Jackson Family Wines invests in Walla Walla vines, wines

By on April 16, 2022
Abeja in Walla Walla, Wash., has sold 61 acres of an 117-acre site near Mill Creek Road to California giant Jackson Family Wines. (Richard Duval Images)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — It seemed merely a matter of time until Sonoma-based Jackson Family Wines planted a flag in Washington state.

However, rather than purchase an established brand, the country’s ninth-largest wine company not only acquired 61 acres – highlighted by a 40-acre vineyard – from acclaimed Abeja in Walla Walla, but Jackson Family Wines also announced plans to build a winery for a new unnamed brand.

“We know Walla Walla Valley is an exceptional region in North America for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and this particular site in Mill Creek possesses ideal conditions in terms of soils, elevation and climate,” Christopher Jackson, second-generation proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, said in a news release.

The company that began as Kendall-Jackson and led by the late Jess Jackson appointed Chris Carpenter as supervisor of the Walla Walla brand’s winemaking and viticulture. Carpenter heads up the winemaking for four of JFW’s six Napa Valley brands.

There are layers within the announcement, but the investment leads with the 2016 planting referred to early on as Weyekin Vineyard — a Nez Perce term for guardian spirit — that came to be known as Abeja East or Abeja Estate. The young site near vineyards for the Figgins family and Dunham Cellars quickly earned plaudits from Abeja’s husband/wife winemaking team of Daniel Wampfler and Amy Alvarez-Wampfler for its Cabernet Sauvignon fruit, but also includes Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay.

Jackson Family makes Walla Walla wine from ’21 crush

Chris Carpenter, the winemaker behind a handful of brands within the Jackson Family Wines empire, will also take the lead on the company’s new project in Walla Walla, Wash. (Photo courtesy of Jackson Family Wines)

News of the acquisition was not a surprise to the Walla Walla Valley wine community. Jackson Family bought grapes from several vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area last year, and Carpenter will have bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah from the 2021 vintage. He’s been working on the wines at Doubleback — about 10 miles southwest of Mill Creek Road.

The acquired Upper Mill Creek parcel, at 1,500 feet elevation off Buroker Road, ranks among the loftiest plantings in the Walla Walla Valley, yet it is known as a warmer site that benefits from breezes from the Blue Mountains, a cooling effect that winemakers can set their watches by each afternoon.

“High elevation, uniform soils and excellent drainage make it a special site,” Daniel Wampfler says.

Those qualities fit the reputation of Carpenter, dubbed “Jackson Family’s Mountain Man” by Wine Spectator. Carpenter’s responsibilities for Jackson Family Wines include Napa Valley brands Cardinale, La Jota, Lokoya and Mt. Brave as well as Hickinbotham in Australia’s McLaren Valley. Gianna Ghilarducci, winemaker for sister project Galerie, will be involved in the young Walla Walla project. The vineyard manager will be Rafael Jimenez.

Abeja retains portion of Mill Creek parcel

Daniel Wampfler, general manager/winemaker of Abeja, stands in Mill Creek Estate Vineyard, the planting that surrounds the inn and winery along Mill Creek Road in Walla Walla, Wash. (Richard Duval Images)

Abeja still owns 56 acres within the 117-acre tract, and Jackson Family Wines will sell Abeja some grapes from its newly purchased vineyard. Ken and Ginger Harrison planted it in 2016, the same year they hired the Wampflers. The Harrisons sold majority interest in the winery and The Inn at Abeja in 2018 to two investment groups. The winery investment group includes Seattle businessmen Arnie Prentice and the inn investment group includes John Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer is the founder and CEO of Seattle-based Columbia Hospitality, which manages the inn.

In conjunction with the news of the land/vineyard sale, Abeja announced plans to plant vines across those 56 acres in 2023. Prior to that, Jackson Family Wines and Abeja will jointly announce a new name for the parcel.

“We have a common goal to continue to enhance awareness and regard for this incredible site while expanding our own estate portfolio,” Daniel Wampfler said.

Financial terms were not disclosed, but the transaction does not involve the original 19-acre Mill Creek Estate Vineyard — the plantings established in the late 1990s surrounding the inn — or the Cabernet Sauvignon-focused Heather Hill Vineyard that the Harrisons planted in 2002. 

The young and soon-to-be-renamed Abeja Estate Vineyard, not Mill Creek Estate, contributed to the 2019 Columbia Valley Merlot that topped Great Northwest Wine magazine’s comparative tasting of Merlot as well as the 2020 Columbia Valley Chardonnay that won best of show at the 2021 Great Northwest Wine Invitational Wine Competition, a judging staged on behalf of regional wine buyers.

Jackson Family’s production tops 6 million cases 

The Jackson family’s sustainability efforts include partnering with conservation agencies on the release of coho salmon into Mark West Creek, a waterway from the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma County to the Russian River. (Video courtesy of Jackson Family Wines)

Jackson Family Wines, led by Rick Tigner, sells 6 million cases and employs more than 1,600, according to Wine Business Monthly magazine. It ranks just behind Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which was recently acquired and reportedly sold 8.2 million cases in 2021, doing so with half as many employees as JFW.

The family’s international portfolio spans five continents, including a combined 40 wineries from the West Coast, Australia, France, Italy, Chile and South Africa.

In 2013, Jackson Family Wines purchased more than 700 acres of land in the Willamette Valley, a series of transactions that led to the launch of the Zena Crown brand, led by Idaho-born winemaker Shane Moore. Three years later, trailblazing winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash sold her family’s winery to Jackson Family Wines. The Oregon portfolio has grown with Gran Moraine — also led by Moore — and WillaKenzie Estate, headed by former Domaine Serene winemaker Erik Kramer. The JFW interest in Oregon took shape with La Crema’s introduction of a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from the 2012 vintage.

At this point, only three of the nation’s top 11 wine companies don’t have a brand in Washington state — The Wine Group (No. 2), Treasury Wine Estates (No. 6)  and Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits (No. 10). In the fall of 2020, Deutsch sold the Skyfall Vineyards brand that emerged from its collaboration with Seattle-based Precept Wine — the country’s 11th largest company at 3.2 million cases sold.

And the acquisition of the vineyard sustainably farmed by Abeja fits within the Jackson Family Wines Rooted to Good: Roadmap to 2030 program to slash its carbon emissions by 50 percent in the next decade. The Jacksons also have a stated goal to become Climate Positive prior to 2050

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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