ENSCONCED IN THE inner sanctum of Morton’s of Chicago at the Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers in Kowloon, Julia Jackson is a study in understated elegance, dressed entirely in Burberry except for Repetto shoes.
She still remembers April 2011, the turning point in her life when she watched her famous father, the billionaire vintner Jess Jackson, succumb to cancer at age 81, and her subsequent vow on his deathbed to help preserve his legacy – which explains why she’s now here, still traversing the globe from California’s Sonoma County to further spread his wine gospel.
Back in late December 2012, I made a sentimental visit to the most famous estate he’d founded, Kendall-Jackson in Healdsburg, itself merely part of a vast empire called Jackson Family Wines, which comprises some 34 wine brands and whose most popular tipple, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, played a vital role during my own wine-formative years. On this particular afternoon in Hong Kong, however, we’re tasting the new 2010 vintages from the Artisan collection – small-production, Bordeaux-style blends made by vigneron Pierre Seillan and winemaker Christopher Carpenter from various Napa and Sonoma vineyards, priced with due panache: Cardinale (US$250 a bottle at retail), Lokoya (US$350) and Vérité (US$390), all complex and opulent wines firmly directed at the discerning drinker.
Her personal favourite, the 2010 Lokoya from their Howell Mountain vineyard, would soon be served over dinner, paired with double-cut rib lamb chop. This was her fourth trip to Hong Kong, a city she first saw in 1997 with her father, who’d brought her to view the handover ceremonies.
Everyone has a wine epiphany. What was yours?
I was on a date with Chris, my then boyfriend in college, back in 2007 in Mendocino, California. We were having lamb and it was pairing really, really well with the wine, which was a Le Crema (Pinot Noir) from the Russian River estate, which my family owns. I had just never had a food and wine pairing that was so exceptional, so that was my epiphany, when I just fell in love with wine and food.
From your Artisan collection I particularly love Cardinale, and I’m guessing it exists to make a statement about high-end boutique winemaking, as do your other two wines?
Yes, I’m also a big fan of Cardinale and, to me, it’s a wine that perfectly expresses the diversity of Napa, from the mountains to the valley floor. It’s the essence of Napa in one wine and, in that sense, demonstrates the quality and diversity of Napa’s terroir to a consumer who might be new to wine. Lokoya, as a complement, shows the strength and power of Napa mountain fruit, a rarity because mountain fruit makes up only four percent of all the vineyard land in Napa and is quite distinct from valley-floor fruit. Equally, Vérité displays the very best of Sonoma and its diverse terrain, and shows how this lesser-known region can go head-to-head with Napa and even Bordeaux.
During your earlier presentation, you described Vérité as a “bridge between Sonoma and Bordeaux.” But are you competing with Bordeaux?
We don’t see ourselves as competing with Bordeaux, but more as sharing the stage with them. Ever since the famous Paris tasting of 1976 the wines of Napa have been recognised as being of world-class quality, and our aim is to continue that tradition. Pierre Seillan, our winemaker at Vérité, often says that he wants to respect and be true to tradition, but also to enhance it wherever he can.
How do you think they compare with other cult California wines such as Colgin and Harlan, which are within your competitive frame?
We consider Cardinale, Lokoya and Vérité of the same calibre and welcome the comparison. And, as with Bordeaux, it’s more like we share the stage. We’re all part of the tradition of great wines in California. When you look at our scores, especially from Robert Parker, we could certainly be compared favourably with almost any great winery in the world.
Your family also owns Château Lassègue in Saint-Émilion, where you worked while living in Bordeaux. Was that a memorable immersion into wine culture for you?
Yes. California is kind of isolated from the European wine market and it wasn’t until I went to France that I started really to learn about Bordeaux and have more of an appreciation for it. Originally, I wanted to be an artist – my college major was studio art – and I used to draw and paint. I was kind of an odd child, and decided that I was not going to work in the family business. Then my best friend Stephanie told me about this business programme at the Institute for General Management at Stanford University all about finance and accounting, marketing – different things I wasn’t exposed to in college that go into business. I actually really found it fascinating. It helped me develop a passion for business. I found that it was in my blood and I just had to work it out.
Was that when you started working with your family’s wines?
Yes, right after that programme, though it wasn’t until after my dad died that I really threw myself into it. Before that, he was getting older and he wanted all his kids to be active in the family business, but he didn’t tell me what he wanted me to work on. So I thought to myself, “OK, where can I add value?” We had some brands that were kind of neglected so I thought maybe that’s where I could help out. I worked on the packaging and the names, and worked on our domestic markets first and then international.
What did you learn from your father?
To appreciate hard work and to have integrity in business and in life, to always be honest and do what’s most ethical for everyone. I was very close to him, growing up, and remember when I was 13 or 14, when I would go into his the good life | wine | office and ask him a lot of questions, and he took that as me being interested – which I wasn’t, really, not at the time, because I was so little and just wanted to hang out with him. I would always ask a lot of questions, which would annoy my parents, and it really wasn’t until later on that I became interested in wine.
Your parents named a vineyard after you – Julia’s Vineyard at your family’s Cambria Estate. How did that come about?
When I was six months old, back in 1988, my mom and dad decided to name Julia’s Vineyard after me. I’m brunette and my sister is blonde, so they named the Chardonnay after her [Cambria Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay]. My mom likes to joke that Pinot Noir is a more difficult and finicky grape, so that’s why they named it after me. If I were a wine varietal, I would definitely be Pinot Noir.
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