Winemaker Sean Thackrey died over the Memorial Day weekend after a long bout with cancer. He was in every sense a renaissance man, amateur historian, writer, artist, curator and gallerist, a dabbler in arts high and low and, especially, vinous. His singular creations, made for his self-named brand, included blends like Pleiades, or unique single-vineyard wines like Orion, Taurus, Sirius, and Aquila, many from old-vine, out-of-the-way sources. They were all as unique as he was.
Thackrey came to wine after beginning his career as a gallerist and curator of photography and poster art in San Francisco. Evenings, he’d hang out often at Singer and Foy, the wine bar owned by Chez Panisse alumni Dennis Lapuyade and Steven Singer.
Soon, Thackrey was dabbling with winemaking, sourcing exceptional fruit for modest home projects—working with vineyards such as Fay, in the Napa Valley. He took to winemaking with aplomb. “I felt like it was my first time sitting down at a piano and realizing I could play,” he says. He went on to make a number of exceptional wines over a career that spanned nearly four decades. But he was best known, perhaps, for a wine called Orion, an old-vine syrah from Napa, which debuted in 1986.
Orion was savory, feral, minty, wildly idiosyncratic and wholly unlike any ‘establishment wines’ of the time. Because it was syrah, Thackrey inevitably became associated with the American Rhône wine movement; the movement’s early members welcomed him into the fold. He politely attended a few early Rhône Ranger meetings; but when the discussion turned toward banding together to form a group, he excused himself, wishing them luck. With respect to winemaking, improvisation, terroir, fruit selection, synthesis and varieties, he preferred to go his own way.
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