A Constellation to Call My Own

“My wines are like a person. They talk, they change, they tell you something different every sip. They taste different from one day to the next, from one hour to the next. That kind of complexity is what makes wine interesting.” — Sean Thackrey

Michael J. Walsh, ©2006

In 1970’s, San Francisco gallery owner Sean Thackrey left behind his career as a dealer of Nineteenth Century French photography and began making wine. His education did not come from UC Davis, nor from any traditional studies of oenology. Instead, Thackrey began to collect ancient and Medieval texts on the subject, opting for an approach that would yield wine that differed greatly from what was abundantly available.

In 1979 Thackrey bottled his first wine, a Bordelais blend of Cabernet and Merlot sourced from Napa Valley’s Fay Vineyard. While this first attempt was of sufficient quality to reaffirm his change in vocation, he nevertheless would shift direction, making the observation that Napa Valley style wines did not fascinate him. “They’re just too damn polite for me. Why drink a wine that you wouldn’t like if it were a person? It’s like sitting next to someone and everything they say has to be so proper.”

Thackrey turned to Mourvédre and Petit Sirah—two grapes which at that time, did not have the status and popularity they now enjoy. Both were generally used in blending cuvées, and were rarely bottled as stand alones. And while the American wine landscape became enamored of terroir —the sense of place imparted by a specific location—Thackrey dismissed its importance, favoring an alchemist’s approach. Pleiades, which comprises about 60% of his annual 5,000 case production, is based on a shifting blend of grapes such as Carignane, Barbera, Mourvedre, Syrah, Sangiovese, and Viognier. These are strange bedfellows to be sure, but then this perfumey gem tastes nothing like anything I’ve had before or since.

At the age of  67, Sean Thackrey produces five wines, all named for constellations. His fascination with the patterns we impose onto nature, draws an interesting parallel to the intellectual curiosity he exercises when blending grapes and making bits of heaven. Sean Thackrey is a Renaissance man—he speaks seven languages, is an expert on and a collector of 19th Century photography, is a photographer himself. Today he maintains one of the World’s largest collections of ancient and Medieval texts on the subject of wine—the very same manuscripts from which he learned his craft.

I managed to get my hands on a couple bottles each of the 2006 Sean Thackrey Sirius Petite Sirah and the 2003 Sean Thackrey Aquila Sangiovese Eaglepoint Ranch Mendocino. Because the Petite Sirah is expected to cellar for 20-30 years (take that, first growth Bordeaux), I opted to open the Sangiovese. This red is stunning and full of the surreal and heady attributes that I enjoy in the Pleiades, but with additional complexity, depth and savoriness that make this far more food-friendly and sophisticated. This deep scarlet wine immediately offers a perfumey nose of eucalyptus, chocolate and malt. The body is glassy and Pinot-like, but with an extra viscosity that the glycerin note lends.  Raspberry, eucalyptus, cocoa, tart cherry and a hint of smoke continually trade off on the palate.  The structure is seamless and perfectly integrates fruit, tannins and acidity into a supple experience with a long, long finish. This is most unusual—I am absolutely blown away.

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