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Jess Jackson, horse owner, noted wine maker; at 81

Jess Jackson kissed the trophy after jockey Calvin Borel (right) rode Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness Stakes. Jess Jackson kissed the trophy after jockey Calvin Borel (right) rode Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness Stakes. (Rob Carr/Associated Press/File 2009)
Associated Press / April 22, 2011

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GEYSERVILLE, Calif. — Jess Jackson, founder of the Kendall-Jackson winery and a prominent thoroughbred owner, has died of cancer. He was 81.

Caroline Shaw, a spokeswoman for Mr. Jackson’s company, Jackson Family Wines, confirmed that Mr. Jackson died at his home yesterday.

In recent years, Mr. Jackson was one of horse racing’s leading owners. He campaigned two-time horse of the year, Curlin, and then purchased Rachel Alexandra, the sensational filly who was horse of the year in 2009.

As a California vintner, Mr. Jackson built a multimillion-dollar empire on chardonnay with his popular Kendall-Jackson brand before moving into the racehorse business with his Stonestreet Stable.

Mr. Jackson’s biggest splash in racing came with Rachel Alexandra. He bought her days after her record-setting win in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks, then entered her in the Preakness, where she became the first filly in 85 years to capture the second leg of the Triple Crown.

Rachel Alexandra went on to beat the boys in the Haskell Invitational and the Woodward Stakes on her way to horse of the year honors.

She was retired in summer 2010 and was bred to Curlin in February.

“We have been anticipating this introduction for some time now,’’ Mr. Jackson said at the time. “Imagine what possibilities those two super horses might produce.’’

A familiar figure in wine country, with his strong-boned face and shock of white hair, Mr. Jackson packed three careers into his long life: He retired from a law practice to build his wine company, then jumped into horse racing.

Mr. Jackson was known as the “mountain man’’ in the California wine world for his enthusiasm for the high-end grapes produced by the state’s rocky slopes. A fixture on Forbes magazine’s list of richest Americans in recent years, he was engaging and scholarly in person, liable to launch into a detailed description of grape propagation or a discourse on American history.

Mr. Jackson was born in Los Angeles in 1930 and was raised in San Francisco, spending summers picking grapes in wine country. After earning a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, he built a career as an attorney in the San Francisco Bay area, specializing in land-use and property rights law.

Mr. Jackson’s wine career began when he bought an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, ostensibly for relaxation. But it was not long before he felt the lure of winemaking. He converted the orchard into a vineyard and founded Kendall-Jackson Winery in 1982. (Jane Kendall was his first wife.)

A slight accident helped boost early success when the fermentation “stuck,’’ meaning less of the grape sugar was converted to alcohol and the wine was a little sweeter, a plus for soda-loving Americans.

KJ Vintner’s Reserve became known for consistent quality in a moderate price range, and the privately held company went on to sell millions of cases a year. Mr. Jackson later established Mr. Jackson Family Wines with his second wife, Barbara Banke, which included a number of high-end brands including Cardinale and Lokoya.

Mr. Jackson raced thoroughbreds for a time in the 1960s with an uncle, but did not enter the sport on a larger scale until 2003. He named his horse farms and racing operation Stonestreet Stables after his father; it also was Mr. Jackson’s middle name.

In 2004, Mr. Jackson spent nearly $22 million to acquire 95 horses, mostly broodmares.

Mr. Jackson bought a 31 percent interest in Curlin in 2007 in a partnership, then later bought another partner’s share that gave him 80 percent ownership.

Curlin won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic by four lengths that year, and earned Eclipse Awards as Horse of the Year and outstanding 3-year-old.