Sean Thackrey Interview (Part I)

Sean Thackrey
Sean Thackrey is a thinker, and a winemaker who doesn’t care what others say. And we all benefit from it through his beautiful wine.
MP: How do you think about the Asian wine market?

ST: It’s a market I’m very interested in, but I know nothing about it. It seems to be quite chaotic at this point. So I don’t know what to say about it.

MP: Are you familiar with Asian palate?

ST: Oh absolutely! How could you not be and live in San Francisco!

My knowledge of China is based on my interest in Chinese history or Chinese poetry or art and so on, but not what’s actually happening right now. But how could you know if you weren’t there? I think it would be hard enough if you were there.

MP: Looking back, what are the top three lessons you’ve learned?

ST: Good God! Have I learned anything yet? I keep trying. Well one thing, it’s pretty hard to make a lot of money in the wine business if you don’t start with a lot of money. There’s an old saying in California: the best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start out with a big one.

I started out doing, just because that’s the only way I could. It’s exactly the way I would recommend anybody else starting out. It’s worth paying attention to what you yourself really think is delicious, what really satisfies you personally, and making that the basis of your winemaking decisions. That was also a nice lesson for me.

MP: Looking ahead, how do you imagine your industry evolving?

ST: I think it’s probably going to be chaos until the end of time. There’s so many different people involved and there’s so many different things. The problem with the wine business – at least the wine industry – is that it tends to be part of the fashion industry. You notice that in New York particularly, where one year is all oxidized Italian white wines and the next year something else. I think that will continue to be the case. Over the long run, I think a winemaker needs to be consistent to what his own palate is, to never release something that doesn’t fit that.

People often ask me if I’ve got a degree in winemaking. I have to explain that there’s no such thing. I literally do not know a single institution of higher learning in the world that offers a degree in winemaking. What they offer is a degree in vinology and viticulture. That’s the science of wine and that’s fine – but can you imagine a chef getting a degree in Food Science before he could ever pick up a skillet to cook? The chef is not being asked to make scientific experiments, the chef is being asked to make pleasure. It’s the same with a winemaker. I have many good friends who’ve been trained that way. It’s very hard to get that out of their heads. They’ve got a doctrine of how you do this, it’s done by numbers, they learn this, so they write it down and keep on doing it for years. I read some of that stuff and it drives me crazy.

MP: How did you come about making wine?

ST: I started out as an art dealer in San Francisco. I bought a house in a small village. It  has a very beautiful view out from the bay, sort of wild area north of SF. You can’t see any houses, you can’t see anything besides nature.

There’s a small fence that goes along my property. I didn’t really want to make a garden between the house and the fence. But I wanted some little way to divide the area. So I thought, I’m in California, I should plant some wine grapes. Well, as long as there’s wine grapes along here, maybe it would be nice to make a little home wine. So I went to a company in Berkeley California that did a great service to provide absolutely first rate wine grapes. They’re all winemakers. And those were actually good wine grapes. I said ‘Well heck, why not?’ So I made some Cabernet Sauvignon from a vineyard called Stag’s Leap. I really loved it, I loved the process. The wine came out extremely well. I only made 75 or 100 bottles. The entire process fascinated me.

That was 1979. My first release was wine from 1981, so it all went quite rapidly. It eventually got to the point where that was just too much to be doing it at the same time as art dealer. We closed the gallery in 1995, and I’ve been exclusively a winemaker since then.

MP: How did you learn about making wine?


ST: I’m a fanatic reader. Somebody can’t tell me what to do. It’s not that I don’t believe them. It’s just that it doesn’t quite make sense to me unless I’ve done it. And it was still from actually doing it that I developed my own particular style.

Being an art dealer was an excellent background for that. You’re paid to tell them if this is a great work of art or isn’t it. You have to be comfortable with that. After awhile I felt completely comfortable as a winemaker. ‘This is good’, or ‘I don’t really like the way that tastes.’

That’s the way I was guided through the process. It was a direct transmission through the process. That’s why my wines are consistent, because I never release anything I don’t personally think is extremely satisfying. I don’t care what anybody else says. Sometimes it drives my assistants crazy. They’d say ‘What, we’re not going to release this?’ And I’d say ‘No, we’re not going to release it.’ I just don’t like it yet. And when I do release it I’m very happy about it.

Every year we have 10, 20 experiments going on. There are nobody’s preconceptions you should challenge more than your own. You do have to keep on doing that, it never stops. I know a lot of craftsmen in various fields, and they’re all learning the same way, they know a lot of things, but there’s always something new that they’re learning.

MP: What do you think of the style of wines that require aging and not enjoyable when young?

ST: Whatever it might be that somebody else does, I’m not criticizing them, but for me, the trick is to make the wine taste quite good right off the end of the bottling line. Even when it keeps on changing over time, the way a person does, they change in interesting ways. I think it’s perfectly possible to make a wine that actually tastes very good right after it’s bottled and yet 40 years later it will have developed a lot of character.

MP: How did you come about ancient way of winemaking?

ST: If you’re an art dealer you realize that there are certain areas that are like black holes in space. No energy coming out of them and nobody has seen that they’re there. I found that was the case with early books and manuscripts about winemaking. I was the only person out there collecting them.

Then of course I want to read these things, so I transcribe them, letter by letter. I was originally doing that as a book of readings that would go along with a history of winemaking, which I would also like to write, believe it or not. They’ve actually never written any history of the craft of winemaking. There are tons of books about wine, but a lot of them are done without basic reading and research. You hear more nonsense about the history of wine that is absolutely not true. And then a lot of details are simply missing, so it’s whatever current mythology that goes around the wine-growing districts.

So I came across techniques that would be interesting to try, and I have indeed done a number of things that I got from these ancient texts. – Just because nobody does it now doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.

The earliest discoveries that have been made about anything that can be called wine and winemaking were in China in about 10,000 BC. All the ancient things are interesting to think about. In the West, with wine grapes, that history itself goes back about 6000 BC at least. I say to people that wine and civilization were invented by the same people, and at about the same time. It’s very hard to know what ancient wine tasted like, but it does open your mind to a lot of possibilities for different things that different people thought were great pleasures that have just fallen out of use. The human palate hasn’t changed all that much, it’s not like we’re totally different evolutionary species at this point. So it’s very worthwhile to revive some of this and see what of it applies to modern times and modern techniques.

Sean Thackrey Interview (Part II)