Sean Thackrey is an American winemaker based in Marin County, California in the town of Bolinas. From a background as director of an art gallery, Thackrey has been described as an unconventional winemaker who has done pioneering work in promoting California Syrah.
Thackrey studied art history at Reed College in Portland, OR, and the University of Vienna, but without graduating. He moved to Bolinas in 1964 and for a while worked as a book editor for the Sierra Club. In 1970, Thackrey, with Susan Thackrey and Cynthia Pritzker, opened the art gallery in San Francisco that became Thackrey & Robertson, by then in partnership with watercolorist Sally Robertson; the gallery remained operational until closed in 1995. Thackrey's particular expertise was in early photography, in exhibiting which the gallery was an internationally renowned pioneer.
After several years in Berkeley and San Francisco, Thackrey moved back to Bolinas in 1977. Following initial winemaking experiments with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes purchased from Fay Vineyard in Napa Valley, Thackrey became a bonded winemaker in 1981, as the Thackrey & Co. winery. Some early problems with lactobacillus led Thackrey to take extension courses at UC Davis, although he states he has little use for the scientific approach to winemaking.
Thackrey sources fruit from grape growers in Napa Valley, Marin County and Mendocino, and is prone to employ the unconventional technique of letting grapes 'rest' at least 24 hours outside, fermenting under the stars. Thackrey contends the idea can be traced to the texts of the Greek poet Hesiod, Works and Days (circa 700 B.C.). Not employed by anyone else at present, Thackrey claims this method was commonplace in wine literature until the middle of the 19th century.
Thackrey's flagship wine is Orion (Sean Thackrey Orion Rossi Vineyard St. Helena California Native Red Wine), produced from 1986-1990 using Syrah grapes from Arthur Schmidt's old vine vineyard near Yountville until this was bought by Clarke Swanson, and since 1992 from the 5-acre (2.0 ha) Rossi vineyard in St. Helena, planted in 1905. Thackrey is uncertain what grape varieties are in the field blend, as UC Davis researchers have attempted a vineyard test without certain conclusions."
The experimental nonvintage blend Pleiades (Sean Thackrey Pleiades California Red Table Wine) was first released in 1992. Made from a host of different grape varieties (potentially both white and red, such as Syrah, Barbera, Zinfandel, Carignan, Pinot noir, Mourvèdre and Grenache), potentially from different regions and different vintages. The recipe changes every year, depending on the decisions of Thackrey and the fruit sourced. Thackrey has said, "It's like a chef's special. You trust the chef so you're prepared to order the dish of the day".
Other wines include the Taurus Cline Vineyard Mourvèdre, Sirius Eaglepoint Ranch Mendocino County Petite Sirah and the Aquila Eaglepoint Ranch Mendocino County Sangiovese. Thackrey has an output of approximately 4,000 cases (360 hl) annually.
Despite Thackrey's fringe profile, he has consistently received high scores from major critics such as Robert Parker. Although Thackrey has never advertised his wines, customer demand for his wines considerably outweighs his small-scale production.
Occasionally voicing opinions contrary to conventional belief, Thackrey does not consider terroir to be the most important element in creating fine wine, having said, "I'm not saying terroir doesn't exist, there are just a lot of other things going on". Thackrey has described AVAs and appellations as a "gerrymandered marketing gimmick", and the AOCs of France as "viticultural racism". Having termed himself an agnostic about terroir, he has also stated he is agnostic about global warming, adding, "The real story is a greater willingness to deal with cooler regions. Remember that Carneros was once considered absolutely marginal. Fifty years ago, nobody would have dreamed to plant grapes there".
Thackrey's website holds what is titled "The Thackrey Library", which includes an extensive archive of early books and manuscripts relating to the subject of winemaking and the enjoyment of wine. Having collected ancient wine texts since 1996, the oldest document is a sixth-century papyrus receipt for grapevines written in Greek.
Thackrey's media appearances include a segment in the 2007 California season of Oz and James's Big Wine Adventure, and a documentary film titled Sean Thackrey: Pleasure Architect, scheduled for release during 2010.
Vallejo warehouse fire
A October 12, 2005 arson fire in a converted military bunker warehouse at Mare Island near Vallejo, CA, resulted in a loss of near 4,000 cases of Thackrey's wine. Initially estimating to lose as much as $2 million, Thackrey stated, "This has a major impact on my existence. I only have just barely enough [wine] left to drink myself into the grave". 500 cases (45 hl) of Thackrey's wines were later recovered, in an event that resulted in the loss of 6 million bottles owned by 43 collectors and 92 various Napa Valley wineries, many of whom lost their entire stock.
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