Despite owning over 15,000 acres of vineyards over five continents, operating 47 wine brands and producing over 5 million cases of wine a year, Jackson Family Wines (both the late founder Jess Jackson and his family) hold one wine estate particularly dear. It’s a North Californian winery called Stonestreet Estate Vineyards and Peter Dean talks to Jess’s son Christopher Jackson who lives there and winemaker Lisa Valtenbergs about what is so special about this place and how it forms a template for how the entire wine empire operates.
Under the watch of Lisa Valtenbergs, Stonestreet has been changing its wine style, taking cues from the terroir it seeks to express, and changing consumer tastes.
Over dinner, when Christopher Jackson gave me a 2011 bottle of the Stonestreet Christopher’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that bears his name, I promised him I would show it blind at my wine club. It was the first time in 10 years that any of us had shown a Californian 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and I’m pleased to say it got a resounding thumbs up – with some degree of surprise at its provenance.
The reason for that surprise was that the stylistic change by many Californian wineries is not yet being picked up on these shores. Also, perhaps, that we don’t often get a chance to taste the best Californian wines here, most being snaffled up by Wine Club distribution and a focus on the US domestic market in general.
Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon is no shrinking violet, it has a huge amount of blue and black of fruit, mixed with nuances of graphite, bay leaf, cocoa and garrigue herbs and weighs in with an ABV of 14.5%. So far so ‘typically’ Californian. But what makes this stand out, and work well as a wine you want to drink, is the bright acidity giving the wine a focus and poise that makes it drink well both in the short term or in the 10-30 year window that Stonestreet winemaker Lisa Valtenbergs has intended.
It is not for nothing that Robert Parker awarded it a whopping 95+ points.
Christopher’s Vineyard is the prime location at Stonestreet Estate Vineyards atop 2400 foot Black Mountain on the Eastern side of Alexander Valley AVA, North California. Only a fifth of Stonestreet’s 5100 acres is under vine which means that the vineyards benefit from the biodiversity of the location, and also that it makes it a really nice place to live and bring up a family.
Which is exactly what wine magnate Jess Jackson did with his second wife Barbara Banke and their three children. The youngest of the children is Christopher, who recently graduated from law school (in the footsteps of mum) and is now raising his own family there.
Stonestreet’s special significance
Stonestreet is a stunning North Californian location but it is also a name that runs through the entire Jackson Family dynasty.
Stonestreet was Jess Jackson’s father’s name. It is Christopher Jackson’s middle name. The family’s racehorse enterprise in Kentucky is called Stonestreet Farm. It’s like ‘Rosebud’, if you will, in the Orson Welles classic film Citizen Kane – a name that is synonymous with home, family and everything held dear.
As a location for making great wine it is the diversity, range of altitude and maritime influence (particularly for the uppermost vines) that affords a wide range of different components to play with.
Winemaker Lisa Valtenbergs says “We enjoy creating wines with a sense of place.”
12 of the estate’s 18 wines are single vineyard wines – six different Cabernet Sauvignons and six different Chardonnays. Although the estate concentrates on these two varietals it does also have Riesling, a Bordeaux white blend and a 100% Sauvignon Blanc.
Valtenbergs’ overriding focus is to allow each vineyard to express their unique terroir
“We put a lot of time, energy, and resources into ensuring every wine showcases each vineyard block’s unique mountain terroir. From leafing individual blocks in different ways to keeping every single vineyard block separate in the cellar in order to bottle single vineyards takes patience and great focus all the way through.”
Since joining the estate in 2008, Valtenbergs has been credited with helping to transform Stonestreet from a winery that makes critic-aimed wines – ie. ones that stand out from the crowd in a judge’s line-up – to ones that can be enjoyed glass after glass. With both the whites and the reds Valtenbergs has introduced better tannin management and a more refined use of oak.
The change was most noticeable from the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon which one US wine site said (in a backhanded compliment) “this is a Stonestreet we would drink. That’s not necessarily something we say very often.” It then went on to call the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay the best that Stonestreet have ever produced.
Robert Parker in The Wine Advocate put it more specifically.“Winemaker Lisa Valtenbergs appears to have reduced the overt oakiness displayed by many wines in the past. At the same time, she has increased their nuances, complexity and textural richness…”
Valtenbergs tells me that her winemaking team is continually trying new things, particularly on which specific barrel toast-profiles complements certain vineyard blocks the best.
“The mountain vineyard we grow our fruit on always leads and we follow. Mother Nature dictates how a particular vintage will be and we make the wines to best showcase that vintage. Harvesting blocks in balance to show off where they are from, complementing the wines with oak while preserving the fruit has been a focus.”
Currently bottling the reds from the 2016 harvest Valtenbergs says the wines are shaping up beautifully. “Very floral, full of red and blue fruits with dense tannins – superb ageing potential.”
Jackson Family’s hands-off approach
Given how dear Stonestreet is to the Jackson Family you could be forgiven for thinking that they get involved on a day-to-day basis with winemaking decisions but that isn’t the case. Stonestreet is, if you will, like a template by which Jackson Family Wines operates its expanding business – pick exceptional terroir, invest in prized wineries the world over, and then let the winemaking team get on with it.
This approach has been seen most recently with the acquisition of prized wineries in Oregon.
“The family is passionate about producing the best quality wines from our estate vineyard and so are we,” adds Valtenbergs, “they make suggestions from time to time on certain wines, but ultimately, they leave most of the winemaking decisions to us to freely manage the details.”
The proof is in the pudding, not just in the Christopher’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon but throughout its range of wines, making it a Californian winery for wine buyers to seriously keep an eye on.