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The Iconoclast

Winemaker Sean Thackrey on terroir, home cooking and the wine of ancient mariners

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Even if you can't find Sean Thackrey in Bolinas, you expect to find Sean Thackrey in Bolinas. He's been called eclectic, eccentric and idiosyncratic, and that's just in one magazine article. Add cryptic, enigmatic and even downright medieval, and you get the picture that the winemaker inhabits the outskirts of wine country proper—of course you'd be more likely to find such a character in a bohemian enclave like Bolinas.

Except that for many years, I could not find Sean Thackrey. Yes, he had a website, but even that was arcane: much of the text is in Latin, Italian and Middle French from the scholarly winemaker's personal library. An email went nowhere. I made a reconnaissance to Bolinas, poking around in the eucalyptus groves where the vintner was said to be ensconced with his barrels and his books, and making wine according to ancient recipes.

And it wasn't just me. As novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney recently told the Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood, for all his world travels, finding Sean Thackrey in Bolinas was one of the most confounding tasks. Thackrey must be the last vintner in the world that doesn't send out regular press releases to tout his wines.

Then one day, there it was in my inbox: a press release from Thackrey & Company Fine Wine. What happened?

Whole Foods happened, for one. Thackrey's lowest priced and once slightly-less-than-impossible-to-attain wine, a red blend called Pleiades, got picked up by the behemoth grocer for its Northern California stores, which means that Pleiades must be on the shelf at all times. Thackrey ramped up production, hired a marketing assistant and an office manager, and, at their insistence, even became an enthusiastic participant on social media—which he used to call "antisocial media."

A photographer and art history dropout, Thackrey co-owned a San Francisco art gallery when he founded a winery at his Bolinas home in 1981. He first sold wine to his friends at Chez Panisse and garnered early acclaim when his first official release was called "the best Merlot ever made in California, blah blah blah," according to Thackrey, by a budding wine critic named Robert Parker.

When I finally meet Thackrey, he bounds out of his Bolinas barn—a newer location that holds extra barrels and a few old redwood fermenters, and which is just a little more artistically bent than your average barn—and begins talking a mile a minute about the origin of Pleiades. Clad in a jean jacket and sporting a gray mop coiffed by randomness, Thackrey's affable, academic quickness and vintage style are reminiscent of a radical campus professor with roots in the '60s.

Bohemian: From reading articles over the past decade or so, I would think people have this impression of Sean Thackrey as the reclusive, mysterious winemaker.

Thackrey: People just get so enamored of that kind of simplification. The other one that I love is being called eccentric, just because I don't do things the way [UC] Davis does them—it's not eccentric in the slightest.

Bohemian: Would you say that your use of ancient texts is overemphasized?

Thackrey: Well, I think it's a little overemphasized. Wine has really been made a lot of different ways. I don't think people understand how different earlier wine styles are than what we now do—I mean just totally different—and yet they gave great pleasure. So I think it opens your eyes to the immense number of possibilities to make something that might be really delicious, using all sorts of techniques that we don't even think of now.

Some of the most famous wines of Greece, for example, were cut pretty severely with seawater. The island of Kos was kind of famous for its wines, and apparently a shipment of wines was going to Athens from Kos, and when it arrived, there were two amphorae that were decidedly better than the others. The shipper was really interested in getting to the bottom of why these two were so much better than the others.

To make a long story short, it turned out that the crew had said, fuck it, we want some wine, so they broke into these amphorae and they took a bunch of wine out to drink on the boat and replaced that with seawater. And apparently that was so much better, that became a standard technique of making what they called Coan wine. I've never tried it, but it's just an example of something that you wouldn't dream of doing now. And yet you have to think that the people who made the Parthenon had a reasonable taste in wine.

Bohemian: What are some examples of ancient or Medieval techniques that you do apply?

Thackrey: It's more the idea of being open to different tastes in wine than just the narrow band that we're now working with. I'm not advocating adding seawater to wine, but you at least might want to do the experiment just for the hell of it.

As I said, do you really think that the people who designed the Parthenon were sitting down and drinking absolute rot? It's a little hard to believe; that's not the way it generally tends to work. I just think it's very nice to keep an open mind about what can actually work in winemaking, and I think studying ancient texts is a very good way to do that.

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