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

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

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

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

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 the summer of 2010 and was bred to Curlin in February. "Imagine what possibilities those two super horses might produce," Jackson said at the time.

A familiar figure in wine country, Jackson packed three careers into his long life: He retired from a law practice to build his wine company, then jumped into horse racing.

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.

Jackson was born in Los Angeles in 1930 and 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.

Jackson's wine career began when he bought an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, ostensibly for relaxation. But it wasn't 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.

Jackson later established Jackson Family Wines with his second wife, Barbara Banke, which included a number of high-end brands including Cardinale and Lokoya.

Latest Videos