Known for ironically wearing a vest emblazoned with the phrase ‘famous winemaker’, the iconoclastic California winemaker Sean Thackrey passed away on 30 May following what a friend referred to as a decade-long battle with cancer.
The 79-year-old Thackrey was indeed famous in the world of California wine, but was as revered for his polymath intellect, poetic tendencies, and somewhat hermit-like existence as he was for his difficult-to-procure idiosyncratic wines.
The son of a journalist and a Hollywood script supervisor, Thackrey grew up in southern California during the late 1950s and went on to have the kind of rambling education that you might expect of a budding hippie intellectual. Spending time first at Reed College in Oregon, and then later at the University of Vienna, Thackrey was deeply interested in art and art history, yet never completed a course of study at either institution. He eventually made his way to northern California where he settled in the tiny coastal community of Bolinas, making ends meet by running a San Francisco art gallery and working as a book editor.
After planting some wine grapes in his yard primarily for aesthetic purposes, in 1979 Thackrey decided to try his hand at winemaking, relying entirely on intuition and his personal research into ancient winemaking texts. Perhaps most importantly over the course of his life, Thackrey assembled a world-class library of these books and documents (sold last month for $2 million by a New York bookseller), many of which he personally translated and transcribed, publishing them on his website for the pleasure and edification of an audience that he suggested might number only a few dozens.
This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is usually available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.
Image of Thackrey courtesy of photographer Slav Zatoka.