SANF June 2008 : 116

116 SAN FRANCISCO JUNE 2008 Does Bacchus live inBolinas? Worlds removed from the oeno-technocrats of Napa and Sonoma, puckish, self-taught vintner Sean Thackrey relies on centuries-old texts—as well as the idiosyncracies of his palate—to produce some of America’s most coveted wine. And now, breaking with his own past, he’s even going to try to make enough for mere mortals to enjoy. BY JAMES NESTOR PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALEX FARNUM

Does Bacchus Live In Bolinas

James Nestor

Worlds removed from the oeno-technocrats of Napa and Sonoma, puckish, self-taught vintner Sean Thackrey relies on centuries-old texts—as well as the idiosyncrasies of his palate—to produce some of America’s most coveted wine. And now, breaking with his own past, he’s even going to try to make enough for mere mortals to enjoy. BY JAMES NESTOR PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALEX FARNUM<br /> For 28 years, Thackrey has been making select wines only at his small home in Bolinas.<br /> <br /> Here, he stands outside a converted barn on a larger property he owns nearby, where he finally plans to expand his winemaking operation.<br /> In a cluttered room in his small Bolinas home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Sean Thackrey runs his fi ngers along the spines of centuries-old books. To his left is a farming diary written by a French army artillery officer in 1760; to his right is a papyrus receipt from the 7th century. He gingerly pulls a 16th-century German encyclopedia of agriculture from the cramped shelf. “This one’s simply fascinating,” he says, flashing the smart-aleck grimace he so often sports and carefully opening the first page.<br /> <br /> Thackrey, an art historian by training, isn’t perusing these old books to do research for a novel or teach a class. For 28 years, he has steeped himself in the practices and philosophy of winemaking from other cultures and eras—often using one of the seven languages he understands to delve into the texts. From the Greeks, he learned about the value of letting his grapes “rest” in the shade, exposed to fresh air for 24 hours or more before they’re crushed. From the German encyclopedia and other ancient works, he gained a deeper understanding of the art of making wine—things you can’t get, he says, from a four-year oenology course at UC Davis.<br /> <br /> “You don’t make wine from crunching numbers. You do it from inspiration, from your senses, and with subjective judgment.” Welcome to the idiosyncratic province of Thackrey.<br /> <br /> While many Sonoma and Napa wineries rely on Sophisticated computer programs and precisely calibrated instruments to produce thousands of cases of identical-tasting wine, Thackrey is hand bottling oneoff vintages behind his house with a ragtag staff of locals, cleaning out oak barrels in dirty overalls. He’ll often wake up at 2 a.m., don a robe and grab a flashlight, and step out his back door to sample his latest concoctions, scrawling notes in chalk on the barrels.<br /> <br /> Even among boutique winemakers, who aren’t exactly scarce in Northern California, Thackrey stands out—not so much for twisting the rules of the game as for ignoring them in his pursuit to create wines unlike anything else Napa and Sonoma (or any other wine region, for that matter) are producing. His approach has made him a lone wolf in the industry, a position he obviously relishes.<br /> <br /> “He’s really the antithesis of corporate winemaking,” says John Lancaster, the wine director at Boulevard Restaurant in San Francisco. “You can taste the passion in his wines. They have such an iconoclastic character.” Daniel Patterson, chef-owner of Coi, is another Thackrey acolyte. “His wines have an incredible vitality about them,” Patterson says. “It’s like each one has a personality, and they change from tasting to tasting, day to day. They are simply like nothing else.” The leading power wielder in the wine world, critic Robert Parker, consistently Gives vintage-dated Thackrey wines an “outstanding” 90-plus points.<br /> <br /> But not everyone worships at the church of Thackrey.<br /> <br /> Some consider him a blowhard—in part, no doubt, because of a holier-than-thou tone that creeps into many of his pronouncements. He’s funny and jovial, and often aware of how provocative he can sound, but at times he comes off as an oenophiliac Ralph Nader, as if he’s the only holdout for quality in the big bad world of corporate winemaking. “The wine industry works by dogmas: Put this here, pour this there, and there is your wine. I absolutely object to this formulaic way of making wine,” he gripes. “They think I’m eccentric because of the way I do things here, but I’m not trying to make wines that are reassuring and predictable.” Perhaps this attitude is what comes from operating so far outside the mainstream. But even if Thackrey is slightly rough around the edges, there’s no doubt that for the last 28 years, he has produced some of the most sought-after and celebrated wines in the Bay Area—and beyond.