The Robb Reader

At 78, Jess Jackson has more energy than many people half his age. He travels the world with his wife, Barbara Banke, and oversees 24 wineries under the Jackson Family Wines umbrella (most notably Kendall-Jackson and the spin-off artisan wineries La Crema, Lokoya, and Cardinale). He frequently visits his six Thoroughbred horse farms: one in California, three in Kentucky, and two in Florida. "They’re the most beautiful and athletic animals in creation," Jackson told Robb Report prior to departing for Saratoga to race his champion horse, Curlin. "When you’re on a 1,400-pound horse riding 40 miles per hour, you’re a very insignificant part of that action." That may be, but, after speaking recently with Jackson, it is hard to imagine him as insignificant in any way.

Of the 100 foals and 150 mares you own, which is your favorite?

Curlin. He’s a big chestnut who won 10 out of 14 races. He won the Dubai Cup, which is the richest cup in the world. He was also named the 2007 Horse of the Year by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

How did you get into horse breeding and racing?

I’m a 14th-generation American, and many of my ancestors lived on King Ranch in Texas. My great-great-grandfather and my grandfather both ran large sections of the ranch. When I was 6 years old, I had a pony, and my grandmother taught me to ride, rope, and shoot. There are not that many people my age who can say this, but when I was 9 years old I saw Sea Biscuit run at Bay Meadows, south of San Francisco. My uncle, Luke Jackson, loved Sea Biscuit, and he took me with him on his little sojourns. He was only 5 feet, 5 inches, and couldn’t see the race because everybody wore top hats and scarves in those days. So he hoisted me up on his shoulders and asked me to call the race. It was a very memorable event for me. That’s when I fell in love with the sport.

You went to law school. How did you end up in the wine business?

When I was growing up in San Francisco during the Depression, the people in the city at that time were Italian, German, French, and Spanish. All of these groups brought their appreciation of wine and culture with them when they came to this country. I remember that, as a child, I would go to Fisherman’s Wharf and eat cracked crab and sourdough French bread with butter. My mother and father would celebrate the week with Chardonnay, which was, at that time, all we could afford.

Any passions other than wine and horses?

I love cars. I used to be able to take a car apart and put it back together. Now, with all these electronics, all I can do is say, "It’s better, but I don’t know how it works." I have a few cars: an old woody, a vintage Ford, a Cadillac, and a Maserati. I drove them in their day, and now when I get them out on the road again, I remember those days. I wouldn’t call myself an antique-car collector, but if I can find something special, like an old Packard with a rumble seat—something I wanted at an earlier age—I might be tempted to buy it.

How do you spend your spare time?

Fly-fishing. That’s another one of my passions. It gives me a few days away from reality and helps me refocus. I also enjoy farming. When I’m out pruning in the winter, and there’s nothing there but the rustle of the birds fluttering or the chirping of a cricket, it helps me put everything in perspective.

What are you looking forward to in 2009?

Aside from possibly racing Curlin another year and forming a league to race older horses, I’ll be celebrating our new wines. We’ll be launching our Diamond Back and Maggie Hawk wines, and those are very rare, limited-production wines. We will release them next year, or at least have barrel tastings. Since they are such complex wines, we want to ensure that they show perfectly when they go out.

Photo by Drew Phillips
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