"Did you know there is no word in the French language for winemaker?" Sean Thackrey

An Afternoon with Sean Thackrey

Sean Thackrey might be considered a maverick, or a rebel, or an eccentric Ė but forcing him into those characterizations is too easy. It ignores what it is that makes this man unique, and his wines so special.

If you want to understand Sean Thackrey, you need to reset your reference points. This is not a Fresno degreed viticulturist, or a Davis graduated enologist.

Sean is a student of history, and is most passionate about the history of winemaking.

Perhaps his proudest possession is his collection of old and ancient texts relating to wine Ė none of which date later than the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century. I would guess there are some six hundred volumes, all neatly housed in glass-doored cabinets in a small climate controlled room in his home. Herein lies his primary source of knowledge, his vinous education, his philosophy of winemaking.

"Did you know there is no word in the French language for "winemaker?" he asked.

From there, our almost two hours of conversation ranged far and wide Ė from biblical wine references to trophy Cabernet.

c Ė " The more I learn about winemaking and the choices the winemaker makes, I find it more and more bewildering Ė the permutations are astronomicalÖ"

ST ≠ "They're literally astronomical. I donít think any mainframe would even come close. Just forget it. Youíve got so many thousands of different chemical compounds; they've hardly named them, much less have any idea how they interrelate with each other - what the influenceÖ

Well, for example, a "simple" observation. Thereís no question that the exact same wine will often taste unrecognizably different from one day to the next. Exactly the same wine, so weíre not talking about microbial processes or anything; itís just that the interface between human tasting and the wine will be quite different, thus, the wine will "taste" quite different. Taste is a verb, as in the old saying, "there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine".

One day Iíll taste the Orion ≠ itís true of anyone going around and tasting with me, itís not that this is just some problem of personal body chemistry ≠ and itíll be tasting harsh and nasty and closed and (snoring noises) ≠ the next day, gorgeous, voluptuous, rich, complex, endless, absolutely wonderful stuff. Why is that? I have no idea whatever. Atmospheric pressure? Phases of the moon? Who knows? The point is to admit the fact; the explanation comes later.

Pleiades LabelBut who wants to admit so inconvenient a fact? Does a sommelier want to have to recalibrate his or her entire wine list from one day to the next? Does a wine geek want to cancel a trophy tasting just because the wines will actually be worthless to taste on that particular day? No, no. Itís much better to go Republican about the whole thing. Hierarchy is hierarchy. These wines are wonderful, because these wines, no matter what they taste like, are the best, because we're drinking these wines, and we only drink the best, therefore, these wines are wonderful. If you try to talk about the problem, even otherwise rational people tend to say: ĎOh well, I guess, maybe itís bottle variation.í No. Weíre not talking about that at all. Thereís something about the interface between people tasting and whatís being tasted - particularly in the case of dry red wines - that can lead to fantastic changes from one day to the next. Again, for whatever reason, I've never noticed this at all in wines with residual sugar, such as Ports or Sauternes, and it's much less of an issue with whites. Even in my own wines, it's a major factor in tasting the Orion, and not much of one at all with the Pleiades."

c Ė "The technical decisions that you make Ė punched caps, submerged caps, pumpovers, cooperage, racking, fining and so forth Ė is it becoming more experiential, or is it still instinctive?"

ST ≠ "What's the difference? Instinct becomes a refinement of experience, or it's not worth much. Instinct has to learn. By which it becomes individual, specific and immediate, not general or generic. I think itís exactly like cooking; how long do you cook a piece of salmon? Well, Iíll let you know when I see the piece of salmon! A good cook is going to say that, because cooks don't cook "salmon," they cook the particular pieces of salmon that are out there right now on the prep table. You don't say, "you cook salmon 2 point 3 minutes;" it just doesnít work that way, and itís exactly the same with wine.

Sean ThackreyCooperage is a perfect example. I have a general plan, obviously, for something like the Orion. Iíve been making that wine from the same vineyard now for 11 years; and I made it for years before from a site that was close enough, so I have a lot of experience with that particular question, and I know pretty much what I want from Orion now. Even so, I never actually make the final decision about what barrels it's going into until the wine has gone through fermentation and has settled out, has cooled down completely, and is getting close to the point that Iím actually going to want to take it out of the fermenter. At that point, I can taste it well enough that I can make the final decision. It may be quite a different decision than what I thought I was going to do to begin with. I may have intended to put something, say, in half new oak, and Iíll say: "Oh, no, that doesn't work at all, terrible". Or I'll say, "Now wait a second. You know, this really needs some Vosges, thatís what this baby needs, is some Vosges." So, Iíll put a few barrels down in Vosges. Itís not an easy way to do it, because you wind up with a hell of a lot of expensive new barrels that youíre not using, since youíve gotta have spares if you want to make choices; you have to have something to choose from, after all.