<br /> <br /> Still, finding his wine is, as Thackrey boasts, “as pleasant as pulling teeth, and remarkably less defi nite in its results.” Each new vintage of his pinot noir, petite sirah, sangiovese, and California red regularly disappears into the hands of in-the-know wine store managers and staff before it ever hits the shelves. Only a few of the Bay Area’s most renowned restaurants carry Thackrey’s wine (and even then, only sporadically), and rumor has it that the few Bay Area grocery markets that sell it hold it in the storage room and pawn it only to friends. “There is Definitely a cult of Thackrey,” says Diane Harder, who distributes his wines to select stores and restaurants in Southern California.<br /> <br /> The cult may grow into a mob as early as next year. That’s when Thackrey plans to debut the Big Dipper, a California red that will be produced on a larger scale and sold at a much more affordable price than his signature wines, which range from about $24 up to $150 for rare, older vintages.<br /> <br /> Soon after that, he plans to release a rosé called Fifi (“for airheads,” he says, in another of his scrappy quips, followed by, “I like airheads!”).<br /> <br /> These vintages, some of the first produced outside his own backyard, mark a departure for the keepeverything- close winemaker—one that could either brand him as a sellout among his devoted fans or gain him the widespread recognition he has so far skillfully managed to avoid. Either way, Thackrey could give a damn.<br /> <br /> “Yeah, this is my winery,” Thackrey exclaims, throwing his arms up in a mock grand gesture as he exits his prairie-style house and wends his way, in muddy work boots, along a dirt path, past stacks of sun-bleached oak barrels and Jacuzzi-size redwood vats. In his driveway, a rusting Dodge Dart sits next to a group of stainlesssteel fermenters, their khaki canvas tarps snapping in the wind. At 65, Thackrey boasts boyish energy and talks at a rapid-fi re pace, lacing his proclamations with a sharp-witted sarcasm that almost always ends with a hearty laugh. The combination of his denim overalls and his mop of thick, dirty-blond hair, which looks permanently uncombed, gives him a gentle-genius look, somewhere between Oscar Wilde and Albert Einstein, with a touch of Keith Richards.<br /> <br /> “It’s basically a rural slum here,” he says, cracking a smile.<br /> <br /> “But you can’t beat the commute.” As with most things in his life, Thackrey stumbled into winemaking.<br /> Living in Berkeley and running an art gallery on Union Street in San Francisco. When they split up in 1971, Thackrey sought refuge in the city, but six years later, he moved back to Bolinas (where he had lived in the mid-’60s), and bought the house where he still lives. He continued to commute to San Francisco to work in the gallery, and initially got the idea to grow grapes just to decorate his fence in Bolinas. “But then,” he explains, “I thought how cool it would be to make wine, so I began reading some books.” It was that simple.<br /> <br /> Because of his art-history background, Thackrey was naturally attracted to classical texts. “I read this stuff for fun,” he says, “but then I started rediscovering all these lost techniques, some used for thousands of years and now totally forgotten. And I started experimenting.” Thackrey is the only known winemaker today to employ the resting technique, for example. He insists that resting mellows and harmonizes his wine, but some winemakers have doubts.<br /> <br /> “It’s total BS!” says Steve Edmunds, head of the boutique Berkeley winery Edmunds St. John, who has also been making wine for about 30 years. There are many ways to create complexity in a wine—not watering the grapes, for example, or using certain types of oak—but Edmunds doesn’t think resting is one of them. “Thackrey is a great storyteller,” he says, “but I seriously doubt whether he could prove any direct benefi t.” Thackrey, of course, isn’t fazed by such critiques.<br /> <br /> “People who haven’t tried resting are basing their opinions on assumptions, on things they learned at UC Davis. And they don’t know what they’re talking about.” After he rests the grapes, Thackrey and a small crew crush and destem them in a machine and pour them into fermenters, where they stay for up to two months— about four times longer than the wine-industry standard.