Sean Thackrey Interview (Part II)

MP: Talk about Terroir?

ST: I believe there are many sides to this discussion. Certainly what I call vineyard characteristics is what most people call “terroir”. I like to avoid all of the secondary smoke that goes up. But the idea that fruit grown in different places tastes different – what could be more obvious? Of course it does. You have to respect that, as any chef would. There are good chefs who are absolutely fanatics about the quality of their production.


Similarly then, if a Burgundy winemaker tastes a wine and says: “Well! This is not the wine that we make. This is not authentic Chambolle Musginy.” That’s fine. That’s just talking about home cooking. It would be like you tasting something in a restaurant that’s supposed to be Taiwanese cooking and it wasn’t, “No, you’ve got this all wrong.” That’s your business to say that. So for a Burgundian to say that, that’s his business – that’s his village.

As I said, a lot of people just don’t want surprises, they want things to be wrapped up, to know exactly what it is. I just don’t think that way, so I can’t think wine that way either. Rather, what you should be asking is, is this a delicious wine? what is the pleasure of this wine?

MP: What kind of new projects you’ve been working on?

ST: I found a really radical vineyard site just this last year. It’s technically within the Stag’s Leap of Appalachia and Napa Valley, but it’s completely different than anything else there. It’s a very steep slope that you hardly want to walk down. Very rocky, and high on a ridge. The grapes are really stressed, very small berries. – They make a very interesting wine.

I bought a couple of pounds of grapes as a sample, and it’s turned out spectacularly good, I’m very, very pleased with it. That will be something we add on to the wines that I make for the upper price level but they’re worth it. As usual, with any luck we ought to be able to make a pretty exceptional wine.

We would also like to have a white version of the Pleiades. We were going to last year, but there were lots of problems with early rains, and a lot of Botrytis mold as a result. We’ll have to put that project off until next year.

MP: Most of winemakers emphasize the importance of pressing grapes as soon as they are picked, you have a very different way – “let the grapes ferment under starlight”?

ST: That’s an idea I got directly from old books. I would never of thought of that on my own. It goes back to the 7th century BC and the Greek poet Hesiod, “Works and Days.” He’s describing to his brother the various steps of agriculture and suggests that you should harvest some grapes and take them to a spot where it’s shady, calm and dry, and just let them rest a few days before you crush them and make them into wine.

What interested me was his rationale that the fruit changes remarkably when they’re removed from the plant and stressed.

We started to harvest grapes directly into small boxes that can be stacked on each other without damaging the grapes. So they’re in good condition and we can keep it more easily. We keep the fruit together, let it go through whatever process it goes through before it starts to dry out, and then ferment it after that. It’s hard to describe, but I think the process simply mellows the grape, and gives it much more of an integrated quality. In other words, it seems much more seamless, much more complete.

Of course we’ve tested this. With each of these cases, we get back to the winery and immediately crush a small amount of it, and we wait for 24 hours; crush some more of another batch and wait another 24 hours. We decided to try it, and it sure worked very well. Now it’s a default procedure we use on everything. So that’s what I keep trying to do with a lot of these ideas: We go over it, and think, “Oh that’s interesting, let’s give that one a try.”

MP: So, why Heidegger?

ST: (laughter) Well it’s very interesting, he’s an etymologist and philosopher. I have some friends of mine who are very interested in this, so we get together every Thursday and we discuss Martin Heidegger. We’re all reading in English of course, and I’m going over it in German to make sure about the translation. He makes a lot of plays on words, combines all sorts of words into a single word, plays off various meanings between different words. So a lot of the translation out there make absolutely no sense. My business is to sit there and try to straighten some of this out. We all like reading it and it’s fun to get together. It’s almost a social club at this point. It has absolutely nothing to do with winemaking.

All these things have nothing to do with wine – they have no technical bearing on wine. Rather, I think that what you do, in wine and everything else, is informed by what your values are, what your experience is elsewhere. If you’re not curious about the world and you’re not looking into any of these more important issues, sooner or later it shows a certain superficiality of character and that’s going to make some pretty uninteresting wine.

MP: For those who are new to wine in Asia, what’s your advice on navigating the huge wine world?

ST: That’s very hard to do. It’s where critics like Robert Parker are useful to people, whether you like it or not. At least he has a very consistent palate. If you learn how to position yourself with what you like, for example “I really like his palate on red wines but I don’t like what he likes in white wines..” – if you find that you agree with him, then he’s pretty consistent.

Otherwise you’re pretty much on your own. You at least have to find what you like yourself, that’s the important part. That would be the place to start if I were giving any advice to a Chinese wine lover.