Sean Thackrey, Creator of Eccentric California Wines, Dies at 79
Sean Thackrey, an autodidactic polymath who, in between collecting antiquarian books, running a San Francisco art gallery and learning five languages, developed a cult following as one of California’s most intriguingly eccentric winemakers, died on May 31 in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was 79.
His former wife and longtime partner, Susan Thackrey, said the death, at a hospital, was from cancer.
Mr. Thackrey did not mean to go into winemaking. The son of two Hollywood veterans, he had no training in viticulture — or any kind of agriculture, for that matter — when in 1973 he settled in Bolinas, an isolated Bohemian burg on the Pacific Ocean, in southwestern Marin County.
Bolinas is just a few miles from San Francisco as the crow flies, but even today it can take hours to get there, in part because locals have a habit of stealing road signs showing the route from Highway 1. Mr. Thackrey, who had soaked in the West Coast counterculture at Reed College, fit right in.
He started to improve the property, including adding grape vines to a fence. On a lark, he made some wine from them, liked it, and decided to try it again. He bought grapes from the esteemed Fay Vineyard, in Napa Valley, and released his first wine, a cabernet/merlot blend he called Aquila, in 1981. He named his winery Thackrey and Co.
Though he made a vanishingly small amount of it, and never more than a few thousand cases a year, his wine was an immediate hit among the Bay Area’s enological cognoscenti. He soon moved on from cabernet, working with varietals that were then obscure, like merlot and syrah, or no varietals at all, blending grapes and vintages to get the taste he liked.
By the time he left his San Francisco art gallery to make wine full time in 1995, he had developed a global following, with almost half his wines going to Europe and Japan. Enthusiasts fell in love with his brawny, expressive releases, often labeled “editions” — not “vintages,” since he might cancel an annual release if it didn’t meet his expectations — and named for constellations: Orion, Pleiades, Andromeda.
Even at the height of his popularity, Mr. Thackrey kept his operation small, even domestic. He never owned a vineyard, made much of his wine in his backyard, and employed just a few assistants — all the better, he insisted, to allow him to focus on his craft.
“Sean was of this cohort of winemakers of an earlier generation who I would say really pushed the intellectual boundaries of where California wine could go,” Jon Bonné, the author of “The New California Wine” (2013), said in a phone interview.
Mr. Thackrey was uninterested in trends, either setting or following them. He liked to say, “My only purpose in the entire universe as a winemaker is to produce pleasure,” and he meant it. Not for him the conventional wisdom and advanced vineyard management techniques taught at schools like the University of California, Davis; winemaking, he insisted, was an idiosyncratic craft, more like cooking or painting than farming or manufacturing.
“Does anyone ever so much as suggest that anything else in gastronomy is a matter of crunched numbers, real figures, hard data and all the rest of it? of course not,” he said in a 1992 interview with Freedom of the Press, a newsletter about wine. “Art is about unreproducible results.”
He was especially opinionated about attempts to categorize and elevate vineyards over winemaking — that is to say, growing grapes over making wine. He called terroir, or the idea that wine expresses the soil and climate in which its grapes grew, a “self-serving piety” and even “viticultural racism,” and he considered appellations, legally defined areas of wine production, to be a “gerrymandered marketing gimmick.”
For guidance he instead turned to classical texts like “Work and Days,” a collection of instructions by the Greek poet Hesiod to his younger brother about running his estate. Hesiod recommended letting newly picked grapes rest in the shade for up to three days, and Mr. Thackrey followed suit — even though most enologists would shrink at the risk of bacterial infection.
Over time those texts accumulated at Mr. Thackrey’s Bolinas home, eventually numbering about 740 and ranging from a sixth century A.D. receipt for vines, written on papyrus, to “The American Vine-Dresser’s Guide,” published in 1826. He sold the collection in April for $2 million.
Mr. Thackrey was admired almost as much for his nonchalant elegance as he was for his winemaking prowess.
Quick with his wit and able to sling quotations from classical poets and existentialist philosophers with ease, he wore his cult status with lighthearted humor — literally: Many days he could be found working in denim bib overalls with the words “Famous Winemaker” sewn into the chest in gold letters. In 2017 Esquire featured him in an article titled “A Century of Style.”
Though he eschewed the wine world’s obsession with varietals, Mr. Thackrey knew his way around a grape, and he was particularly taken with those dominant in France’s Rhone region, like syrah. But unlike other California winemakers in the 1980s who tried to replicate the region’s complex wines — a loose alliance known as the Rhone Rangers — Mr. Thackrey used them simply as an interesting base material to make something sui generis.
“My wines are like a person,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. “They talk, they change, they tell you something different every sip. They taste different from one day to the next, from one hour to the next. That kind of complexity is what makes wine interesting.”
Sean Haley Thackrey was born on July 9, 1942, in Los Angeles. His father, Eugene Thackrey, was a journalist and playwright, and his mother, Winfrid Kay (Knudsen) Thackrey, was a script supervisor, among the few women to hold that job at the time. When she was 101, her son helped her write an autobiography, “Member of the Crew” (2001).
Sean’s easygoing good looks came early: In junior high school he came in second in the city in a competition, sponsored by a local dentist, to find the best smile in Los Angeles.
He studied art history at Reed College, in Oregon, and at the University of Vienna, but he did not graduate from either school. Instead he moved to San Francisco in 1962 to work for an academic book publisher.
Eight years later he opened his gallery with his wife, Susan Thackrey, and a friend, Sally Robertson. They specialized in 19th-century photography at a time when the field was just beginning to be taken seriously by museums and collectors, and soon they were working with the world’s leading art institutions.
He and Ms. Thackrey separated but remained in a relationship. She is his only immediate survivor.
Mr. Thackrey lived off and on in Bolinas before settling there permanently. In time his home, set back from the ocean, became a yogi’s mountaintop for artists, celebrities and passionate wine fans eager to commune with the master. Unless he was hard at work, Mr. Thackrey would always invite them in for a drink.
“All I know how to do is to make wines I like myself and then try to find people out there who agree,” he told the podcast Barfly, in an interview recorded in 2018 but released after his death. “And if we agree, then it’s really simple.”
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