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Jackson, owner of Curlin and Rachel, dies at 81

  • Jess Jackson leads in his star filly Rachel Alexandra (Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs Photography)

Jess Stonestreet Jackson, a pioneering architect of the ascendant American wine industry, and more recently famed as the owner of Horses of the Year Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, died Thursday at his Geyserville, California, home after a long and courageous battle with cancer. He was 81.

The proprietor of Kendall-Jackson winery, Jackson campaigned his horses under the banner of Stonestreet Stables. Those silks are due to be carried by former Kentucky Derby (G1) hopeful ASTROLOGY (A.P. Indy) in Saturday's Jerome H. (G2) at Aqueduct.

A one-time longshoreman and police officer, who put himself through University of California Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school, Jackson became one of the best-known figures in American viticulture. The wine visionary popularized Chardonnay in America in the early 1980s with his immediately-successful Kendall-Jackson label, which became the best-selling Chardonnay in America for more than two decades.

Raised in San Francisco during the Great Depression, Jackson worked as a farmer, policeman, and land-use lawyer. He started the Kendall-Jackson wine business with the family's 1974 purchase of an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, California, that he converted to a vineyard.

In 1982, he produced his first bottle of wine under the Kendall-Jackson label. In 1983, the wine won the first double Platinum Award ever presented by the American Wine Competition. Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates remains today one of the most awarded wineries in the United States.

Jackson's vision and outspoken manner often ran counter to conventional industry practices. When he realized that the quality of the French oak barrels used to age his wine was inconsistent, he invested in his own mill in France to provide barrel staves, and became a partner in a cooperage located in Missouri. He created his own California distribution company to remain free of industry consolidation there. He was a leader in the sustainable farming movement within the wine industry, implementing dozens of environmentally-friendly farming innovations throughout the vineyards of Jackson Family Wines.

As a philanthropist he and his wife Barbara Banke quietly donated millions of dollars in support of local and national charitable organizations.

Jackson was a founding member of Family Winemakers of California. In 2009, Jackson was inducted into the Vintner's Hall of Fame.

"Wine is entirely different from liquor and beer," he remarked at that time, "and I'd like to see our industry free itself from the images that are used to sell those products.

"Wine is a part of our cultural heritage. It has always been the traditional partner with food. Wine celebrates friends, family, and love -- all of the best things in life.

"When my family and I founded Kendall-Jackson in 1982, we simply wanted to create extraordinary wine from California's best vineyards," Jackson wrote in his biographical notes. "We grow grapes on our own 14,000 acres of California coastal vineyards. We take the no-compromise, high road approach to quality required to grow our world-class grapes and produce acclaimed award-winning wines.

"From day one we have been a family-owned and family-run business. It is a distinction that is rapidly becoming a rarity in our industry. Our family culture is built on the time-honored principles of hard work, integrity, and uncompromising desire for quality and the long-term stewardship of the land."

Jackson Family Wines is one of California's few remaining family-owned winery groups. Among the wines made in the Jackson Family collection are Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, Cambria, Stonestreet, Edmeades, La Crema, Cardinale, Lokoya, Hartford Family Winery, Verite, Atalon, Carmel Road, Murphy Goode, La Jota, Freemark Abbey, Bryon Estates, Arrowood, in United States; Chateau Lassegue in France; Tenuta di Arceno in Italy; Yangarra in Australia; and Calina in Chile.

Jackson's passion for farming and horses led him later in life to Thoroughbred breeding and racing. In 2007, he became majority stakeholder in Curlin. Honored as Horse of the Year for two consecutive years (2007 and 2008), Curlin ranks as North America's all-time leading earner with $10,501,800 to his credit.

The following year, Jackson acquired Rachel Alexandra. In her debut in his colors, she became the first filly to win the Preakness S. (G1) at Pimlico in 85 years and went on to win the 2009 Horse of the Year title.

In February, Rachel Alexandra began her new career as a broodmare by visiting Curlin, and she is expected to produce her first foal in early February 2012.

"We have been anticipating this introduction for some time now," Jackson said in a statement announcing the mating. "Imagine what possibilities those two super horses might produce.

"Rachel Alexandra's 2009 campaign was one for the ages -- one that racing fans will remember throughout time.

"Curlin showed the heart of a champion in every race. He did everything we asked of him and more -- taking on ever-more difficult challenges.

An outspoken leader in the reform of racing, Jackson won the Sportsman of the Year 2008 Insider Award.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara Banke, five children: Jennifer Hartford, Laura Giron, Katie Jackson, Julia Jackson and Christopher Jackson and two grandchildren, Hailey Hartford and MacLean Hartford.

In recognition of Jackson's impact on the racing scene, industry leaders have stepped forward to offer tributes.

National Thoroughbred Racing Association President and CEO Alex Waldrop issued the following statement:

"Jess Jackson left an indelible mark on Thoroughbred racing in a relatively short period of time. He was outspoken in his calls for a high degree of integrity in our sport and industry. But he will perhaps be best remembered for his exploits as head of Stonestreet Stables which campaigned many outstanding horses including two-time Horse of the Year winner, Curlin, and one of the great fillies of all time, Rachel Alexandra.

"He was one of the most sporting owners of his generation, insisting on racing Curlin in 2008 at age four when there was little more to prove athletically and a financial temptation to retire him to stud.  What transpired was an inspiring 2008 campaign for Curlin -- and yet another reminder of what Jess routinely achieved with his wonderful combination of wisdom and passion. He will be missed.

"Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Barbara Banke, his wife and partner, and to the whole Jackson family who participated fully in the many successes of Stonestreet Stables."

"Jess Jackson was a true sportsman with a great passion for Thoroughbred racing," NYRA President and CEO Charles Hayward said. "His smart and ambitious management of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra's racing careers resulted in a number of unforgettable performances at Belmont Park and Saratoga.

"Rachel's extraordinary 2009 Woodward (G1) victory in front of more than 30,000 cheering fans at Saratoga remains one of my best memories in racing. It will not be the same without his presence at the NYRA tracks, and he will be deeply missed throughout the industry."

"Churchill Downs Inc. employees across the country were deeply saddened by the news of Jess Jackson's passing," CDI Chairman-Elect and Chief Executive Officer Robert L. Evans said. "Mr. Jackson set a high standard for Thoroughbred horse ownership in the United States and abroad, and his competitive spirit made for some of horse racing's most memorable moments this century. 

"The Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks (G1) were fortunate to count among their contenders Horses of the Year Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, whose on-track exploits brought new fans to our sport and created thousands of devoted followers."

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