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An Afternoon With Sean Thackrey

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Five appellations, with six appointments in fourteen days. That was our calendar in late April through early May, and we couldn’t have asked for a finer return to California wine country for the first time since 2002. We decided right from the get-go that we were going to do it right this time; no exhaustive three of more appointments per day, and not even one appointment every day. We were going to enjoy ourselves, take our time, see some of the state and concentrate on a select group of producers, two of whom were new to our experience and three with whom we were very familiar.

Our travels took us to Napa Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Mendocino County, Paso Robles and the Santa Cruz Mountains. On off days, we simply toured or renewed acquaintances with old friends like Allan Bree, Frank Joyce and John and Pat Wolf. And of course, there was never any lack of good food and wine, as we’ve already detailed with recent blog entries.

Our site visits were all marvelous, and included appointments with John Olney at Ridge Lytton Springs, Julie Johnson at Tres Sabores, Mario and Danelle Storm Rosati at Rosati Family Winery, Jason Haas at Tablas Creek Vineyard, Paul Draper at Ridge Monte Bello and Sean Thackrey at his barn… OK, it’s REALLY Sean’s office-auxiliary storage facility outside of Bolinas and equipped with a kitchen many would envy.

We made extensive use of the video camera, and indeed, some of our reports could have stood on that footage alone – candid as they are, but there are always anecdotes and tasting notes to be included.

Our trip report begins in reverse, with accounts of our last two visits, with Paul Draper and Sean Thackrey. We met with the two of them just a few days apart, and couldn’t help but be struck by the differences in style and technique of these two otherwise brilliant winemakers. Subsequent reports will follow individually in quick succession.

The Philosopher & the Provocateur

Having the opportunity to spend a few hours talking wine with one of the great winemakers of California is a rare and special privilege. Having two such opportunities in the span of a few days is almost mind blowing, but such was our lot during our recent hiatus on the Left Coast, when we spent afternoons with both Paul Draper and Sean Thackrey.

The two men are rather different in style. Draper, CEO and chief winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, has a scholarly look about him and heads a team that is meticulously analytical in just about every aspect of the winemaking process. Thackrey, on the other hand, has a more Bohemian demeanor, and employs an intuitive, seat-of-the-pants technique to produce his brilliantly quirky eponymous wines named after night sky constellations. Draper embraces the concept of “terroir,” while Thackrey dismisses it. Draper chooses his words well, tending to avoid making provocative statements, but Thackrey, ever the iconoclast has no such reservations, as was evidenced by not only the interview conducted by our own Allan Bree several years ago, but by comments he made during our visit with him.

Neither man has any formal winemaking training. Draper is an adherent to natural winemaking techniques, but in a thoroughly modern setting. Thackrey actually employs methods that are hundreds of years old, culled from his extensive collection of ancient books and manuscripts on winemaking, and it’s a well-known fact that his winery is outdoors. But whatever their differences or similarities, it certainly can’t be denied that both have been crafting remarkably fine wine for decades.

Our reports feature extensive use of candid videos, supplemented by brief written narratives and tasting notes. It is our hope that our viewers and readers will get some sense of the excitement and pleasure that we felt enjoying the company of these two very exceptional and impressive gentlemen!

Sean Thackrey ~ Bolinas ~ May 9, 2010

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During our two weeks in California, I had the opportunity to drive some great winding two-lane roads, including Vineyard Drive in Paso Robles, Highway 128 from Calistoga to Healdsburg and, of course, Monte Bello Road going to and from the ridge. But the most exciting drive was undoubtedly the one we took to Bolinas on Highway 1 to visit Sean Thackrey, up through Mt. Tamalpais State Park and Stinson Beach. The twists, turns and switchbacks were a joy to drive and I had a smile on my face almost the entire way there.

The afternoon with Thackrey was Bree’s brainchild. When he heard that we were coming out Left, Allan sent off an email to Sean, wondering if we might pay him a visit, and offering to bring lunch and some old vintages of Thackrey’s flagship wine, Orion. Sean very graciously consented and a time and date was set. While Kim and I have been on Sean’s mailing list for some time, we’d never actually met, so this was a special treat for us, as it was for our good friends, Michigan ex-pats John and Pat Wolf, and Justin Harmon, who has his own winemaking project, Argot Wines. Justin confesses that he first caught “the bug” when he read Bree’s interview with Thackrey some years ago, so in a sense, this was a pair of full circles coming to completion.

