Sean Thackrey – Cult wines
When harvest day arrives, almost every winemaker in the modern world labors from before dawn until well after dark, rushing to crush the freshly picked grapes as soon as possible in sterile, climate- controlled conditions. Not Sean Thackrey. At his Bolinas home and winery, Thackrey goes medieval. After the grapes are picked, he lets them sit and "rest" at least 24 hours outside his home, a technique that one UC Davis professor says nobody else does today. Thackrey says the idea goes back at least to the Greek poet Hesiod's poem "Works and Days" (circa 700 B.C.). "Letting the grapes rest is commonplace in wine literature until the middle of the 19th century," Thackrey says. "That's what impressed me about it. It's a lot of work to do this, so they must have thought that allowing the grapes to mellow and mature after picking was accomplishing some sort of useful purpose, as is the case with so many other fruits; that's why I tried it; and I completely agreed."
He does not have a degree in enology: "Enology is the scientific study of wine, and is a perfectly valid and useful technical tool in its own right; but it isn't winemaking any more than 'food science' is cooking. To pretend to train a winemaker by a degree in what is, essentially, beverage processing technology, makes no more sense than the pretense that a degree in food processing technology is the proper preparation for a chef. After all, the only reason you're there is to create a pleasure. If chefs were trained the way wine-makers are, you'd rarely eat out."
Nonetheless, his wines are among the most sought-after in California because of their bold, complex flavors and their intriguing tendency to change dramatically in the glass; Robert Parker, the world's most influential wine critic, has been reviewing his prtoduction for more than 28 years, and has never rated a vintaged wine of his at less than 90 points.
What he does rely on is intuition, long experience as both a wine-maker and an art dealer, his own palate, and tips (as above) gleaned from his collection of ancient texts on winemaking, which is one of the largest in private hands.
Thackrey does use a machine to crush the grapes, but he pours the resulting pomace into open-top vats to ferment beneath the stars and eucalyptus trees -- a technique that fell out of fashion before the advent of locomotives. "I live downwind from Sean and every year in August and September I smell the fermenting grapes. The bees come buzzing around. It feels like being a part of an ancient Mediterranean civilization," says Steve Ratcliffe, a professor of English at Mills College who washes empty grape buckets for Thackrey when needed.
Unlike most wines in the world, Thackrey believes his often taste better the day after they are opened. "Most of my wines are intended to age," he says. "I try to give them a very good, firm base of tannin. But when the wine's young, if you don't give the it a chance to absorb oxygen, it won't release its flavors. That's why you decant a young wine."
Thackrey seems unpressured by commerce; currently, 2,000 cases of his wine sit in storage without labels because the company that used to print them went out of business. He seems in no hurry to find a replacement. But when Thackrey does put labels on the bottles, those wines will be quickly allocated to a dedicated following.