Getting Into Wine with Jay Jackson

Long before he played the fake newscaster, Perd Hapley, on the brilliantly-devised Parks and Recreation TV series, actor Jay Jackson actually was a newscaster. Jackson worked at KCAL9 and CBS2 in Los Angeles from 1999 to 2012. It begs the question: Could one of Perd’s famous lines (“I’m Perd Hapley, and I just realized I’m not holding my microphone”) have come from Jackson’s own real-life newscaster mishaps? 

It’s hard to say. The lines of reality seem intentionally blurred, but not to the point of Kaufman-esque absurdity (as in the late, great comic Andy Kaufman). Nevertheless, ardent fans of Parks and Rec, along with any and all wine lovers around the world are in for a real blurry treat: No, you have not had too much wine—that really is Perd Hapl—er, I mean, Jay Jackson—doing a newscast about wine

Jackson, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin native (“Go Bucks! Go Pack, Go!“), appeared in 31 episodes of Parks and Rec, which ran from 2009 to 2015. In the aftermath, Jackson has appeared in numerous TV shows and films, reviving his pleonastic newscaster role. But in the last couple of years, he’s discovered a real passion for wine. Maybe you caught his Instagram post about taking WSET Level 3 with Napa Valley Wine Academy

We interviewed Jackson about his unusual life’s work as a real and fake newscaster, and about his passion for wine. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired by his story, and maybe even learn a thing or two in his Wine News Weekly broadcasts. In the words of Perd, “The story of this story is that it won’t stop developing.” 

NVWA: Where have you lived the longest? 

Jay Jackson (JJ): I’ve lived in Los Angeles the longest. 

NVWA: How did you get into broadcast journalism?

JJ: It’s what I studied in college after my stint in the Navy. (Submarine service). I remember my parents being so proud to see the first African American network news anchor, Max Robinson. Guess I wanted them to see that in me. 

 

NVWA: During your time as a newscaster at KCAL, what did you try to achieve in terms of your role as a journalist? 

JJ: I was at KCAL9 and CBS2 from 1999 to 2012. Since I was a general assignment reporter, I was really all over the place with issues. But, I always tried to make each story about people, as opposed to events, or disasters. For instance, I’d start stories, “John Doe woke up early this morning with one thing on his mind… the Superbowl.” Versus, “The Superbowl is starting early this morning….etc.” The human always came first (as much as it made sense) in my writing.

NVWA: What was the impetus for switching careers from real-life newscaster to TV-show newscaster? 

JJ: If there was a single point, I’d say it was the 2005 LaConchita landslide. I witnessed great death covering that story. We didn’t talk much about therapy back then. Looking back, it would’ve been very helpful. Later that year I left the business full-time, for good. I worked freelance for the next seven years. At the same time, I was starting a journalism school that helped people break into the TV news business. I made their demo reels. It became successful and time-consuming. One had to go – full-time work, bye-bye! Then, one student made a demo reel through my school. Her manager saw my appearance on the reel and asked if I’d be interested in auditioning. I got the first audition… Dexter. The rest is history!

NVWA: Right, although you played Perd for six years, your acting debut was on TV in Dexter. What was it about your demo reel appearance that got you booked on the show? 

JJ: The best way I can answer that is to explain exactly what my school did. To start as a reporter, you’ll need a demo reel. In my school’s demo reel, I appear as the news anchor ‘throwing’ to the reporter in the field, who was the student. From those brief few seconds I appear on the reel, a student (who was really an actor using the reel to audition for a role) showed her manager. The manager had been getting several casting calls for a ‘news reporter’ for Dexter. It was completely random and I wasn’t even looking to do anything like that. I was a serious journalist and teacher, for goodness sake! But the manager worked me, saying I’m exactly what the studio was looking for. I remember being totally nervous because it was my first big Hollywood audition. At the time, no one knew the show would be a cult hit. I just pretended it was a real report and they loved it. Ironically, Tony Goldwyn was the director of the episode, who’d I end up working with for six seasons on the ABC show Scandal. 

NVWA: So, you’re still doing serious newscasting, only now on TV. What was it like reliving your life as a comically hilarious news reporter on Parks & Rec? 

JJ: As far as Perd Hapley goes, it was a challenge. I spent years working as a hard-hitting, breaking news street reporter. News was no laughing matter. But on set, each time I’d do a Perd line, the director would ask to go a little more over the top. That became the style of Perd – an overblown news guy. Combine that with the inane things Perd would say and you have something different. I think that’s what makes Perd stand out. He sounds like the 5 o’clock evening news guy saying the oddest things. After a few episodes, Perd was second nature to me. Still is. 

NVWA: Give us some insight behind the scenes: Was it hard to keep a straight face working with the cast of P&R? 

JJ: We had a lot of fun on the Parks & Rec set. There were tons of bloopers, ad libs, mistakes, surprises each day. Many of them actually made it into the episodes. But it was a professional set, too. You can’t spend too much time re-taking shots because it’s ultimately more money. Amy kept everybody on track. I also learned a lot from Amy and Mo Collins, who played Joan Callamezzo. These are two great improv artists who showed me how to improve a scene with just a grunt. 

NVWA: Let’s talk wine. What was the spark that ignited your passion for wine and how long have you suffered the curse of that passion?