We met at Sean’s office and auxiliary storage building just outside of Bolinas, and settled into the kitchen area to talk and taste, and Sean had a fine bottle of Champagne open and waiting for us.

Le Grande Cuvee de Michel Arnould Grand Cru NV, 12.5% alc.: This medium colored bubbly obviously has some age to it, with its nut-like character to the yellow apple and flint flavors and aromas; Justin added impressions of “yummy, yeasty old toast.” Excellent intensity and zippy acidity; all in all, my kind o’ Champers! 70% Pinot Noir from selected plots, 30% Chardonnay from one year’s harvest from the Côtes des Grands Blancs. Imported by Premier Wine Co., Richmond, VA Find this wine

From 1986 through 1990, Thackrey sourced fruit for Orion from the Schmidt Vineyard in Napa. From 1992 on, the grapes came from whatever it is that’s in that field that is the Rossi Vineyard in St. Helena. (See video directly below.)

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1986 Sean Thackrey Napa Syrah Orion: Sean describes this clean, darkly colored wine as “theoretically” Syrah; it exudes a pure, lovely nose of fruit and flowers and offers pretty plum and berry flavors with subtle earth and leather underneath. Silky smooth and beautifully balanced, with very nice intensity, it is mature, but without any secondary characteristics as of yet; mellowed might best describe it now. It undergoes a continual metamorphosis in the glass, with some cinnamon emerging as it opens. Absolutely beautiful. Find this wine

1996 Sean Thackrey Napa Orion Rossi Vineyard St. Helena, 13.9% alc.: Deep, dark color, with an effusive perfume of spice, plum, berry and flowers; gorgeous flavors, rich, lovely fruit, and very expressive, with great balance. Bree describes it as “still a young wine,” and indeed, it’s still well-structured, with many years of great drinking left in it. Brilliant; pure pleasure. Find this wine

1997 Sean Thackrey Napa Orion Rossi Vineyard St. Helena, 13.9% alc.: Deep, dark color, with a little funky barnyard and tar that blow off quickly; very much like the ’96, with the same basic profile, only a year younger and a little more intensity. Absolutely gorgeous. Find this wine

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1998 Sean Thackrey Napa Orion Rossi Vineyard St. Helena , 14.3% alc.: Deep, dark color, with funky, stemmy, forest floor aromas that mostly blow off to reveal lovely fruit aromatics; Bree offered an impression of “stewed fruit,” while Sean added “celery root” and Kim chimed in with “celery seed.” There’s a big core of rich, but not over-ripe fruit here, with hints of black olive; the celery-stemminess never goes away completely, but adds to, rather than detracts from, the wine’s appeal. Find this wine

1999 Sean Thackrey Napa Orion Rossi Vineyard St. Helena, 14.3% alc.: Justin took one sip of this and exclaimed, “Holy raspberries!” Bree added, “Big, rich and broad; it’s like an alien.” Not quite inky in color, it exhibits a deep, dark core of rich, fairly ripe black plum and berry with subtle leathery undertones and an earthy anchor; there’s just a little of the stemmy-forest floor-celery seed as well. This really benefits from just a bit of air, and while drinking very well now, it has a long life ahead of it. Find this wine

2000 Sean Thackrey Napa Orion Rossi Vineyard St. Helena, 14.4% alc.: Deep, dark color, with the stemmy-celery seed nose, leading into flavors of earthy plum and berry with subtle leather; maintains stylistic typicity while showing off its own unique characteristics, and is quite nice with Allan’s lunch of roast beef tenderloin, corn and wild rice salad and a green salad. Many years of pleasurable drinking left in this one. Find this wine

2001 Sean Thackrey Napa Orion Rossi Vineyard St. Helena, 14.7% alc.: Very dark in color, with a rich effusive perfume, and ripe (but not over-ripe) flavors of plum and berry with subtle shades of earth and spice. Full bodied, with ample structure and length, this is yet another variation on the classic Orion theme; try it again in 5-8 years to see where it’s at. Find this wine

