“Polyester Wines” is the title of a Wall Street Journal article by Robert Draper reviewing Edward Humes’ book A Man and His Mountain. The book is the biography of Kendall-Jackson winery founder Jess Stonestreet Jackson and Mr. Draper is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic. The sidebar to the article says A millionaire becomes a billionaire by marketing banality as ‘premium wine.’ The article says a lot about Jess Jackson and his rise to riches and fame, but it also says a lot about Kendall-Jackson wine and the state of the American wine industry that Jackson promoted as well as the “residual” effects that linger on after his death (Mr. Jackson died in 2011 at age 81). And, it is clear from the article that Mr. Draper takes issue with a lot of things that are portrayed in the book.
Here are some excerpts from the article:
- Shortly after finishing the book Mr. Draper says he bought a bottle of the signature bottling of Kendall Jackson, the Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay which cost $12.99. He says it had been years since he had tasted the wine… But the taste remains unforgettable: oaky and cloying, redolent of budget-hotel bars, a kind of polyester wine. This is the style of Chardonnay that Jackson stamped into the American palate three decades ago.
- Mr. Draper goes on to say that Mr. Humes appears never to have tried the stuff and sees Kendall-Jackson as the Apple of the wine industry – and says so more than once. He glorifies Jackson as the man who “set out to teach America to love good American wine.” But, Mr. Draper says… One buttery sip tells a completely different story. It’s the tale of how a millionaire became a billionaire by the mass marketing of banality as “premium wine.”
- According to Mr. Draper, The pivotal moment in A Man and His Mountain takes place when Jackson’s first vintage of Chardonnay is imperiled by a “stuck fermentation” that causes some of the wine to go sugary. Undeterred, Jackson just has it blended with the rest of the Chardonnay and Americans go bananas for the sweeter style. The “superblend” is Jackson’s secret sauce, a triumph in indistinctiveness.
- Jackson is portrayed by Mr. Draper as one of the … bootstrapping if emotionally repressed alpha males who emerged from the Depression with unsinkable dreams. Jackson is further described by Mr. Draper as a man who snatches up coveted vineyards and winemakers (and, later, racehorses) with Steinbrenner-esque bravado…Near the end of the book, Jackson glibly sums himself up as a fancified farmer, one who “loved dirt and hated debt”- an absurd reduction of a billionaire who borrowed constantly and left the tilling and picking to the hired hands.
- The article describes how a power hungry Jackson, who had accumulated a lot of wealth as a real estate lawyer, moved to the top of the wine industry in terms of accumulating assets and wealth. This began as his wines entered the market in 1982 around the time of what Mr. Draper describes as“…the slow transformation of somnolent Napa and Sonoma into a viticultural Disneyland…” By 1994, Kendall-Jackson was producing 1.7 million cases per year. However, the quality and style of the wines was another story.
- According to Mr Draper, Where the book especially falters is in explaining Jackson’s relationship to his second vocation. “My focus is on making the best wines in the world,” he claimed, but Mr. Humes unwittingly disproves this by describing the company’s strategy of “continued acquisition, growth, and vineyard expansion” and quoting Jackson in Donald Trump mode saying “I love winning the game.”
- All this is interesting, but perhaps the most interesting of all is this statement from Mr. Draper “It’s telling that in 300 pages of text, there’s not a single mention of Jackson ever having a glass of wine. (Did the billionaire have his own wine collection? Did he love any of the great wines of Bordeaux or Piedmont? Did he even drink?) And, for that matter, how do we reconcile Jackson’s many lectures on the virtue of terroir – the combination of climate and soil conditions that lends a particular grape grown in a particular place its distinctiveness – with the inescapable fact that his wines were designed to taste like they could have come from anywhere or nowhere?
- Finally, there is this stunning statement that really says a lot about American wine consumers and the big numbers critics to whom the masses look for their guidance. Mr. Draper explains: As it happens, in the late 1990s, Jackson also made a high-end wine known as Verité. A month after his death, the famed wine critic Robert Parker paid a visit to the winery, indulged in a vertical tasting of Verité and broke down in tears over the loss of one of the industry’s dominant figures. He awarded perfect scores to several of the wines. Mr. Humes interprets this sentimental gesture as proof that Jess Jackson’s wines actually belonged “in the same category as the finest in the world: Chapoutier, Guigal, and, yes, Chateau Petrus.” To which I can only say: Come on, man. Just take a sip.
Take a sip indeed. Perfect wine? Ha! Today far too many American wines are too big, too heavy and alcoholic, and too sweet. And, many Americans have no idea what goes into the wines they are drinking (to read my article on what is wine click here  and to read my article on why wine labeling is important click here ). Many consumers are still swayed by big numbers, believing that if a wine has a big number it has to be good. Perhaps that is the real legacy of A Man and His Mountain. But, just as Mr. Jackson was a man of contradictions, so is today’s wine world. To which I say that what was described in A Man and His Mountain is not the wine of the future – the time’s they are a changin’. So, like the man said, take a sip. Then you decide!
In Vino Veritas,