Bonne nuit, lumière d’étoile (goodnight starlight)
On the night of Monday May 30th, the day Marin winemaker extraordinaire Sean Thackrey passed, the Tau Heraclids meteor shower rained down upon the Earth. It was as if the stars themselves were lamenting his passing. And the amalgamation of the Eastern/Western name of that exploded comet, probably would have been especially poetic to a polyglot who collected Japanese scrolls and was adept at quoting Roman and Greek philosophers.
Thackrey had made his unusual wines (mostly named after Constellations) since the late 1970s, first in Bolinas, and later expanding into Sonoma County. His iconoclast image and his unorthodox styles certainly brought many adherents, especially to his unique multi-vintage multi-varietal red blend named Pleiades. But it was his Orion, a Napa Syrah (sometimes blended with viognier) and his Andromeda (a pinot noir sourced from Devil’s Gulch in West Marin) that really elevated him into the stratosphere. Both are big robust wines (unlike Pleiades, which is lighter and more akin to a typical Rhone blend) that unusual for their varietal expression, practically explode with flavor.
Thackrey used exceptionally long fermentations and other unconventional methods to achieve these results. Methods that were often at first eyebrow raising before being widely emulated. In an industry where the word “trailblazer” or “pioneer” is often bandied about, Thackrey was on a whole different level. He was more than a big fish in a small pond, he was the pond that all the other fish came to, eventually.
“Over my years at the winery in Bolinas, many came to pray at the altar of Thackrey,” says Brian Ojalvo, also a Bolinas resident, who worked at Thackrey & Co. for ten years, first as a harvest helper before moving up to Assistant Winemaker in 2004. “Not only winemakers, but we also had visits from famous musicians, writers, poets, movie stars, celebrities and on and on. His influence stretched beyond the wine industry and I realize now this was because he was a trend setter and way ahead of the curve and did things exactly as he wanted. Absolutely no compromises. None. People can only wish to be that. Sean embodied that.”
Imagine trying to pitch the idea of a multi-vintage red wine blend with some white wine thrown in for good measure named after an obscure star cluster and made in a tiny town with no wine tradition from a winery that owns no vineyards. Extracanonical piled upon heresy piled upon chutzpah. And it worked.
“I then went on to start my own winery West of Temperance in 2013,” says Ojalvo. “Sean taught me to see an idea through to the end and not to rely on the baked in dogmas that so many in the wine industry espouse. Winemaking is art. Period. As I transitioned into making my own wine, I also took his philosophy into my own endeavors, for better or for worse.”
Today West of Temperance produces nine different varietals, including several obscure varietals such as Aglianico and Fiano. Clearly Thackrey’s influence was felt by those who knew him, and worked with him, but it also reached beyond his own disciples.
“Sean intellectualized his wines and vineyard sites as though they were characters in a play, playing out a coming-of-age tale of persistence and arrival,” says Patrick McNeil, owner of “Wines That Deliver” and “Brainchild” both based in Nicasio and both of which specialize in obscure varietals and pinot noir, just like Thackrey. McNeil first met Thackrey in 2000. “His style of winemaking was perpetually progressive and older-than-old-world at the same time,” says McNeil. “The Orion Syrah from the Rossi Ranch Vineyard was one of the most memorable wines I have ever tasted, and a mark I have tried to hit, or at least come close to, ever since. His multi-vineyard / vintage / varietal experience (Pleiades) had no bounds and ultimately expressed who he was as a winemaker, a person, and a protagonist in one of the wine industries most one-of-a-kind scripts. “
The Pleiades red is certainly Thackrey’s most well known and most widely available wine. It is a staple of Whole Foods Markets throughout the country. The Orion and Andromeda are much harder to find, and each has bolstered not only their respective varietals but also the area and the vineyards from which they come.
“I only met Sean about four years ago,” says Richard Shell, the Owner and President of the Pleiades Wine Company, a company affiliated with Thackrey & Co., but separate in its own right. “I called up Sean, and delightful Sean invited me out to the barn in Bolinas for a glass of wine.”
Shell had practiced law before purchasing and publishing Wine Business Monthly (and Winebusiness.com) for a short time, before then moving onto the Vintage Wine Trust. The two bonded over their experiences in the wine world
“The first time I met him I was a little breathless. I had previously had this romantic relationship with wine only to be disabused of that notion while I was in the publishing and finance business, and later on as a grape grower.”
Early in 2019 the two men set up the Pleiades Wine Company, moved some of the production to Sebastopol, where the company originally produced a white version of Pleiades, then concentrated on the original red, before adding a rosé and then moving on to produce Thackrey’s specialty black label wines including both the Orion and the Andromeda.
“Sean always had good ideas, he understood about tradeoffs, and understood the need to find the right path forward,” says Shell. But Thackery could also be eccentric. “Who else would maintain 600 barrels of older wines that needed to be topped every month or two, to preserve components that will go into future editions of Pleiades? Only Sean would. And now only me,” says Shell.
Thackrey,79, had been in ill health for some time. Two months ago, he had sold his unparalleled collection of ancient wine texts for $2 million. Reportedly they will be kept together and housed in an educational facility for winemakers to access. Something which certainly was very close to the former book editor’s heart. Still his death comes as a shock to the many devotees and admirers that he had all around the wine world.
“I am very, very, sad,” says Shell. “But now I have the responsibility to keep his legacy alive. He deserves that and his wines deserves that, and the public deserves that, so that people can truly understand the quality of his winemaking. We plan to keep making the Pleiades red in exactly the same style, in Sean’s style, and I think he would have liked that.”
Which along with that meteor shower might be the most fitting tribute possible for the complex man that was Sean Thackrey.
For an extended interview with Sean Thackrey see: Barfly Podcast Season Four: Sean Thackrey, in his own words, and for more on the man and his wines go to: Thackrey and Company