JJ: Honestly, I’m a product of the movie Sideways. I’m not embarrassed to say it. Of course, I drank wine before seeing the film, but it opened up my eyes to this entire world of beauty, joy, anger, disappointment, incredible highs, and crushing lows. Most of all, these courageous winemakers who do it every day. If you watch the film as a metaphor for making wine, it becomes quite profound. But, maybe that was the Barolo. But the bug really bit in April (I think) of 2021. That’s when I signed up for WSET 1.

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NVWA: Did you anticipate continuing on to WSET Level 3?

JJ: I took Level 3 because I simply couldn’t get enough learning about wine after WSET 1 and 2. WSET 1 and 2 are challenging if you don’t know about wine. But by the time Level 3 comes around, you know quite a bit and how to interpret the vast categories of information covered in 3. It was a great and exhilarating challenge that left me surprisingly drained and remorseful. The instructor, the studying, the mock exams became companions to me. A comforting place to turn to in all the world’s madness. It’s like I lost them all after the exam. 

NVWA: Had you ever taken any other wine courses before?

JJ: I had never taken a wine course. Then in March of 2021, I met this sommelier—Ruben Morancey (RIP)—who was the wine director of a shop in Los Angeles. I had just watched the Somm series and I had tons of questions for him. He saw the bug had bit and encouraged me to start taking classes. I started the whole Google search process and kept getting great stories and testimonies about the Napa Valley Wine Academy. I checked out the program and knew instantly this was the route. I know that sounds like a commercial, but I just felt the way the program was taught is the way I learn with the most success. Wine is an endless journey of knowledge. I like that there’s a clear structure in the learning process.  

NVWA: We’re flattered—thank you! We work hard to help passionate people turn their passions into knowledge. Curious to know what was most revealing to you about the study of wine? 

JJ: I’d say the biggest revelation from studying wine is the sheer number of wines in the world. In particular, varietals. We hear of the noble grapes, of course, but I had no idea I was missing out on so many other great grapes! Up to 10,000 now? That’s endless exploration. That’s what makes reading great books of wine journeys so cool. I love a great writer that can articulate the nuances of wine and its relation to the region and culture. I love the stories of tiny Italian villages most people never heard of that produce tiny amounts of miraculous wine. You can almost taste it. That drives me to travel and experience it for myself. I haven’t yet, but it’s inevitable.

NVWA: Playing on the same theme, what surprised you the most?

JJ: I’d say the biggest surprise was that I knew so little about something I’ve loved for a long time. Wine. Today, drinking with friends who haven’t taken any classes can be difficult. People who don’t know the difference between tannins and terroir boldly pontificating to impress the crowd. But I hear myself in them before I took the WSET class. I hear how much I’ve learned by hearing how little they know. The hard part is to keep it to yourself and only offer your thoughts when asked. 

NVWA: #Heard on that. We understand you’re a fan of Barolo. What’s your favorite producer?

JJ: Yes, Barolo is my all-time, all-time #1. Get excited thinking about one. As far as my favorite producer, I’m old school. Pio Cesare is my go to. But, also, any Cannubi I can find at a reasonable price. I stay in the $100 range. But if there’s a steal somewhere, I’m there!

NVWA: Have any favorite movies about wine beyond Sideways?

JJ: I’ve seen and love Wine Country. I’m a huge fan of wine movies. My favorite is You Will Be My Son. Chills thinking about it. 

NVWA: Have any hilarious, eye-opening, or plain frightening personal stories of visiting wine country?  

JJ: I don’t know if it’s funny, but back in the days when I was a news reporter, I was covering the first charge of child molestation against Michael Jackson. His home is near Santa Ynez, where there are several tree-lined vineyards you have to drive past to get to his home. The news vans were kept at a distance by security, so we called ourselves hiding in the vineyards to get an exclusive shot. With a giant news van and satellite dish. We got a tip Jackson would be returning home in a limo on the one road that led to his house. After sitting for two hours waiting for him, we get a call from the bosses to turn the news on in our van. It was a live helicopter shot of Jackson arriving by helicopter and all of the news vans can been seen dotting the closest vineyard… all sticking out like sore thumbs.  

NVWA: Smart to hide out in a vineyard. We would have done the same! And speaking of reporting, you continue to report and make TV and film appearances. What has been your favorite project since Parks & Rec?

JJ: I’d say my favorite project has been Cameo. That’s the app that lets you say Happy Birthday, Anniversary, Merry Christmas, etc. to fans for a fee. The fans send crazy scripts for me to read to their loved ones. It’s the new acting in Hollywood. Much more personal. I love it. 

NVWA: Let’s talk about your newest project: Wine News Weekly. What’s your goal with these newscasts?

JJ: Wine News Weekly is my Youtube channel in which I give brief news updates twice a week about the world of wine. Initially, the goal was to become an influencer. Build up millions of followers and have a say in the wine world. Now, my goal is to work with one of the major wine magazines, providing another online news platform for their websites. It adds a more approachable source of news for readers of magazines like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, etc. 

NVWA: Tell us about the last segment of each Wine News Weekly feature, which shines a spotlight on someone in wine from the BIPOC community.

JJ: My hope is that the world of wine continues with sincere efforts to improve diversity, equality, and inclusion. There are so many different points of view that are going unheard, simply because of a lack of diverse thought. Past wrongs need to be righted, primarily wine country land and the laws that enforced exclusion on racial lines. There’s a lot to unpack there. Too much to discuss here. But maybe it’ll trigger someone to explore the issue and be a force for change.  

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Follow Jackson at @jayjacksonjazz and subscribe to his Wine News Weekly YouTube Channel.

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