CALIFORNIA PROFILE: Growing pains
Despite California’s healthy market share in the UK off-trade, Jackson Wine Estates has struggled to make its presence felt. Patrick Schmitt talks to owner Jess Jackson, who claims his best wines are on a par with Bordeaux First Growths
There’s nothing unusual about a winemaker or brand owner’s frustration with the UK market. They seek its acceptance, approval, and hopefully more, but shun its supermarket-dominated retail environment, criticise its savvy buyers and deride its oppressive pricing policies. And who can blame them? The UK wine market, while attractive, can also be a horrible hotbed of deal-making and one-upmanship.
But the British like to think of themselves as fair. We believe wines come and go on the basis of merit and resulting market acceptance. Fashion, a less rational factor, can of course play its part. How else would one explain the rosé resurgence or indefinitely delayed Riesling revival?
Lack of UK presence
Generally, however, the UK offers an ideal test market – open to new ideas and quick to clear out the poorly made or weakly conceived. But, speak to Jess Jackson, proprietor of Jackson Wine Estates International, and one would believe the UK is
Jackson Wine Estates:
Jackson Wines Estates International includes several different wine labels. These include, in alphabetical order:
discriminatory – that we are illogically opposed to Californian wines. Could he be right? Why is California’s diverse wine offering not reflected on the UK shelf? Has Britain been unfair in its treatment of the category?
One might argue that the majority of Californian wines simply fail to make the grade on the basis of price and/or style. But is this really true? One might also point out that the UK off-trade rarely reflects the full variety available from any wine-producing country – there simply isn’t the space. But California has a market share approaching 16%, the third-largest country category after Australia and France. Is its UK presence in line with this?
Maybe the issue is simply one of priorities for both sides of the Atlantic: the UK buyer has failed to prioritise California, and the US winemaker has similarly failed to prioritise the UK market.
Whatever the cause, Jackson, with his vast, privately owned empire of wineries and vineyards, both within and outside the US, certainly has the range of brands and strength of character to crack the British market – or so one would have thought. So far, despite a clutch of cool-climate, coastal Californian vineyards and a liberal peppering of awards, medals and accolades, he has had little success with his brands in the UK. “We just can’t penetrate the retail trade,” he exclaims. “There is a block, and it is preventing us getting to the consumer.”
As a result, he acknowledges, “I don’t think the English know who we are.” But Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke are embarking on a renewed assault on Britain. “We have been patient with the UK market – we have been there for a long time and made various forays in the multiples, some of which have been disappointing,” recalls Banke. The latest approach is more slow burn than quick fix, including a focus on the on-trade and independent sector. The aim is to gradually raise awareness of the Kendall-Jackson brand, and “we are hoping the consumer will start to ask for our wines”, says Banke.
Jackson is also desperate to convey that “California, like France, has terroir-based luxury wines.” And wines that can compete on a world scale – something he’s also keen to prove. “We need comparitive tastings,” he says. “I’ll put a Vérité [Jackson Wine Estates’ brand of top-end Bordeaux blends] against Pétrus anytime. Or Cardinale [another Bordeaux blend from Jackson] versus Lafite or Latour.”
As for winemaking trends, Kendall-Jackson is well aware of the movement to lighter, crisper wine styles. “Favourable wine descriptions used to be oak and fruit,” explains Banke, “but now we are talking about minerality in Chardonnays, and there is a new appreciation of wines with balance and finesse. There is also an appreciation of the organic movement, that the natural approach is best. We are turning more of our vineyards to organic.”
A family affair
Jackson, aged 77, who came into the wine trade when he was 52, is clear about his ambitions. “We are about quality, not volume; profit not ego,” he forcefully reminds, adding, “We are trying to build an enduring family enterprise.”
Surprisingly for such a large operation, 85% of Kendall-Jackson’s wine is made from grapes grown on its own land, and it won’t be long before that figure is 100%. Currently, the family owns 35,000 hectares, over 95% of which are located on mountains, ridges and hillsides in cool, coastal California. “We don’t make any return on the land,” says Jackson. “We want to own the land because it allows us to control farming.”
Four tiers exist for Kendall-Jackson wines, which are, in increasing order of quality, Vintner’s Reserve, Grand Reserve, Highland Estates and Stature. Interestingly, the company has a business partnership in France, which allows it to harvest, age and mill oak staves for barrel making, as well as air-dry them for three years before shipping.
“California has gone beyond high-alcohol wines with residual sugar,” says Jackson. Banke agrees, conceding, “Certainly, when we started there was residual sugar, but we have changed over the years with consumers. The wines have evolved and we feel the quality is something the UK consumer would enjoy.” “Give us a try,” she adds.
Jackson is more forceful. Fed up with waiting for the UK market to appreciate his wines, he makes a generous but far from empty offer. “I’d like to invite everyone in the
UK trade to California. Most Englishmen know every square inch of Bordeaux, but don’t know what we’re doing in California. I’ll show you from my helicopter – it’s an open invitation.”
© db November 2007
Jess Jackson: background
Jess Jackson, aged 77, began his career as a policeman in San Francisco. He then became a land-use attorney before retiring in 1982 to California’s wine country.
Twenty five years later, Jackson Wine Estates ships over four million cases of wine each year and controls 35,000 hectares of vineyards. The group includes 29 wine companies, including a château in Bordeaux, a winery in Chile and a villa in Tuscany.
Jackson’s latest love is racehorses. He is placed at number 100 in The Forbes 400 list, which charts the richest men in the United States.
Jackson Wine Estates is co-owned by Jess Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke.
Their children run the group’s Artisan Estate wineries, such as Cambria, Stonestreet, La Crema and Hartford.
John E Fells was appointed UK agent to Kendall-Jackson at the beginning of 2007. So far, the importer has succeeded in listing Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in Tesco. Lorne Gray, marketing controller at John E Fells, records “a more open attitude to California”.