God, I remember one year we wound up with thirty, thirty five brand new $650 ritzy three year aged new French barrels that I wasnít using. So, thatís what I do; I improvise. Ned, my assistant, tends to be much more organized, has little notebooks, writes things down and all that. I donít at all; Iím born to improvise.

I remember once last year, the whole crew was gathered around, waiting... I was up on top of the fermenter. The crusher-stemmer was in place, and Ned said: ĎDonít want to rush you, Sean, but, are we the hell going to be de-stemming or not?í I said: ĎIím thinking, Iím thinking.í"

c Ė "Do you do any chemical analysis?"

ST ≠ "Well, I export so much - about 40% of my production - that I have to do a VI-1 form just to be able to ship to Europe, and another series of tests for Japan. Otherwise, very little. Malolactic chromatography is great; I certainly use it to test for completion of M-L. And I do some of the usual things; I check pHs, and check sugars and so on as weíre going along, but I donít, I mean, do test panels, all the other stuff that enologists like to do. I donít hate the idea, itís just kind of nerdy and clumsy, sort of the SUV of winemaking, and doesn't matter much to what I want to accomplish. No, I donít do much of that.

I repeat, yet again, itís much like a chef. YouÖ"

c Ė "You taste along the way."

ST ≠ "Duh! What kind of chemical tests do most chefs run? ĎLetís run a panel on this tuna.í Huh? You look at the tuna, you smell the tuna, you think of what you're going to do with the tuna. Well, thatís the way I feel about winemaking. Exactly.

So, all of this technical sizzle, I donít have any problem with that, itís just a different field. Enology isnít winemaking. Itís Enology. And thatís fine. Itís a perfectly separate, perfectly valid scientific discipline. What amazes me is that people think they have been trained as winemakers once theyíve got a degree in Enology. They havenít even started. That doesnít mean they may not be good ≠ there are wonderful winemakers, great winemakers, who have degrees in Enology and came up through the Davis system, but itís not because of Enology that they are great winemakers. Itís because they actually had a talent for it quite aside from that."

c Ė "What do you enjoy drinking when youíre not drinking your own wines?"

ST ≠ "Oh, almost anything I think is good. Itís another one of those things Iíd like to talk about at some point; you know, the fact that I make intense red wines doesnít mean I donít like to drink delicate pink ones. I always like to drink things that are quite different in type from what I produce, just to rattle my cage; I love surprises. So I wind up tasting a lot of amazing things. I taste my own wines a lot, of course, to follow them. And more predictably, I have to admit I have a fondness for Amarones, probably to the surprise of no one. I try to get as much of Quintarelliís stuff as I can, for example.

Actually, I really haven't been keeping up; Iíve been so overworked the last several years, keeping my cellar up is one of those things Iíve got to get back to.

As far as what I drink, it could be anything. Basically, I wait for some friend to recommend something, and thatís what I drink.

c Ė "You are hoping to become better organized office-wise and mailing list-wise?"

ST ≠ "Are you kidding? It could hardly get much worse, so, yes, I'd like it to get better. But that's the short end of the stick, the losing side of the triage. The job description is winemaker. So I never, ever, compromise on that. Then, if I can do other things, I do them.

That pile of lumber over there was supposed to have been converted into an office last year, and actually, for once, it wasn't my fault that it didn't happen. So I hope it'll happen some time this year.

Yes, I certainly do want to get that better organized, at least so I have some idea of where I am and have some idea of what I can sell to people.

c Ė "Is there anything about you, or what you are doing that you would like a wider audience to know about?"

ST ≠ "Well, that was, after all, my main reason for putting up a website to begin with, just exactly that I wanted people to know more about the literature of wine and about the pleasures of it. So, thatís one of the things that I was doing that I felt needed a wider audience. I mean, it seemed like a shame for me to be getting so much out of all of this material myself, and to realize that hardly anyone else out there even knows that most of these books exist, much less realizes that there's anything in them genuinely worth reading.

That really was the whole purpose of my website, to get a place where I could put some things out there that I felt absolutely needed a wider audience. Thatís about it."

Page 1:  Sean Thackrey Introduction

Page 3:  On the Rossi Vineyard & DNA coding of vines

Page 4:  On the topics of typicity and terroir


© Allan Bree July 2001

Thackrey Intro

On the Rossi Vineyard & DNA coding of vines

On the topics of typicity and terroir




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