Sean Thackrey has left the cellar

Sean Thackrey

The 'mad genius' of California wine is no more.

Known for ironically wearing a vest emblazoned with the phrase ‘famous winemaker’, the iconoclastic California winemaker Sean Thackrey passed away on 30 May following what a friend referred to as a decade-long battle with cancer.

The 79-year-old Thackrey was indeed famous in the world of California wine, but was as revered for his polymath intellect, poetic tendencies, and somewhat hermit-like existence as he was for his difficult-to-procure idiosyncratic wines.

The son of a journalist and a Hollywood script supervisor, Thackrey grew up in southern California during the late 1950s and went on to have the kind of rambling education that you might expect of a budding hippie intellectual. Spending time first at Reed College in Oregon, and then later at the University of Vienna, Thackrey was deeply interested in art and art history, yet never completed a course of study at either institution. He eventually made his way to northern California where he settled in the tiny coastal community of Bolinas, making ends meet by running a San Francisco art gallery and working as a book editor.

After planting some wine grapes in his yard primarily for aesthetic purposes, in 1979 Thackrey decided to try his hand at winemaking, relying entirely on intuition and his personal research into ancient winemaking texts. Perhaps most importantly over the course of his life, Thackrey assembled a world-class library of these books and documents (sold last month for $2 million by a New York bookseller), many of which he personally translated and transcribed, publishing them on his website for the pleasure and edification of an audience that he suggested might number only a few dozens.

Thackrey’s wines, made with regularity since 1981, were typically fermented outside behind his home in the shade of eucalyptus trees, the aromatic oils of which would invariably make their presence known in the bottle. Often featuring unconventional blends of different grape varieties from various vineyard sources, Thackrey’s wines were made in a raw, unrefined way, long before anyone in California began using terms such as ‘non-interventionist’ or ‘natural wine’. Eschewing any pretensions of communicating terroir, and dismissive of such similar wine jargon, Thackrey likened his winemaking goals and process to a chef working with great ingredients.

‘All the science in the world isn’t going to tell a chef what to do with a chicken’, wrote Thackrey on his website in explanation of his philosophy. ‘It may suggest some experiments and may explain some results, but the only result that really counts is a better-tasting chicken, and the only judge of better is the pleasure the chicken gives the palate; and the essential job description of chef (or wine-maker) is to make that judgment, right now, right here, while the pan’s still on the flame. Nothing – absolutely nothing – counts here but the palate. Everything depends on the quality of its pleasures, just as the greatness of a painting depends on the quality of the pleasures of the painter’s eye, and the greatness of a poem on the quality of the pleasures of a poet’s ear. Nothing should deceive a winemaker into thinking otherwise about what matters in wine.’

At first, Thackrey laboured in obscurity as a winemaker, but within a couple of years he had built up a local following for his wines, which he named after stars, galaxies, and constellations. National attention soon followed as American critics, in particular Robert M Parker Jr, began to award the wines high scores in the late 1980s.

By 1990 Thackrey had the unusual distinction of being perhaps the most famous California wine producer without a vineyard to his name, not to mention the only one who made wine in his backyard, out-of-doors. Thackrey may well be the original pioneer of the estate-less California wine brand, a form followed later by producers such as Edmunds St John, Siduri and, in its early years, Sine Qua Non.

If critical attention brought with it a certain amount of commercial success, that success seemed to impact neither Thackrey’s production nor his (confoundingly non-commercial) approach to the market. Content to make only a few thousand cases every year, Thackrey regularly opted to hold back wines that he thought were not ready for sale, as well as refuse to sell any wines that did not meet his standard of pleasure. The one-man nature of his operation could also lead to inconsistencies, not only from vintage to vintage as he changed vineyard sources or tinkered with blends, but also within a vintage, as on more than one occasion Thackrey forgot to add sulphur dioxide before bottling certain batches of wine.

As the California wine industry exploded around him in the 1990s, Thackrey continued to do his thing, his way, with scant concession to modernity save an e-mail newsletter to his customers, a somewhat primitive e-commerce website and a personal Facebook page.

In a rising sea of shiny new wine projects from Napa and hipster Sonoma brands over the last 20 years, Thackrey seemed more than content to leave behind his brief time in the limelight and return to some level of obscurity, albeit with a dedicated and loyal set of customers who found something they loved in his primitive winemaking and the fiery intellect behind it. Oddbins carried his wines in the UK for quite a while.

‘Sean was a true renaissance man, who left an indelible mark on others’, said his friend Jo Diaz. ‘He was certainly one of the most unique winemaking friends I’ve ever met. A true alchemist in his cellar, Sean’s greatest performances were not only his wines, but also his truly unique character – a once-in-a-lifetime person.’

‘How many ways can you say unique? How many synonyms are there for iconoclastic before you begin to repeat yourself?’ mused Adrienne Pfeiffer, who has been close with Thackrey for more than two decades. ‘He was 100% his own person, who lived on his own terms, with his own way of thinking, of living, of being. It was so inspiring to be reminded that you could free yourself from life’s constraints and live on your own terms. Life with Sean was really romantic.’

While Thackrey lived in a tiny village famous for its residents’ tendency to rip down road signs pointing to it, he was well known for welcoming almost anyone who expressed interest in what he was doing to not only visit, but to join in the work.

‘He would invite anyone who was truly interested’, recalled Pfeiffer. ‘He was so generous with his knowledge and his instincts, and whatever he reaped from his work, he would share with those around him. He really enjoyed connecting with people.’

Thackrey is survived by his long-time partner Susan Thackrey. It is unclear at this early stage (and doubtful given Thackrey’s solo operation) whether anyone will continue his legacy. According to some, Thackrey sold the rights to his highest-volume wine, Pleiades, late last year, which may mean its continued presence in the market, albeit without the animating spark behind it.

I had several occasions over the years to speak with Thackrey, always finding him volubly brilliant and insatiably curious. Each interaction reinforced the degree to which he fully and completely embraced his identity not only as a crafter of wines but as a philosopher of the medium.

His was a philosophy concerned not with place, climate or variety, but simply around the pleasure to be found in a glass. To many, especially colleagues in the industry, his approach (especially his stated disbelief in terroir) was fairly maddening, and might have resulted in more conflict were it not always delivered with such charming erudition.

For his customers (many of whom were those same exasperated colleagues who could not deny the allure of his unique wines) Thackrey was the mad genius winemaker, a virtuoso character from another era, yet one who welcomed visitors from far and wide to his messy backyard on the coast, where they could lean up against his old green truck and have a glass of something named after a part of the heavens.

Thackrey features in no fewer than 16 other articles on, including this republished 1998 profile of him.

Image of Sean Thackrey courtesy of photographer Slav Zatoka.