On the Trail

Jax Vineyards: From Entourage to Robert Parker

David Driscoll

Kimberly Jackson-Wickam was doing an event at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood for her family’s newly-rebranded Jax Vineyards when something amazing happened. The director of the hit HBO series Entourage spotted her modern labels and hip sensibility and asked if he could place the Jax wines in the show. The year was 2004, Kimberly had returned home to help her brother transition their father’s Jackson Estate label into the new millennium of wine marketing, and she was pounding the pavement making sales calls across the state. There were a number of other changes taking place in the Jackson winemaking business at that time. Some of the vines in their ten acres of Calistoga terroir needed to be replanted, as many were more than thirty-five years old at this point and in need of tending. Kimberly’s father had purchased the mountain property back in 1995 and inherited the former owner’s handy work. They were also in the process of switching winemakers; a young man named Kirk Venge—the son of Saddleback winemaker Nils Venge—was looking to further his resumé beyond his own family’s estate. It was an exciting time for the Jackson family all around.

Despite the fortuitous product placement and expanded visibility, Kimberly and her brother experienced first hand just how difficult building a wine business could be. In 2008, four years after she'd landed the coveted television spot for Jax, Kimberly had taken over almost all of the responsibility for the brand. She was still doing all the accounting, making deliveries by hand, and she was constantly on the road. "There was a point where I got my car stolen while dropping off a case and I thought to myself, 'How much longer can I keep doing this?'" Kim said to me. By 2014, they had moved the ball forward from the time of Jackson Vineyards—modernized the look, improved the vineyards, and hired Venge whose successes with Hunnicutt, B Cellars, and Bacio Divino would eventually net those wineries huge scores from likes of Parker and the Wine Spectator. However, the same excitement and enthusiasm that these heralded publications gushed for Kirk's winemaking would elude Jax for the time being. For some reason, their wines were being overlooked by the established industry press despite having connected all the appropriate dots. I drove up to Calistoga early yesterday morning to meet Mr. Venge at his winery along the Silverado Trail, just down the street from Château Montelena. We were tasting the upcoming release of 2014 Jax Estate cabernet sauvignon direct from the barrels, which are kept on site at his location. "They have a great property," Venge told me as we waited for Kimberly to arrive. "The sun doesn't hit the vines until around 11 AM so it's a slow-ripening site. It allows the flavors to develop gradually, which is particularly great for cabernet franc. Did you want to try that, too?" I did indeed. Kirk wasn't kidding, either. The 2014 Jax cab franc was so good and so Chinon-like that I couldn't stop talking about it for the rest of the morning. These were not big, overly-extracted, oak-laden Napa showboats. These were honest, true-to-form, fresh and food-friendly wines of immense quality. Kimberly walked in minutes later and beamed at my discovery. 

I had previously met Kimberly at the newly-opened Jax Vineyards tasting bar on Brannan Street, just a few blocks from our old San Francisco location. I had to admit: I was pretty smitten with the outside patio and close proximity to AT&T Park. I was imagining my pre-game ritual, opening bottles before the game with friends and munching on a few snacks before walking over to take our seats. Before she had the dynamic new SOMA location, however, Kimberly did all her consumer events at the family estate on the Calistoga property. We drove over to the site after finishing up at Venge. "My mother did all the interior design," she said as we walked into the stunning cellar and tasting room. "She was inspired by Tuscany, of course, and she curated the entire house." For years, Kimberly would commute between her home on the Peninsula and Napa, driving the long hours in traffic to and fro, working endlessly to promote Jax and its wines. She had the land, the location, the quality, the winemaker, the look, and the exposure. Something had to give. The wines were too good to remain a secret and she was running tirelessly to promote their discovery. Finally, in 2015, more than ten years after that fateful day in Hollywood, the word finally got out. Robert Parker's review of the 2013 Jax Block 3 Estate cabernet was released. 97 points. Highly recommended. The calls started coming in. The wine sold out immediately.

But it wasn't just the top wine from Jax that got high marks. Their entry-level 2013 Y3 Taureau—a $20 blend of both estate and purchased fruit—snagged a saucy 92 Parker score for its "sexy" style and "kiss of blackberry." What struck a chord with me, however, was how restrained the wines actually tasted in the face of all the new accolades. The Y3 Taureau is far from a fruit bomb with its blend of merlot, cabernet, syrah and zinfandel. It's a balanced, fruit friendly wine with depth and finesse. For the price it's downright shocking considering the Napa heritage and the quality of the fruit involved. "There are mornings during the summer where the fog doesn't burn off until the afternoon," Kimberly said as we walked through the vineyard rows. "The nights can be incredibly cool as well. That slow ripening really tones down the intensity of the fruit and allows some of the more nuanced flavors to shine." As I took another sip of the standard 2013 estate cabernet—an absolute steal at $39.99—I started to realize what had happened to Jax over the last decade: the Jacksons had tried to stay true to Napa without drinking the Napa Kool Aid. For that reason they simply got lost in the shadow of that contagious thirst for press, points, and big, silky panache. Kimberly had always longed to reach a younger audience with her approach—a new generation of Napa cabernet drinkers who wanted sincere wines with moderate prices—but she wasn't willing to alter or manipulate her wines to do so. She wanted the scores, of course, but she wanted them on her terms. While she had permeated the core of pop culture with Entourage more than a decade previously, it was a matter of waiting for wine culture to catch up to her. You can see from her enthusiasm and pride for her wines that she's incredibly relieved that day has finally come.

As we sat on the patio yesterday afternoon overlooking the vineyards, the mountains in the nearby background, I said to her: "You've got a super hip new tasting bar downtown full of young people who just want to have a good time and you're serving them authentic, approachable California wine with true character. They may not know it, but they're being influenced. They think they're just blowing off steam at a happy hour, but simultaneously they're being taught what real California wine tastes like. That's a pretty great thing." 

"I'm so glad others are starting to realize that," she said to me with a smile. Then we sat quietly for a moment.

-David Driscoll

Both the 2013 Y3 Taureau and 2013 Estate Cabernet are available now at klwines.com