An Afternoon with Sean Thackrey

After a brief discussion of critics and scoring. . . 

c ­ "That raises an interesting subject - the question of typicity..."

ST ­ "Oh, God!"

c ­ " wine. Am I turning you loose here??"

ST ­ "Well, you are. The whole theory of terroir is a hard one for a winemaker. But anyway, you were going to ask a question."

c ­ "No, no, go right ahead."

ST ­ "Well, the problem is..."

c ­ "The 'T' word?"

ST ­ "That's right, and it isn't even that I don't like it. That's what makes it complex to discuss. It's very true that fruit grown in different places tastes different. Of course it does; it's so obvious that nobody questions it. In fact, it's a banality, so, why, exactly, all this excess insistence? Personally, I think vineyard differences are astonishing, and can be taken down to the differences between one vine and the next, and then to the one side of each vine compared to the other; but it is a perfect example of how something that actually is fascinating gets warped by the propaganda of avarice. I mean, "terroir" is essentially is how upper-end wine is now sold, with all these minutely subdivided appellations with their idiotic attempts to attribute the quality of finished bottles of wine to the real estate the grapes come from. I mean, give me a ******* break!!!

Particularly because nobody ever seems to want to talk about the most obvious fact here, which is, that agricultural property is only valued in one way, and that is according to the value of what it produces. The value of vineyard land is determined ultimately by the value of the wine produced from its grapes. If what is thought to determine the greatness of the wines of Château La Bêtise is not the brilliant wine-making of Henri, nor the inspired viticulture of Jacques, but the real estate itself, suddenly, what determines the value of Château La Bêtise as property is what its owners actually own, namely, real estate. Even if the owners are in fact Jacques and Henri themselves, this is an intensely desirable and bankable proposition, because their property can then be sold, transferred, and inherited with the full value of the wine produced from its grapes attributed to the property itself, without Jacques or Henri needing to be there at all; and if they're selling it, they don't want to have to be there. If this is true for winemaking families in traditional peasant communities, one need hardly mention how true it is for venture capitalists, real estate trusts, limited partnerships, and multinational corporations. And so on down through the long line of "prestige" wine sellers to "prestige" wine lists to trophy-oriented wine buyers and collectors. In short, billions of dollars depend on acceptance of the concept of terroir, whose most important mineral component is therefore a very large grain of salt.

Beyond this primordial economic truth, which, curiously, I repeat, no one ever seems to mention when discussing terroir, as though it's all nature poetry, subtle comprehensions of natural relationship far beyond the capability of the Unbeliever, there is an endless labyrinth of other Large Issues; sympathetic fallacy, patriotic identity, blood & soil, which I'm not about to try to discuss in a minute or two. But I think it's fair to say that translating "terroir" as "turf" would give most Americans the essential orientation, as well as an insight into the passion involved, which goes far beyond even avarice. This isn't just wine; this isn't even anything in the bottle. This is What We Are, particularly if what we are, is Republicans.

So if my point is anti-Republican, which certainly it is, it certainly isn't anti-French; Roger Dion himself, incontestably the greatest French historian of wine, wondered consistently throughout his writings why the French preferred to agree that the qualities of their wines were the effect of natural privilege, or as he said, "of a particular grace accorded to the soil of France, as though our country would derive greater honor by receiving from Heaven, rather than from the painstaking labors of man, this fame for the wines of France," and he was far more tactful than I am about the economics involved. Personally. I believe that the quality of French wine is due to a French genius for viticulture and winemaking, just as I believe the quality of French cuisine is due to a French genius for gastronomy, not to the subsoil of their lettuce patches.

Or again, do you seriously go into a cabinetmaker's shop, and attribute the value of the cabinets to the subsoil of the forest where the trees were grown?? It's so ridiculously blatant, especially if you coincidentally just happen to own the forest. And yet, in wine, you get all this posing, as though no one notices the pose: "Oh no, we're just simple servants of the soil, we're just trying to let the terroir reveal itself." You get all of this, sort of, self-serving piety. After a while it gets pretty thick, in my opinion.