<br /> <br /> “Everyone says that after a month of fermenting, Wines become so tannic as to be undrinkable,” says Thackrey. But what actually happens, he argues, is that at around four weeks, the tannins begin to transform, or polymerize, giving the wine tremendous richness and complexity.<br /> <br /> After showing me around his backyard, Thackrey takes me to some ramshackle, open-air sheds near the house, where his wine is left to mature for around 18 months before being bottled. Here, rows of oak barrels lean against a rickety wood fence. They are covered haphazardly with canvas tarps or left to sit in the sheds, each almost totally exposed to the elements and covered in a thin blanket of leaves and branches felled from the canopy of eucalyptus overhead. “It’s not much of a showplace,” Thackrey snickers.<br /> <br /> Though the barrels look neglected at best, he orders each one, at a cost of around $1,000, from artisan coopers who source their oak from particular forests in France.<br /> <br /> In 1981, just two years after he started his Bolinas experiment, Thackrey was bonded as a winemaker; and by 1985, he was selling his wines to Singer and Foy, a wine shop in North Beach, and to Chez Panisse. Today, he dedicates half of his annual 4,000-case production to his entry-level Pleiades, a California red that sells for about $24 a bottle.<br /> <br /> The other half comprises his signature wines, each of which is named for a constellation: Orion, a California native red; Andromeda, a pinot noir; Aquila, a sangiovese; and Sirius, a petite sirah. About a third of his wine is exported to an international following in Japan, Sweden, England, and elsewhere.<br /> <br /> By early afternoon, we are in Thackrey’s Toyota pickup riving along a ribbon of road in the foothills of Bolinas. It’s time to feed his oneeyed cat in “the barn,” a converted farm building on four acres of land that he uses as a combination offi ce, wine cellar, and entertainment space.<br /> <br /> Thackrey bought the property as a Place to store extra wine barrels, to work, and to host his Thursday Heidegger Club meetings, patently Bolinas-style events at which he and a group of local poets meet to discuss the German philosopher “and what ever else.” It’s here, as well as at his home and at an offsite winery in Sebastopol, that Thackrey will eventually produce all his wines, including the Big Dipper and Fifi . Until now, Thackrey had refused to increase production beyond what he could handle in his own backyard.<br /> <br /> “It’s like asking a chef of a small restaurant why he doesn’t add 200 more seats,” he says. “I touch every grape and am involved 100 percent of the way, even when I’m doing 4,000 cases.” But the new wines will change all that. “I’ve always wanted to make something cheaper, something I could put in a gallon jug with a screw top,” he says with a quizzical look, as if he’s not quite sure he really meant what he just said. It’s almost as if he uses such remarks as a way of forestalling any critics who might accuse him of selling out: Oh, of course I was just joking!<br /> <br /> We later pull up chairs at his dining room table.<br /> <br /> Visible through a wall of windows behind Thackrey, the wide, grassy fi elds stretch unimpaired in all directions.<br /> <br /> “The fact is, I never intended my wines to get this expensive,” he says. “I’ve never had any money, and doing stuff for money was never an impetus.” For the first time today, Thackrey’s trademark grin has been replaced by slightly pursed lips; his hazel eyes are no longer aloof, but concentrating. While Thackrey takes life (and interviews) with a grain of salt, it becomes clear by the end of the day that he will defend the tradition—his own unique, self-taught tradition—of winemaking to the grave. He’s making the Big Dipper just because he wants more people to be able to drink his wine; he’s a populist at heart. He’s making Fifi for no other reason than that he loves “messing around with new ideas.” And can he maintain his high standards with these new wines? He assures me he can. “I would never, ever release anything I didn’t like,” he insists. “People can keep talking, the wine industry can keep doing the same old stuff they do. And I’ll just keep doing what I do.” JAMES NESTOR IS A FREELANCE WRITER IN SAN FRANCISCO. HE HAS WRITTEN FOR THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE MAGAZINE, DWELL, OUTSIDE, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, AND OTHERS.<br /> In 1970, he and his wife were

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