage against Kendall Jackson’s Santa Barbara County vineyard and winery holdings. KJ’s spokesperson at the time warned that “the same people who torched Vail,” in reference to a firebombing of a ski resort in Colorado, were on the verge of waging an all-out eco-defense assault on KJ’s operations across California.

This far-fetched scenario never materialized, although the various strands of environmental outrage against the wine industry’s destructive practices in general, and those of Jess Jackson and company in particular, did exert considerable pressure on the company to rein in many of its greatest excesses. The company announced a move to “sustainable farming practices” in 2000. It no longer permitted use of methyl bromide, a soil fumigant highly poisonous to humans (which was on the verge of being banned by the State Legislature), and a handful of other chemicals. Soon thereafter, it announced an official ban on cutting oak trees. By that point, however, the company owned practically all the vineyards in California it could possibly want, and the ban did not extend to its properties in Chile, France, Italy, or Argentina.

Perhaps the greatest reflection of Jess Jackson’s personal influence on the wine industry is the hordes of lawyers, stockbrokers, and retired CEOs he has inspired to jettison their day job and seek out their own monocrop slices of the “bucolic” wine country lifestyle. Jackson was by far the most successful person in this category. The gentrification of Wine Country was starting in earnest when he got into the business. But his success served as an example to countless among the battalions of bankers, lawyers, and business magnates who now dominate an overwhelming share of the North Coast wine industry. A little bit of Jackson’s influence can be detected whenever people like Henry Cornell, the Goldman Sachs executive whose Santa Rosa vineyard caused a 10,000 cubic foot landslide into Mark West Creek, buy a vineyard in a mountainous region and convert it to wine grapes.

No doubt, Jackson has a mixed legacy. To many wine aficionados he is a hero by virtue of having democratized access to high-end wines. “I am a populist,” he once stated. “I saw the opportunity to create great-tasting wine for the average person.” Then, typical of his enthusiastic embrace of the frontier mentality, he added: “I took the French model and Anglicized it.”

Coming full circle, a bigger question involves the corporate media’s treatment of Jackson in his death. The fact that none of the most significant aspects of his career were addressed in the spate of press coverage of his death, with the lone exception of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, does not speak well of the state of American journalism.

Stories teach us our social roles, and the people we look up to as heroes help validate who we are as a culture. If, at this late date, people like Jess Jackson — a hyper-acquisitive billionaire owner of 10s of thousands of acres of private property, long known for his tendency to denude California’s relatively few remaining oak woodlands to make way for his massive grape plantations — is being uncritically celebrated as a hero by the dominant media institutions, then the dominant institutions must be in very bad shape indeed.

First Published in The Anderson Valley Advertiser
Contact Will Parrish at wparrish@riseup.net.
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