We’re pretty fond of the scene in “Withnail & I” where the two main protagonists sit in a rural cafe clearly three sheets to the wind while demanding tea and cake and “the finest wines known to man”.
Words by: DUNCAN QUINN
Photos by: DINE GIRL
I won’t say it's a pursuit for everyone but like many of the most wonderful things one can indulge in, from tango to racecar driving, practicing wine is an activity which can never be mastered, only ever indulged in with a thirst for knowledge as well as fine pinot noir, and rarely perfected. Knowing that you will never know it all is part of the pleasure. As is knowing that it is such a subjective thing that what to you may be nectar of the gods may to your best friend be mildewed cat piss. There are certainly areas where few find themselves able to debate – Yquem, Romanee Conti, Haut Brion to name but a few. But there is also a wild open world of wine where your opinion is just as valid as Robert Parker’s. As long as you are drinking what you like, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks.
Sean Thackrey is a character who bemuses and confuses the wine establishment. He’s the antithesis of what winemakers are supposed to be. And certainly the polar opposite of what you would expect of a producer of wines from the west coast of the United States. Where others are constantly incorporating the newest edict from the wine department at UC Davis into their scientifically controlled production, Sean is a man for whom the ultimate goal is pleasure. And this is something you can seek just as well with an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane Greek, Roman and other texts on wine-making that date back for thousands of years as you can with a fancy degree from Davis. As he quite rightly points out, it's not a new pass-time and producers have been quite proficient at turning grapes into the fermented alcoholic juice that is wine for many many years.
Starting with little to no money in his back garden in the 1980s and making wine because he loved it, using grapes he eeked out of local growers, his progress to the hallowed lists of wines which have scored a perfect 100 points from Parker has been a story of throwing convention to the wind and crafting each wine he made as if it were his last will and testament to the world. If it wasn’t good enough in his eyes he simply didn’t make it available to the lucky few who had sought him out after a chance encounter with one of his wines led them to his wine mailing list.
I tasted my first bottle of Thackrey Pleiades in 1995 in London. I had come across it by accident and just liked the bottle and the idea of what it was about. I knew enough to know that Châteauneuf-du-pape was made from thirteen different varietals, so the idea of a wine made from all kinds of different grapes didn’t worry me at all. I’d never tasted anything quite like it before or since. More than fifteen years later I can say that every single one of Sean’s wines that I’ve been lucky enough to partake in has been a memorable one. And they are simply unlike anything else you will ever try. In stark contrast to most west coast offerings they are complicated, complex, extraordinary and a veritable taste explosion. All the way from Andromeda, his so-called pinot noir, to Orion, the big hitting Syrah.
Sean is anathema in many ways. Not least the fact that he does not own a vineyard and makes the wine in his back garden with equipment that looks as if it fell out of the middle ages and was crossed with some spacepunk. Think Madmax and you get close. This assertion is a little confusing in a vacuum. As any Frenchman worth his salt will tell you, let alone a vigneron, wine is about “terroir”. It is the very soul of the wine and no great wine can come from a plot of land that is not perfectly suited to providing the grape varietal grown in them with the nutrients it needs to excel. Naturally there are other factors from the weather.
To the particular winemaker’s view of how he wants to prune and otherwise work his vines to produce the quality and yield of grapes he requires for his wines but much of the story is in the positioning of the land and the constituents of its soil and drainage.
And although Sean does not own a vineyard (he says he doesn’t want to, and why would he as long as he is getting the quality of grapes he wants consistently from the same places every year) he is lucky to work with what he amusingly terms, “farmers” who let him dictate exactly how the vines are treated in order for him to get the grapes he wants to work his magic. Sort of like owning a vineyard without the ball ache of having to do all the hard work. It makes a lot of sense in many ways as long as you are confident that you can produce something amazing on a consistent basis every year without having complete control over the vines from which you obtain your basic materials.
So think of him more as a chef who seeks out the best local produce and makes something phenomenal with them.
Krug Champagne: *****
Thackrey Wines: *****
Saxon & Parole: *****
Paul-Marie & Fils 1951 Cognac: *****
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