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Sean Thackrey ’63

May 31, 2022, in Walnut Creek, California, from cancer.

Combining a cultivated intellect with his poetic tendencies, Sean gained renown for the small-batch, idiosyncratic wines he fashioned at his Thackrey & Company winery, snapped up by oenophiles lucky enough to get their hands on them.

“My wines are like a person,” he said. “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.”

He grew up in Southern California, the son of a journalist and a Hollywood script supervisor. Deeply interested in art, he studied art history at Reed and took classes with Prof. Lloyd Reynolds [art and English 1929–69]. His Reed experience, especially the humanities sequence, remained an important part of his sense of himself. He was an editor of the Griffin his first year. After studying at the University of Vienna his sophomore year, he returned to Reed and then dropped out in 1962.

Two years later, he moved to Bolinas, California, where he worked as a book editor for the Sierra Club. With his long-term partner, Susan Thackrey, and Cynthia Pritzker, he opened an art gallery in San Francisco. Sean was an expert in 19th–century European photography, and the Thackrey & Robertson gallery was an internationally recognized pioneer in the field.

In 1977, he planted some wine grapes in his yard in Bolinas and, relying on his intuition and the study of ancient winemaking texts, began to experiment with making wine. He liked the results and began making wine from juice purchased from other growers. Eventually he became a bonded winemaker and took extension courses at the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. But Sean tended to look down his nose at scientific approaches to making wine. Science, he felt, asked the wrong questions. As a winemaker, his role was to create pleasure. “You don’t have to get a degree in food science to be a chef,” he maintained.

Looking to the past for inspiration, Sean built a large collection of wine books and other manuscripts, known as the Thackrey Library, which included scores of centuries-old books, medieval illuminated manuscripts, and a sixth-century Egyptian papyrus. He translated and transcribed many of the publications, publishing them on his website for the edification of an audience he estimated might number only in the dozens. This year, he sold the collection for $2 million.

In 1995, having developed a global following as a winemaker for brawny, expressive “editions” and wild blends named for constellations, stars, and galaxies, he left the gallery to make wine full time.

“Why drink a wine that you wouldn’t like if it were a person?” he asked, assailing Napa Cabernet and Bordeaux as being “too damn polite.”

Critics began awarding high scores to his wines, and Sean became famous for an unconventional, tech-free approach to winemaking. While most winemakers rush to crush freshly picked grapes in sterile, climate-controlled conditions, Sean let his grapes “rest” in the yard at least 24 hours after they were picked, an idea dating back to the didactic poem Works and Days (circa 700 BC) by the Greek poet Hesiod. Sean said the practice of letting grapes rest was commonplace in wine literature until the middle of the 19th century, and, because it’s a lot of work, the ancients must have thought it was accomplishing something useful. He fermented the juice in open-top vats beneath the stars and eucalyptus trees, the aromatic oils of which would invariably make their presence known in the bottle.

Adrienne Pfeiffer, who knew Sean for more than two decades, said, “He was 100% his own person, who lived on his own terms, with his own way of thinking, of living, of being. It was so inspiring to be reminded that you could free yourself from life’s constraints and live on your own terms. Life with Sean was really romantic.”

Wine writer Jancis Robinson said of Sean, “For his customers (many of whom were those same exasperated colleagues who could not deny the allure of his unique wines) Thackrey was the mad genius winemaker, a virtuoso character from another era, yet one who welcomed visitors from far and wide to his messy backyard on the coast, where they could lean up against his old green truck and have a glass of something named after a part of the heavens.”

Sean is survived by former wife and longtime companion Susan Thackrey.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2022

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