California's artisan vignerons

I'm publishing this article having been inspired by some current tasting notes on Sean Thackrey's wines in purple pages. It originally appeared in the Financial Times in July 1998, in those innocent days when the World Trade Center and its exceptional Windows on the World restaurant were in their different ways highlights of the Manhattan landscape. The hippie wine operation referred to at the end of the article by the way is Wing Canyon on Mount Veeder, available for a song from the Oakville Grocery Store, or at least it was when I was last in there.

Andrea Immer, the extremely bright young sommelier at New York's Windows on the World restaurant, looked around the Napa Valley from the lunch table we shared overlooking it. 'It's going to be so difficult to tear myself away from this wilderness,' she sighed.

Now I have heard California's most famous, most lavishly groomed wine region described as many things, but wilderness is far from the first word that springs to mind for this playground of the rich and thirsty – unless, I suppose, you spend your life on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center as Andrea does.

In fact northern California's wine country is so smart, so coveted, and so artfully tarted up, that only those with a fortune to spare can afford to buy into it nowadays. Of all the wine regions of the world, it is the only one so sophisticated that preserving the bucolic charms of farming country is a conscious but perennial struggle.

This used to be a valley of orchards and simple homesteads. It was not that long ago that it was possible to turn left off Highway 29 in August. Not that long ago that it was quite difficult to find a decent meal in Napa, let alone Sonoma. And it was only seven years ago that Arthur Schmidt's property was sold. Arthur would have known the old prune orchards.

Arthur was born in a small clapboard house just behind Mustards Grill (smoked salmon with white corn and chili pancake, Mongolian pork chop, crispy onion rings, great margaritas). He lived there, in the middle of the family vineyard, all his life. By the time Sean Thackrey first offered to buy his grapes, in 1986, he was already so old that Thackrey was worried about his insistence on helping with the harvest.

'He had some great old real Syrah vines, just what I wanted, interplanted between a strange mixture of Chenin Blanc and Petite Sirah that he used to sell to Charles Krug for their bulk red and white. We had to tie a ribbon on each Syrah vine so we knew what to pick. I bought two tons. It was all I could afford. The next year I bought a bit more. Every year I had to go and persuade him to accept a higher price for his grapes.

'All he had was a single light bulb, an iron bedstead and a table. And there he was, surrounded by all that yuppie trash.' Thackrey is no fan of the Napa Valley today. 'Wine equals real estate there. It's all I can do to drive through. I just go to get grapes.

'Once when I went to visit Art, his cousin was there. I asked Arthur how far he'd ever travelled. 'Oh, quite a bit', he said. 'North to Ukiah, west to Santa Rosa, east to Sacramento, south to San Francisco'. As I left, his cousin took me aside. "Don't believe that business about San Francisco," he said. "He was just in hospital there once".'

Sean Thackrey's famous whinny comes into play here, as he tells me about the man who indirectly, through the quality of his grape growing, propelled him into the fickle limelight of the Californian wine scene.

'Arthur's grapes suited my winemaking style perfectly. And that was the problem'. His wine caused such a stir that the latent quality of Arthur's vineyard became common knowledge. The 1991 was to be the last vintage they shared. The Schmidt property was put on the market by Jean Phillips, a local real estate agent who farmed vines in her spare time. (A year later she would bottle some wine under her own label, Screaming Eagle.) Arthur died soon after the family smallholding was sold to Clark Swanson, a banker who had decided to invest in the Napa Valley the money he had inherited from his family's TV dinner business.

Thackrey is of an intermediate generation. A youthful-looking 55-year-old, he is no plutocrat. He was an art dealer and has applied the same confidence in his own taste to making wine in the most extraordinary way I have ever seen. He owns not a single vine, except for two rather straggly, abandoned specimens in the backyard of his cabin in Bolinas, an artists' colony on the coast of Marin county, 90 minutes' drive from Napa, that is so insistent on its privacy that road signs are systematically uprooted.

He simply buys seriously interesting grapes, brings them back to Bolinas in a rackety old truck, and proceeds to turn them into wine in the open air (or possibly shaded by a tarp, or some handsome old Monterey pines) guided initially only by the ancient oenological texts he collects.

The 'I've just bought a nice Pliny from Quaritch' that he greeted me with would have seemed the height of pretension on anyone else's lips. As would his immediate segue into Roland Barthes' pensées on facial cleansers. But Thackrey is simply a charming and erudite eccentric – and there are not many of them in Napa. Especially not ones who believe taste and not science is what winemaking is all about.

'I helped out a friend not long ago, very much a techno winemaker. We'd been pressing for two days when it occurred to me that there was something odd. We hadn't tasted a single drop. If chefs were trained the way winemakers were trained, you'd never eat out,' he assured me.

He makes up his wines, basically two dense and briary blends, Orion and the very slightly less opaque Pleiades, exactly as a chef would create a sauce. A little bit of this, and one barrel of that... In old sheds with sagging roofs he still has barrels sitting there in the Pacific breeze from many years ago. 'I'm almost out of the 1991 Taurus, but it was lovely for blending. I never throw anything away until I'm absolutely sure I'm not going to use it.'

Thackrey was not the only oddball I met last May. I met another paysan-vigneron, a Mr Hippie, who actually owns and lives on some vineyard in the Napa Valley itself, having managed to buy some bare land just before prices and restrictions soared. He makes great wine too. 'But you haven't been written up by the American wine critics yet, have you?' I asked, puzzled. He knocked his gnarled knuckles on the tasting table. 'So far, so good,' he grinned. I would not dream of blowing Mr Hippie's cover, except to say that keen FT readers have already been given the chance to buy his wine.

Orion 1994, which will probably be ready to drink in about 2024, is £29.99 at Oddbins Fine Wine.