Sean Thackrey, a self-taught scholar who, between collecting old books, running an art gallery in San Francisco and learning five languages, developed a cult following as one of California’s most intriguingly eccentric winemakers, died May 31 in Walnut Creek. , Calif. He was 79.
His ex-wife and longtime partner, Susan Thackrey, said the death, at a hospital, was from cancer.
Mr. Thackrey did not intend 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 town on the Pacific Ocean in southwestern 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 road signs showing the route from Highway 1. Mr Thackrey, who had steeped himself in West Coast counterculture at Reed College, fits the bill.
He began to improve the property, including adding vines to a fence. For fun, he made some wine out of 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.
Although he made a very small amount of it, and never more than a few thousand cases a year, his wine was an immediate hit with Bay Area wine connoisseurs. He soon moved away from cabernet, working with varietals that were then obscure, like merlot and syrah, or without varietals, blending grapes and vintages to get the flavor he liked.
By the time he left his San Francisco art gallery to make wine full-time in 1995, he had developed a worldwide following, with almost half of his wines going to Europe and Japan. Enthusiasts fell in love with its muscular, expressive releases, often labeled “editions” (not “vintage,” as you might cancel an annual release if it didn’t meet your expectations) and named after constellations: Orion, Pleiades, Andromeda.
Even at the height of his popularity, Thackrey kept his operation small, even domestic. He never owned a vineyard, made much of his wine in his backyard and employed only a few assistants, much the better, he insisted, to allow her to concentrate on his craft.
“Sean belonged to this cohort of winemakers from an older generation who I would say really pushed the intellectual limits of where California wine could go,” Jon Bonné, author of “The New California Wine” (2013), said in a statement. telephone interview. .
Mr. Thackrey was not interested in trends, neither setting them nor following them. He liked to say, “My sole 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 in schools like the University of California, Davis; Winemaking, he insisted, was an idiosyncratic trade, more akin to cooking or painting than farming or manufacturing.
“Does anyone ever suggest that anything else in gastronomy is a matter of numbers, actual figures, hard data and all the rest of it? of course not,” he said in a 1992 interview with Freedom of the Press, a wine newsletter. “Art is about irreproducible results.”
He was especially opinionated about attempts to categorize and elevate vineyards over winemaking, that is, growing grapes over winemaking. He called terroir, or the idea that wine expresses the soil and climate in which its grapes grew, “selfish piety” and even “viticultural racism,” and considered appellations, legally defined areas of wine production, as a “manipulated marketing gimmick”.
Instead, for guidance, he turned to classic texts such as “Work and Days,” a collection of instructions from the Greek poet Hesiod to his younger brother on how to manage his estate. Hesiod recommended letting freshly picked grapes rest in the shade for up to three days, and Thackrey did the same, though most winemakers would cringe at the risk of bacterial infection.
Over time, these texts accumulated in Mr. Thackrey’s home in Bolinas, numbering about 740 and ranging from a 6th-century AD vineyard receipt. C., written on papyrus, until the “American Vinedresser’s Guide”, published in 1826. He sold the collection in April for $2 million.
Mr. Thackrey was admired almost as much for his easygoing elegance as for his winemaking prowess.
Quick with his wit and able to spout quotes from classic poets and existentialist philosophers with ease, he flaunted his cult status with light-hearted humor, quite literally: many days he could be found working in denim overalls with the words “Famous Winemaker” stitched on them. on 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, Thackrey knew his way around a grape, and was particularly captivated by those dominant in France’s Rhône region, such as Syrah. But unlike other California winemakers in the 1980s who tried to replicate the region’s complex wines, an informal alliance known as the Rhone Rangers, Thackrey simply used them as interesting base material to make something unique.
“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. 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, one of the few women in that role at the time. When he was 101 years old, her son helped her write an autobiography, “Crew Member” (2001).
Sean’s quiet good looks came early: In high school, he came second in town 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 the University of Vienna, but 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 museums and collectors were just beginning to take the field seriously, and soon began working with the world’s leading art institutions.
He and Mrs. Thackrey separated but remained in a relationship. She is the only immediate survivor of him.
Mr. Thackrey lived in Bolinas from time to time before settling there permanently. Over time, his home, set back from the ocean, became a yogi mountaintop for artists, celebrities, and passionate wine fans eager to commune with the master. Unless he was hard at work, Mr. Thackrey always invited them in 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 published after his death. “And if we agree, then it’s really simple.”