A Tribute to Sean Thackrey, A California Wine Legend | Wine Enthusiast
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A Tribute to Sean Thackrey, A California Wine Legend

On May 30, 2022, winemaker Sean Thackrey died of heart failure. He was 79 years old.

I hadn’t been in touch with Thackrey since he was kind enough to be on a winemaker panel I moderated in 2017. But on April 26, 2022, an email came across from him asking if I would like to try his Pleiades XXVII Old Vine Red Blend.

“Hard to believe, but we’re at almost 40 vintages now,” he wrote just two months back. “Over those decades we’ve never been prone to following what might be considered normal methods in either winemaking or how to market our wines… we release our wines via what we call a ‘catalog of reliable pleasures. Somewhat sporadically but never without intention, we offer wines from the library in addition to ‘current’ releases.”

He offered and I accepted the chance to taste additional wines, including a multi-vintage, multi-varietal blend that didn’t fit into a traditional review calendar. Naturally, I responded yes, please. 

I now must join the entire wine community in mourning the loss of this most important California wine pioneer.

Sean Halley Thackrey was born in July 1942 and lived much of his life in Bolinas, on the coast of Marin County. A cancer survivor, his passing still was a surprise. Artist, scholar, winemaker, collector, friend and inspiration, he was, above all, a rule-breaker. 

Inspired by ancient texts he was oft quoted as saying, “my only purpose in the entire universe as a winemaker is to produce pleasure.” And he did, for 40 years.

Thackrey’s background in art history and philosophy informed his experimental approach to winemaking. He began making Pleiades Old Vines in 1981, a wine that was forever non-vintage, blended from grapes like Sangiovese, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre, among others. In 1991 he added Orion, a heritage field blend from one site in St. Helena planted in 1905, a native California wine whose individuality he used to say he worked hard to reveal, rather than tame.

The Pleiades XXVII was made with his protégé of 10 years, Dustin Durfee, one of many winemakers to consider Thackrey a winemaking hero. Durfee is among a group of friends and followers who will continue his legacy as Pleiades Wine Company. They include Richard Shell, Durfee, Kenneth Rochford and Care Pallo, who will preserve the magic of Thackrey wines and his legacy of bringing pleasure to tables everywhere.

Back in 2017, our wine panel focused on California blends, and among the other panelists with Thackrey was Dave Phinney of Orin Swift, another winemaker who makes his own rules and credits Thackrey with helping to set the table for experimentation.

The occasion had given me a reason to visit Thackrey at his home in Bolinas prior. It might be the most intimidating and yet relaxed and welcoming day in my wine writing life. 

Being in Thackrey’s orbit in any way meant you might be graced by his divine writings about wine, the universe and more. Somewhere along the way he sent me “Some notes on the Cassiopeia Project, with many details and a rant, unfortunately all too predictable, as to the question whether wine is or is not made in the vineyard.”

Five pages long, written in 2012, it contained classic Thackrey thinking about the role of clones, vines and the resulting wine within perfectly put together paragraphs like this:

“Not too surprisingly in present context, the relevant micro of this macrocosmic thought is the experience of wine, which seems to me to enclose with each wine a universe of moving parts and aspects about most of which we know next to nothing…”

I think Sean Thackrey knew a lot.