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How Jackson Family Wines Enhances Quality, Focusing on Complexities of Location

Vintners use the French term, terroir (pronounced terˈwär), to describe environmental factors that influence grape growing and wine production. In winemaking—and for other artisanal crops such as coffee and chocolate—notable conditions including soil, topography, and climate help determine whether a piece of land is right for growing a specific crop or type of grape.

“Terroir is a definition of the place and how the land gets represented in the taste and flavor of the final product,” said Geoff Scott, vice president, real estate at Jackson Family Wines.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when US wines began winning European competitions, that American wineries adopted this concept instead of the prior industrialized approach.

Jess Jackson, the founder of Jackson Family Wines who passed away in 2011, was captivated by terroir from the start. The very first wine he created—the 1982 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay—won the first-ever Double Platinum Award in the American Wine Competition. By 1992, Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay achieved the top sales spot in the US, a position it still holds today.

Jess Jackson’s wife Barbara Banke is the chairman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, which now owns more than 40 wine brands with vineyards in Oregon, Australia, Chile, France, Italy, and South Africa, as well as in Sonoma, Napa, Monterey, and Santa Barbara counties in California.

Part of the secret to the success of Jackson Family Wines is the rigorous data gathering the company applies to finding the right location for each grape varietal they grow. The goal is to identify locations and conditions that place just the right amount of stress on the vines to achieve a complex and high-quality grape. While the company controls more than 50,000 acres of land worldwide, grapes are planted on roughly 30 percent of its acreage where the conditions are exactly right for growing grapes that make their way into luxury wine.

Jess Jackson once remarked, “Our grapes are grown on mountains, ridges, hillsides and benches, where we get smaller berries and more concentrated fruit. It’s harder to farm but the payoff is in the flavor.”

Profiling Land and Sharing Maps

As the business continues to expand, leadership at Jackson Family Wines uses a geographic information system (GIS) to profile and compare available properties. This analysis helps them determine which plot of land to purchase based on the grape varietals that would thrive in a particular location.

Site selection is so crucial because, once land is purchased and grapes planted, it can take years for vines to mature before they start paying off.

“We compile information on soils, aspect, slope, elevation, and other variables to understand a site and its fullest potential,” Scott said. “Every property that we own or evaluate for potential acquisition has a unique map with all the relevant viticultural data about it.”

This map of Jackson Family Wines' Saralee vineyard and La Crema tasting room displays the variability of soils, one of the key components of terroir.

Helping Gather and Share Operational Details

On the operational side, the winery uses drones to capture imagery from above and sensing devices measure on the ground variables such as how much sap is in the vines. The sap monitors have helped reduce water use by more than 40% because they trigger drip irrigation when the plant needs water rather than simply adhering to a schedule.

The winery’s engineering department relies on handheld, purpose-built applications to inventory property assets and gather other details about infrastructure—all added to the GIS map.

“The engineering data often has surprising use cases,” said Francis Hourigan, senior GIS analyst, with Jackson Family Wines. “Our special events department used the irrigation map to find the best location to put a tent for a wine tasting event, making sure to locate it where stakes won’t be driven into the buried pipe.”

Jackson Family Wines contracts with a vendor to collect and process aerial imagery of its vineyards, gathering crop health indices like the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index. Collecting imagery of vineyards during veraison (as the grapes change color), gives a remotely sensed view of the relative health and vigor of grapevines and how grapes are maturing.

Details about the status of the current crop of grapes are compiled and shared via maps across the organization. The maps are specific to each vineyard ‘block’ and contain details about crop status, such as expected yield, which informs planning for harvesting, processing, and sales operations.

“We have a lot of spreadsheet experts that gather many of these details in tabular form,” Hourigan said. “However, not everyone is a spreadsheet expert. A map gets people on the same page quickly to discuss different strategies.”

Drones provide Jackson Family Wines with an important top-down view to gain a broad understanding of how grapes are progressing during the growing season.

Combining the maps of new and long-standing properties into one platform helps keep employees aware of the entirety of the company’s holdings.

“We have a lot of land, buildings, equipment, infrastructure, and roads,” Scott said. “We use GIS to keep track of our these assets. Anybody in our organization can view a map of all of our assets in one place, including vineyards.”

Beyond the shared map, the team is developing a more active map layer for planning purposes.

“We’re looking to use GIS to help master plan our facilities, including scenario planning to determine the best site location for a new winery,” Scott added. “We can explore all kinds of variables, including the proximity of other vineyards, proximity to roads and highways, the cost of living in a location, or any number of factors. My goal is to expose opportunities and constraints as layers on a map to drill down and find ideal site locations.”

Each department makes good use of maps and drone views, including the events staff who are responsible for creating engagement experiences at the wineries.

Engaging with Consumers

Salespeople, and the Creative Services department that supports them, use Esri’s ArcGIS StoryMaps to showcase different details about the vineyards and conditions and characteristics that lead to high-quality wine.

“We prepared a story map about the Blue Grand Canyon™, a really interesting geologic marine feature off Monterey Bay that’s 60 miles long and two miles deep,” Scott said. “It creates this whole weather system that draws wind and cool air up the valley, chilling the grapes, and making it a prime grape growing region for our Pinot and Chardonnay grapes.”

Sharing a story helps relate the uniqueness of this place.

“Our wine ambassadors use these StoryMaps like the Blue Grand Canyon to help customers across the globe understand the unique growing conditions in Monterey County and how this unseen feature has such a profound impact on wines produced in this region,” Hourigan said.

The winery’s consumer insights team created a different tool to draw interest from customers farther away.

“We recently started using Tapestry Segmentation to understand our consumers and customers to guide placement of video ads in growing markets,” Scott said. “We’ve generated maps to understand consumer behavior regarding sustainability to find and target markets with green-minded consumers that would have a strong interest in our sustainability story.”

Realizing the importance of terroir on the success of its wines led Jackson Family Wines to increase their place-based understanding for all aspects of the business. They achieve this level of location intelligence through the medium of maps.

“GIS helps us from grape-to-glass,” Scott said. “It helps us from the time we consider purchasing a property to the time we plant, visualizing information during the growing season, and ultimately expressing the character of our wines to the eyes of consumers.”


Learn how location intelligence helps agriculture and other natural resource organizations improve the efficiency of operations.

About the author

Elvis Takow is a solution engineer at Esri, dedicated to the natural resources sector. His responsibilities involve proactively proposing and crafting solutions that clarify how GIS brings business value to the critical challenges faced by customers in their day-to-day work. Elvis has a PhD in Ecosystem Science & Management with an emphasis in GIS. His background involves research and development in landscape ecology and viticulture, with specific interests in spatial data analysis and the customization of GIS applications for problem solving especially in ecologically-based systems.

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