An Afternoon with Sean Thackrey

On the Rossi Vineyard, and DNA coding of vines:

c – "What do you think is there?"

Sean ThackreyST ­ "I have to get a little longwinded here, but it won’t take that long. It wasn’t until nearly the end of the 19th century that anybody, to my knowledge, ever suggested that the black grape planted at Côte-Rôtie was the same as the black grapevine at Hermitage. In fact, they were explicitly declared to be entirely different grapes from entirely different families ­ until, all at once, at the end of the 19th Century French ampelographers suddenly agreed that "Oh no, it’s all Syrah, it’s all the same thing."

Now, I have a hard time with that one because you have all of these very precise descriptions earlier than that of a different leaf shape, of a different cluster, of a different berry; one was supposed to be oblong, the other was supposed to be round; in other words, of completely different grapes. And all of a sudden, they're supposed to be the same thing. Odart certainly didn't think so, for example; and not only was he an ampelographer, he invented the word "ampelography" to begin with.

I’m just kind of wondering how much the picture of old varieties has been simplified. We now have something called "Syrah" and with DNA coding you can certainly figure out if what you have in front of you as "Sample A" corresponds with this control - "Syrah" - that you’ve got on the other side. Well, what if there’s a problem with the control? What if the whole picture with Syrah is actually a little bit more complicated? . What was planted at Côte-Rôtie certainly was never called "Syrah" ­ it was called "Sérine," and "Serine" was a grape planted in California by the 1870s at the latest, since Hilgard called it by that name and used it in his experiments, which are published and well known. It was probably part of a movement to plant ritzy varietals in California, very much like Napa was ten or fifteen years ago. You know, nothing but the best, you sent people over to Europe to bring back Chateau Latour if you wanted Cabernet, Romanée Conti if you wanted Pinot Noir. And that's exactly what they did at Hermitage as well. They brought back what was considered to be the great clone for planting on any of the favored sites on the hill at Hermitage, and that clone was called, as it still is, "Petite Syrah". That’s the origin of "Petite Sirah" as a name in California. It was originally real Syrah from Hermitage and from a particularly good clone of Syrah and was sold and planted as such. The hard part to pin down is how the name came gradually to be applied (as it now is) as a grab-bag for virtually any otherwise unidentified black grape in any old vineyard. It’s just incredible, the amount of stuff that's called Petite Sirah. I’ve harvested at least four different varieties myself that were called (and still are by the people who own the vineyards) "Petite Sirah", and in fact bear no relation to each other.

So first we have "Petite Syrah" as real Syrah from Hermitage, then we have "Sérine" from Côte-Rôtie, and we have both of them in California by the 1870's. Then we have the mess that "Petite Sirah" has become, with Durif, Peloursin, and whatever else thrown in; then we have Syrah reintroduced in the 1970's in its magically purified and unified new incarnation. And no, I'm not at all satisfied that this has been sorted out.

Anyway, and I guess I have gotten longwinded about it, my feeling is that some of this older Rhône weirdness is what may be in the Rossi Vineyard. I may be quite wrong, as I need hardly say, but that's my thought. Because the fruit in that vineyard simply has a personality all its own. Aside from a different flavor and a different aromatic, It’s a different cluster. It's related to Syrah, but it’s a different cluster, much smaller than classical Syrah, and with very much smaller berries, not at all tightly packed. So it doesn’t look at all like what is called Petite Sirah in Napa now, which is a much harder, tighter cluster of larger berries, very densely packed. And for years I made a wine called Sirius from "Petite Sirah" from even older vines from a vineyard not all that far from Rossi, and it bore no resemblance to the Rossi fruit. On the other hand, I walked the vineyard not long ago with Carole Meredith from UC Davis, who is probably the leading authority in the world on the genetic identification of grapevines, and Jean-Michel Boursiquot, who is possibly the reigning authority on the identification of French grapevines, and it looked like "Petite Sirah" to them. So why should I argue? Well, because it doesn't look like Petite Sirah to me. I'm sorry; I can't help it; it doesn't. And if it doesn't look like a duck, or walk like a duck, or quack like a duck, well..."

c – "What was it that drew you to that particular varietal?"

ST ­ Really nothing but curiosity. It wasn’t a matter of having been some devoted Rhône fanatic for years. I never, ever come at any of this from anything like that angle. It’s been hard to explain to people, but it’s true.

You know, what it says on the Orion label is "Native California Red Wine". On the back it says "most of which I believe to be Syrah", only because I haven't changed the label in ten years. But this year I'm changing that to read "three vines of which I believe to be Syrah", since Jean-Michel found three of them, along with 8 other varietals in various numbers.

c – "So you are not in any way trying to emulate…"

ST ­ "Absolutely not in the slightest; I’ve said that a million times, but it's hard to get it across. Actually, while they were organizing the whole Rhône Rangers deal I showed up at a couple of the early meetings just to express a contrary viewpoint. I like all these guys, don’t get me wrong; it’s not a hostility thing in any way, I completely like them, but I just said "You know, I really don’t think it’s a great idea starting out by saying that what you’re trying to do is to imitate something that you yourself think is being done better six thousand miles away, and then calling that imitation "authentic". I mean, this is unclear on the concept on so many different levels. I don’t know where to start. Randall (Graham) was great, as usual ­ he immediately piped up and said: "In other words you mean it’s kind of like a 'Coat-tails du Rhône". (laughter) I said ‘perfect!’"

c – "That’s a Randallism."

ST ­ "Isn’t it? I even said, ‘Randall, that's perfect. That's exactly what I was trying to say.’ So, no. I just happen to think that, I mean, to me, I'm kind of radically oriented in a different direction from that kind of enological correctness.  You know, "By golly, I sure don't use new oak because Marius Gentaz-Dervieux didn't use new oak because it violates the subtlety of the terroir and the typicité of the appellation" and, well, all the rest of the riff. What crap. It's like saying that Provençal cooking would be so much better if they didn't ruin the typicité of the raw materials by all that garlic and olive oil. I mean, all I want to do is to work with what's actually out in the field and do the best I can with it. All I want to do is get some of the fruit in my hands, and sniff it and smell it, and taste it and make some wine from it, and then see where that goes. I try to explain this as just being winemaking from the inside out, and that’s really what it is. I just radically believe in taking fruit on it’s own, and starting from that and then going on from there."

c – "And making something you like to drink?"

ST ­ "Absolutely. If you can't do even that, you're not a winemaker at all. I just make wine I like to drink, and try to sell it to people who agree."

Page 1: Sean Thackrey Introduction

Page 2: Thackrey Interview

Page 4: On the topics of typicity and terroir


© Allan Bree July 2001

Thackrey Intro

Thackrey Interview

On the topics of typicity and terroir



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