If one had to describe maverick Californian winemaker Sean Thackrey, it would probably be a medieval man revelling in the present. For someone who has been called a genius winemaker and the “best-kept secret of the Californian wine world”, there is no time like the present, but that does not mean he dismisses the lessons he can learn from the past.
“Obviously, the past is a major influence on me,” says the former art dealer, who now makes wine through the knowledge he has gleaned from the medieval winemaking tomes that fill the shelves of his home in Bolinas, Marin County, California.
“But the past also seems very present when I think about it, so it’s very much a mystery. It depends on what your perception really is and whether it coincides with reality. I mean if you’re having a dream, it’s happening in the present yet it’s happening at a completely different time somewhere else,” he says cryptically.
Thackrey, a veritable one-man winery who produces 4,000 to 5,000 bottles a year, is best known for his flagship Syrah, Orion, which has consistently rated in the mid- to high-90s by Robert Parker. His modest winery, which he started in 1980, also produces wines such as the Pleiades, Lyra, Sirius, Andromeda and Cassiopeia.
Thackrey was a gallery owner in San Francisco for 25 years. During the latter years, he managed to acquire land in Bolinas and bought some wine grapes for his first experiment. “It was a bit like sitting in front of the piano and suddenly discovering you could play. I thought, I actually know how to do this and I’m quite good at it,” says the 66-year-old.
He sees similarities between his two chosen careers. Art, he feels, can be conveyed through an enormous passage of time even though different people see different things at different stages of time.
“It’s very true of the wine world if you make an effort to produce wines that are meant to age. A wine that I made in 1981 or 1982 is going to have changed considerably over time, and that influence of time in the actual wine itself is important, because I make wines that hopefully can be drunk with some pleasure at every point in their career but will continue evolving,” he says.
“It’s not necessarily that they’re getting better, although they often do, but they’re just like people – you can be a charming 10-year-old but you can still be pretty interesting at 70; you’re just different.”
There aren’t many home winemakers who can claim Thackrey’s level of critical and commercial success. “My only adviser is my pleasure,” Thackrey says with a chuckle. “There’s no fixed formula. I try to bring everything I have learnt over 30 years to every wine that I make, but it’s still going to be an improvisation; something that happens right at the moment in time. It’s not so much the right time or how much time it takes.”