Twelve years ago, Jess Jackson carried a bottle of chardonnay up and down the streets of New York City, popping into fashionable bars and restaurants to pour free samples.
"I said it's $5 a bottle. How many cases do you want?" recalls Mr. Jackson, then a San Francisco attorney peddling the first wine he had ever made.
Mr. Jackson sold 100 cases that day. The label, Kendall-Jackson, was virtually unknown.
Today, Kendall-Jackson, one of the most successful brands in the business, is a household word for a generation of wine drinkers who equate white wine with chardonnay. His wine is the most requested in American restaurants, and it is a favorite of Generation X.
The little Lake County winery has grown into an empire worth more than $400 million, encompassing eight separate wineries and 5,000 acres of vineyards in Lake as well as five other California counties: Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Monterey and Santa Barbara. And Mr. Jackson owns a wine estate in Italy's Tuscany region, a winery in Chile and a barrel-making operation in France.
The white-haired man behind the label remains a mystery, the Wizard of Oz of the wine world. To some in the wine business, Mr. Jackson, 65, is revered and respected. He's also disliked and feared. Few in the industry really know him. He avoids the wine social scene and disdains politics. He's a registered Independent, and even in the counties where he owns vineyards he remains unknown to county supervisors and political leaders.
He calls himself a farmer but was a successful lawyer for 30 years. He's an environmentalist who ended up in an environmental fight over building a big winery on farmland in Sonoma County. He's a hard-driving businessman who has a sentimental habit of naming his vineyards and wineries for family members.
Mr. Jackson's first wife, Jane Kendall, still has her maiden name on the flagship Kendall-Jackson brand even though the couple divorced more than 10 years ago. Katherine's Vineyard is named for Mr. Jackson's 9-year-old daughter. Hartford Court winery is named for son-in-law Donald Hartford, Kendall-Jackson's legal counsel.
He believes the wine business will anchor his descendants to the soil. Mr. Jackson has two grown daughters and three younger children from his second marriage, to Barbara Banke, a land-use attorney who now runs one of the wineries.
He grew up poor in San Francisco, paid for college and law school at the University of California, Berkeley, by working as a police officer, a lifeguard and longshoreman. As a college student, he came to Sonoma County to pick hops and prunes.
Now he owns a sizable chunk of Sonoma County and says he plans to buy more.
Kendall-Jackson has grown to become the third-largest wine business in Sonoma County, behind Sebastiani and Glen Ellen.