Sean Thackery, creator of quirky California wines, dies at 79

Sean Thackery, a self-taught polymath who, between collecting antique books, running an art gallery in San Francisco and learning five languages, has developed a cult following as one of the most eccentric winemakers of California, died May 31 in Walnut Creek, California. He was 79.

His ex-wife and longtime partner, Susan Thackery, said the death, in a hospital, was due to cancer.

Mr. Thahackrey did not want to go into winemaking. The son of two Hollywood veterans, he had no background in viticulture – or agriculture, for that matter – when he settled in 1973 in Bolinas, a bohemian town isolated on the Pacific Ocean, in the south -western Marin County.

Bolinas is only 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 billboards. signage giving directions from Highway 1. Mr. Thackrey, who had steeped in the West Coast counterculture at Reed College, fit in perfectly.

He began to improve the property, including adding vines to a fence. On a lark he made wine from it, liked it and decided to try it again. He bought grapes from the famed 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.

Although he made a tiny amount, and never more than a few thousand cases a year, his wine was an instant hit among wine connoisseurs in the Bay Area. He quickly moved on from cabernet, working with then-obscure varietals, like merlot and syrah, or no varietals at all, mixing grapes and vintages to achieve the taste he loved.

By the time he left his San Francisco art gallery to make wine full-time in 1995, he had developed a global following, with nearly half of his wines going to Europe and Japan. Enthusiasts fell in love with his muscular, expressive releases — often labeled “editions,” not “vintages,” because he might cancel an annual release if it didn’t live up to his expectations — and named them for the constellations: Orion, Pleiades, Andromeda.

Even at the peak of his popularity, Mr. Thackery kept his business small, even domestic. He never owned a vineyard, made a lot of his wine in his garden and only employed a few assistants – all the better, he insisted, to allow him to focus on his craft.

“Sean was part of that cohort of winemakers from an older generation who I would say really pushed the intellectual boundaries of where California wine could go,” said Jon Bonné, author of “The New California Wine” (2013), in a telephone interview. .

Mr. Thackery was not interested in trends, either setting them or following them. He liked to say, “My only purpose in the whole 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, closer to cooking or painting than farming or manufacturing.

“Has anyone ever suggested that anything else in gastronomy is about crushed numbers, real numbers, hard data and all the rest? Of course not,” he said. he said in a 1992 interview with Freedom of press, a wine newsletter. “Art is non-reproducible results.”

He had a particular opinion on attempts to categorize and elevate vineyards above winemaking – that is, the growing of grapes rather than the making of wine. He called terroir, the idea that wine expresses the soil and climate in which its grapes grew, “selfish piety” and even “vineyard racism”, and he considered appellations, the legally defined areas of production of wine, like a “gerrymandered”. marketing gimmick.

For guidance, he instead turned to classic texts like “The Work and the Days”, a collection of instructions from the Greek poet Hesiod to his younger brother on the management of his estate. Hesiod recommended letting newly picked grapes sit in the shade for up to three days, and Mr Thackrey followed suit – even though most winemakers would shrink at the risk of bacterial infection.

Over time, these texts accumulated at Mr. Thackrey’s home in Bolinas, numbering about 740 and ranging from a sixth-century AD receipt for the vines, written on papyrus, to “The American Vine- Dresser’s Guide”, published in 1826. It sold the collection in April for $2 million.

Mr. Thackery was admired almost as much for his casual elegance as for his winemaking prowess.

Quick-witted and able to toss off quotes from classic poets and existentialist philosophers with ease, he carried his cult status with light-hearted humor – literally: on many days he could be found working in denim overalls with the words “Famous Winemaker” sewn into the chest in gold lettering. In 2017, Esquire magazine featured him in an article titled “A century of style.”

Although he avoided the wine world’s obsession with varietal wines, Mr. Thackrey knew his way around a grape variety, and he was particularly enamored with those that dominate in France’s Rhône region, such as the shyrah. But unlike other California winemakers in the 1980s who tried to replicate the region’s complex wines – a loose alliance known as Rhone Rangers “Mr. Thackery just used it as an interesting source material to do 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 with every sip. They taste different from day to day, hour to hour. It’s this kind of complexity that makes the wine interesting.

Sean Haley Thackery was born on July 9, 1942 in Los Angeles. Her father, Eugene Thackrey, was a journalist and playwright, and her mother, Winfrid Kay (Knudsen) Thackrey, was a screenplay supervisor, among the few women to hold that position at the time. When she was 101, her son helped her write an autobiography, “Member of the Crew” (2001).

Sean’s laid-back good looks were apparent early on: in college, he came second in the city in a contest, sponsored by a local dentist, to find the best smile in Los Angeles.

He studied art history at Reed College, Portand, Oregon, and the University of Vienna, but did not graduate from either school. Instead, he moved to San Francisco in 1962 to work for a college book publisher.

Eight years later, he opened his gallery with his then wife, Mrs. 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 worked with the world’s leading art institutions.

He and Mrs. Thahackrey separated but remained a couple. She is his only immediate survivor.

Mr. Thackery lived from time to time in Bolinas before settling there permanently. Over time, his home, set back from the ocean, became a yogi’s peak for artists, celebrities and avid wine lovers eager to commune with the master. Unless he was working hard, Mr. Thackery always invited them over for a drink.

“All I know how to do is make wines that I like and then try to find people who agree.” he told the Barfly podcast, in an interview recorded in 2018 but aired after his death. “And if we agree, then it’s really simple.”

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