Sean Thackrey

Winemaking on the edge in a Marin eucalyptus grove

Mar 18, 2003

If there's one California winery that's farthest in spirit from the manicured order of the typical Napa estate, it's Sean Thackrey's no-frills property in Bolinas. One hour's drive north of San Francisco in western Marin County, and accessible only via a twisting road that ends at the Pacific's edge, Bolinas exudes the mellow isolation of a hippie commune.That apparently works fine for the eccentric, cerebral Thackrey, who's been making wine in a Bolinas eucalyptus grove for more than 20 years. He's best known for two bottlings: the non-vintage Pleiades, a Syrah-based blend that usually contains about six varieties; and his top-of-the-line Orion, a brawny, deeply concentrated red from the 5-acre Rossi Vineyard in St. Helena. Annual production is about 4,000 cases, with the Pleiades XI Old Vines California NV (87 points, $18) and the Orion Old Vines California 2000 (90, $75) the two current releases.

Thackrey, 60, is slim and fit, with Easy Rider-style sideburns and an unkempt mat of tan hair streaked with white. He's a self-taught winemaker who believes that the practical challenges one encounters when fermenting grapes have little to do with what's taught in a classroom. "Wine science is to winemaking the way food science is to cooking. They're simply different problems," he says.

In the 1970s, before he switched to winemaking, Thackrey worked as an art dealer who specialized in 19th century European photography and prints. He made his first wine in 1979, from Merlot and Cabernet grapes purchased from the Stags Leap property of legendary grower Nathan Fay. Though smitten with the process of winemaking, he needed to explore different varietals. Cabernet and Merlot didn't move Thackrey, who says he hasn't bought a Bordeaux or a Napa Cabernet in 25 years. "They're just too damn polite for me," he says. "Why drink a wine that you wouldn't like if it were a person? It's like sitting next to someone and everything they say has to be so proper."

So Thackrey gravitated toward grapes that didn't seem so prim and well-mannered. For three years, starting in 1988, he made an Oakville Mourvèdre, called Taurus. From 1989 through 1992 he produced Sirius, a Petite Sirah from a dry-farmed Spring Mountain vineyard planted in the 1870s.

He didn't stop producing those labels by choice. Thackrey doesn't own any vineyards, and buying grapes has always caused him plenty of frustration. "I can't tell you how many times I've been screwed by growers," he says. "There are certain people with whom I've worked for years and trust. And the others I don't work with anymore."

All of the wines are named after constellations because Thackrey is fascinated by the human impulse to impose patterns. Yet there's one pattern he detests -- the concept of terroir, the notion that the growing site determines the character of wines. "You hear so much dog shit about terroir. It's used as such an excuse to attribute quality to real estate. You wouldn't do that with a restaurant. Every chef wants the best produce, but someone still has to cook it," he insists.

Like any experienced chef or winemaker, Thackrey has a distinctive style. Tastings of his wines reveal consistently powerful, intense flavors and rugged tannins, especially in the Sirius and Orion bottlings. Until 2000, Thackrey thought that the Orion vines, which were planted in 1895, were mostly Syrah. But a tour of the Rossi Vineyard with respected grape geneticists, including Carole Meredith of the University of California, Davis, called that heritage into question. Five types of vines were observed that couldn't be identified, possibly clones of Syrah or Petite Sirah.

So now he labels the Orion "Old Vine California Red." Not that the wine's incognito status rankles Thackrey, who often doesn't know the exact composition of his blends and who doesn't care much about labels. "People who sometimes ask me to tell them the varietal percentages, and I say, 'Give me a break,'" he says.

Suffice it to say that anyone enamored of order should avoid Thackrey's property, which looks as if it could have been transplanted from Appalachian moonshine country. Barrels seem stacked willy-nilly (mostly outside, some in a structure about the size of a large toolshed). Unlabeled, dust-spattered carboys contain a potpourri of ink-dark wines. After harvest last fall, recently fermented (and still fermenting) grapes sat in stainless steel vats wrapped with insulation blankets, while wines yet to be bottled were shuttled to two 1,500 gallon milk tanks.

Leaves and pine needles are everywhere, strewn over barrels, vats, a hodgepodge of winemaking equipment, even in the buckets catching runoff from pressing. "I've really changed a lot this year, though you couldn't tell," he concedes.

Thackrey approaches wine production with an academic rigor. He reads seven languages, and his Web site,, details his ideas and has excerpts from a variety of antique texts (most not translated) about winemaking. One day, Thackrey would like to write a book about winemaking.

But production of 4,000 cases a year leaves Thackrey little time for literary diversions. In addition to Pleiades and Orion, Thackrey now makes a Marin County Pinot Noir and a Mendocino Sangiovese. An assistant helps at crush, and someone handles the paperwork. Otherwise, it's a one-man, low-tech operation, starting from the moment he picks up the grapes and negotiates his way back to the winery along the precarious switchbacks of Highway 1.

After two decades of lugging barrels, he finally purchased a forklift last June. He also recently bought a small bottling-line, after years of marathon sessions of bottling by hand. Sitting on a lagoon just 500 yards from the ocean, his Bolinas property stays fairly cool year-round, so he often has to go barrel to barrel with a fish-tank heater to get the wines to complete malolactic fermentation, an essential step to soften the structure of brawny reds. While that isn't an expeditious way to make wine, Thackrey doesn't mind. "Efficiency isn't one of my major virtues," he concedes. "I'm thorough, not efficient."

If anything, he savors the process. Thackrey knows that these artisanal wines have a personality and rough edge that's not for everyone. But he wouldn't have it any other way.

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