My point is that any area will have distinct, that there will be some sort of geographic thread that runs through the grapes from almost any region. For example, one year in Lodi we harvested some things I was going to use for Pleiades, some Grenache, some Carignane, some "Petite Sirah", and Zinfandel, anyway, four different varieties, from two different vineyards, ten miles from each other. And the resemblance between all of the wines that resulted was startling. I mean startling. That year they all had this really pretty sort of peach-pit quality; other varietal riffs on top of that, of course, but all of them just like fresh peaches, but with a little tannic thing to it, just lovely. Talk about the "typicity" of the Lodi Appellation! Scenic, historic Lodi, and real terroir!! The point is, fine, terroir; now, do something with it. Nice piece of salmon; so, cook. Lodi, Rutherford Bench, Romanée-Conti. Grapes are made in the vineyard. Wine isn't.

That's where the whole question of terroir and typicity gets interesting, because in the French system, it's all based on the idea, in fact, it's only motive is to promote the idea, that there's not just a difference (how can you make money on that?) but a rigid qualitative hierarchy, a sort of viticultural racism, based solely on fruit and determined solely by geology, which is meant to be universally accepted and should be rigidly enforced. There's a Grand Cru, and then there's a Premier Cru, and they shouldn't ever be confused with each other, and that's because everybody agrees about what the best is, and then everybody agrees about what's just a hair off what the best is, and then they agree about what's just a little bit "lower" than that is, and it's immutable because it's geological, and that's how the whole system works. The "Garagistes" in Bordeaux are only the latest proof of how little all this actually has to do with connoisseurship, as opposed to power, prestige, and self-aggrandizement, if anyone needs any more proof. And you can see why people would rather call me, or anyone else, eccentric than actually deal with these questions: billions of dollars depend on not asking them."

c ­ "I'd like to get back to something you said earlier."

ST ­ "Sure."

c ­ "There is no word in the French language for winemaker."

ST ­ "That's right. Not in Italian or Spanish either. A dozen words for farmer, no word for chef."

c ­ "I'm curious how you consider winemaking ­ do you think it is art? Do you think it is craft? Do you think it is alchemy?"

ST ­ "Really, all of the above. I really do think you can at least start to understand or discuss almost anything to do with winemaking simply by looking first at the rest of gastronomy; meaning, I consider that a winemaker occupies exactly the same position in the chain of producing a bottle of wine that a chef occupies in the chain of producing a meal."

c ­ "So, wine is food?"

ST ­ "Well, food can be art. It can be alchemy. It certainly has all of those characteristics to it. Where some of the differences do come in between food and wine, the position of the winemaker in relation to the process is still the same as that of the chef, but the two processes themselves do differ in some serious respects, and evolution over time is certainly one of them,­ that's where the alchemy part of it gets to be particularly mysterious. It is so complex, and it is so mysterious; what happens to it as it evolves over time is just an unending source of wonder."

We took a break from our questions and answers, and strolled outside to taste a few things from barrel. I did not take any notes; it somehow felt inappropriate. I sampled components from the '99 and '00 Orion, and all were clean, intense, and beautifully focused. Sean is also dabbling in other varietals, and his experiments with Sangiovese were quite promising.

I suppose I could tell you more about Sean Thackrey, but his wines will tell you more about him than I ever could. Orion is clearly a world class wine, and uniquely American.

In today's world of corporate wineries and manufactured wines, a visit with Sean is indescribably refreshing.

Left Coast Correspondent to the Gang of Pour

Sean Thackrey
Post Office Box 58
Bolinas, California 94924
Telephone: (415) 868-1781
Fax: (415) 868-9290


Page 1: Sean Thackrey Intro

Page 2: Thackrey Interview

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


© Allan Bree July 2001

Thackrey Intro

Thackrey Interview

On the Rossi Vineyard & DNA coding of vines


Left Coast Correspondent 


Tasting Notes from 
the Northern Ridge

Further Tasting Notes from the Ridge

Up the Coast
Domaine Serene, 
Domaine Drouhin
and Archery Summit

Syren Vineyards

More Tasting Notes from the Ridge

Jancis Robinson

Pax Mahle

Sean Thackrey

Robert Biale Vineyards

Havens Wine Cellars


Scott Paul Wines

Landmark Vineyards

Dashe Cellars

Tasting a Legacy
Wines of Stag's Leap

TN's From The Ridge & Beyond
Paul Draper and Monte Bello



"T" is for...
califusa ventures where the stags leap


A Day in the Dust

Premiere Napa Valley ®

Family Winemakers 02, 01, 98


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