KJ Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay

With all the wine on the American market today, chardonnay remains the best-selling varietal by volume. That it remains Americans’ favorite can be explained by four words: Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve.

This popular chardonnay was the brainchild of the late Jess Stonestreet Jackson, a self-made wine billionaire who was named one of the 400 richest people in America by Forbes Magazine in 2000.

At the time, Jackson’s net worth was estimated at $1.3 billion. According to his biographer, Edward Humes, in “A Man and His Mountain,” Jackson was livid when he made the Forbes list and subsequently fired off a scathing letter to the magazine for failing to take into consideration that the holding companies and trusts he had created were actually the owners of the wealth — not him personally.

Before Jackson decided to produce chardonnay, he was a tough, successful San Francisco lawyer. A child of the Great Depression born to dysfunctional parents, he worked from the time he was 9 years old, ultimately paying his way through college and law school.

His law degree would serve him well after he left his practice to devote himself full time to wine, and again in a late-life foray into horse racing. He initiated high-profile lawsuits against Gallo, his former winemaker Jed Steele, and the horse racing elite. A colleague at the time commented that Jackson was so litigious he would sue his own bad self.

When he was approaching 50, Jackson and his first wife, Jane Kendall, bought 85 acres in Lake County north of Napa and Sonoma for a place to unwind. Jackson soon planted grapes to sell to other wineries, but this arrangement did not last long. He was soon making additional vineyard acquisitions and building his own winery, mortgaging everything he owned — often without the knowledge of his wife, according to Humes.

During this start-up period, there were many close calls of financial ruin, but Jackson’s genius move was finding a yet-to-be-exploited market niche. In a market dominated by jug wines and fortified plonk, he introduced affordable premium wines in standard-size bottles, complete with corks.

There are some questions how the first KJ Vintner’s Reserve evolved, but this too came from a near disaster. His first commercial batch of chardonnay did not complete fermentation. The yeast stopped working, leaving a very sweet, partially fermented wine.

He brought in numerous consultants, including Jed Steele. Most advised him to start over. Jackson refused, instead purchasing fruit from other growers, from which he made another batch of wine that did complete fermentation. Then he gradually added a portion of the sweet, partially fermented wine back to the blend. And thus, KJ Vintner’s Reserve was born.

Jackson had no sales force or distributors. He personally took cases of his chardonnay to New York and hustled them to various restaurants, making his first sale to the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station.

His wine came to the attention of the Reagan White House and became Nancy’s favorite to serve at state dinners. Suddenly Jackson could not keep up with demand.

Jackson’s chardonnay was the antithesis of the few chardonnays on the market at the time. That little added sweetness made it approachable. Grapes sourced from ideal chardonnay-growing regions gave the wine zingy acidity. Oak aging and lees stirring gave the wine a buttery smooth vanillin flavor.

Because Jackson was among the first to recognize the uniqueness of chardonnay grapes grown in high-altitude, cool climates, he was able to acquire massive acreage in prime regions, which now supply fruit for the KJ blend.

While some would rest on their laurels, Jackson continued on a path of acquisition, aided by his second wife, Barbara Banke, who now heads the Jackson Empire.

Jackson’s final years were devoted to his longstanding love of horseracing. Two of his horses, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, won the Preakness in 2007 and 2009, respectively.

Though Jackson Family Wines makes an array of wines under numerous brands, it is Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay that cemented his success and continues his legacy.

KJ Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay is widely available and currently on sale at most grocery outlets in the $12 range.

Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at pkettles@annistonstar.com.