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2001 Sean Thackrey Marin County Pinot Noir Andromeda Devil’s Gulch: Clean, dark color, this exudes cinnamon and clove on the nose, and gains strawberry, cherry and rhubarb on the palate; it’s spicy and intense, yet light on its feet, and elicited a variety of enthusiastic comments, including the following: Find this wine

“Better than pretty, this thing rocks! Sexy! Pine tar.” – Justin
“Tannins on the mid-palate suggest the wine has a long future ahead of it.” – Bree
“Shows the best qualities of California Pinot Noir.” – John
“Acquires this depth of flavor and excitement after 4 or 5 years.” – Sean

Throughout the afternoon, I jotted down random thoughts and comments from Sean, included here as a series of afterthoughts.

Pleiades is carefully thought out and not a “kitchen sink” blend. Find this wine

Sean "thiefing" Pinot Noir clone 115

Regarding the common descriptor so often used for his wines, Thackrey says, “I’ll get a resinous quality, but never eucalyptus.”

About the change to the black labels with larger script a few years back, Sean chuckled, “I had to change my labels to read them.”

Perhaps the most telling remark about his business model: “I do essentially nothing to promote my wines.”

Sean also talked about yeasts and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – see the video below.

We finished up our visit with barrel tasting of some very promising lots, but by that time, notes were no longer being taken; suffice it to say that most of the samples (including some very good Pinot Noir) give cause for much optimism and excitement regarding future offerings from this gifted and idiosyncratic winemaker. As the videos here hopefully indicate, the time we spent with Sean was more than merely interesting and informative, it was downright fun. Thackrey may challenge the existing notions of what wine and winemaking is all about, but he does it with wry wit and bemused exasperation. You need not look (or taste, as the case may be) any further than his considerable output of excellent wines over the years to conclude that, whatever one may think about his maverick ideas, he has a knack for making some of the finest wines in all of California.

Related posts:

  1. An Afternoon With Paul Draper

10 Responses to “An Afternoon With Sean Thackrey”

  • [...] first, I’ll gush a little: Sean Thackrey is an American original. He was an unconventional high level hobbyist, sourcing techniques he [...]

  • George Heritier:

    Thanks for the kind words, Bob! Needless to say, it was a most interesting and informative experience spending an afternoon with Sean, and beyond that, he’s a great guy to hang out with! Looking forward to sharing some good food and wine with you in the near future as well!

  • Bob G:

    Fascinating report from the GOP team! As a long term fan of Thackery\’s wines I appreciate your effort to visit Sean and share this interview and the videos. The relationship between ph and SO2 was something I was unaware of. Now it makes sense why I find higher acid wines more palatable – typically less SO2. Thanks again. I hope to see you some time soon.

  • Bob G:

    Fascinating report from the GOP team! As a long term fan of Thackery’s wines I appreciate your effort to visit Sean and share this interview and the videos. The relationship between ph and SO2 was something I was unaware of. Now it makes sense why I find higher acid wines more palatable – typically less SO2. Thanks again. I hope to see you some time soon.

  • George Heritier:

    Thanks for the kind words, Greg! Can’t get his wines at retail here in Michigan either, but at least we can get them shipped here. Sadly, the border doesn’t seem to allow you that option.

  • Greg Yemen:

    Fantastic article and video! The wine world needs more people who would rather craft excellent wine than follow a formulated recipe. Now if only I could find his wines in Canada!

  • George Heritier:

    Well, Bob, fortunately (for you anyway), I don’t think Sean has many fruit sources in the west end of the Loire Valley… :)

  • Bob Cuozzi:

    Geo, the day Sean Thackrey makes a muscadet is the day I start drinking sasparilla!!!!

  • George Heritier:

    Thanks Bob! No, Sean didn’t say anything about the Viognier, but he did mention something or another about some Muscadet… ;)

  • Bob Cuozzi:

    Geo, what a wonderful afternoon this must have been. As a fellow long time fan of Sean’s wines I am totally envious. His latest mailer talked about a viognier possibly….did he talk about that? I really loved the NV roussane he did from Alban fruit a few years back!

    Cheers, Bob

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