2013 Sean Thackrey, Orion, Native California Red Wine, Rossi Vineyard, Napa Valley.
Today’s review is also a tribute to Sean Thackrey, who passed away this week, and who was influential on my early years in the wine business and who’s wines challenged me and enthralled me in equal measure, in particular his Orion and his rustic and amusing, but easy drinking Pleiades, a wine that I once religiously bought year after year. I was very sad upon hearing the news that Sean had left us and the state has lost one of its legends, though instead of feeling down, I am trying to celebrate his impact on Californian wine and remember my own experiences with him and his wines, I feel lucky to have met him in person many times and grateful I got to taste his wines with him, getting a behind the scenes glimpse of his thinking, which was more often than not completely at odds with conventional wisdom. His wines never wore makeup or were they ever made to please wine critics, they are tributes to his larger than life personality, with his flagship Orion perfectly capturing his nature, rather than that of the grapes or vineyard. The last time I got to taste with Sean was in 2015, when he showed off this 2013 vintage of his famous Orion, which as noted, is an old vine field blend from a single parcel in Napa Valley and consists of mostly Syrah. Thackrey, who was also a contemporary of Randall Grahm, who fruitlessly tried to convince Sean of the essence of terroir, was unconventional winemaker to say the least, but who did pioneering work in promoting California Syrah, well before the likes of John Alban and Manfred Krankel of Sine Qua Non. The Rossi Vineyard, in Saint Helena, originally planted in 1905 is a classic field blend or heritage site with mainly Syrah, but with many inter-planted black grapes, with some Petite Sirah, that go into and along for the ride in this Orion, giving it extra complexity as well. This 2013 is a big wine, heady and ripe at a tick above 15% natural alcohol and with an inky dark hue, but doesn’t feel overt or heavy and instead of jammy flavors this version shows a meaty and raw style with loads of blackberry, plum, blueberry and currant fruits, as well as earthy tones, spice and leathery notes. There is a textural mouth feel and a full bodied palate to enjoy here as well as pure Syrah elements, with hints of camphor, black licorice, purple violets and dark chocolate.
The late great, aging rock star looking Sean Thackrey, who was a self taught winemaker, is still and always will be a counter culture legend in the wine world. He was very opinionated and a complex personality, but who also had a warm heart and generously, especially in my case, gave me insights into his thoughts and with surprising humility told stories of his winemaking, which saw equal parts success and weirdness. Sean’s wines saw almost no human intervention and were aged in very old barrels, with certain exceptions, and they embraced their transparent funk. Thackrey, who once ran an art gallery and was a voracious reader and a rare book enthusiast, saw things trough a very different lens. Part of his believe, was that, the best grapes come from hillside vineyards and he only sourced grapes grown on sloping hillside old vine vineyards, mostly in the Sonoma and Napa regions, most famously this Rossi Vineyard, for his signature Orion Red. Even though this wine was clearly a terroir influenced wine, that was a concept he didn’t believe, and his wines instead of a youthful expression of place were in fact a soulful expression of his personality! Thackrey’s winemaking too was never in line with mainstream thoughts, he reveled in unconventional methods and ancient techniques to make is famous and iconic hand crafted wines. Along with luminaries like Alice Waters and Kermit Lynch, Sean Thackrey has been deeply linked to the shaping of the Bay Area food & wine scene, which he was a part of for more than three decades, starting his own label back in 1980. The world was better place with Sean, he loss will be felt, in particular those inspired to follow their own path and celebrate wildly funky stuff. The unique weirdness and pleasures of Thackrey’s wines have become expected from this Orion, a Syrah based wine to his Pleiades red blend made by the man from Bolinas, that grumpy, tourist hating, and locals only little hamlet between Mt Tam and Stinson Beach. Thackrey, who’s wines are named after the heavens above, always let the grapes “rest” for 24 hours in open vats under the stars, prior to crushing and fermentation, which must of had an effect on the wines. Pleiades was my first experience with Sean’s wines and still remains a favorite, it included a kitchen sink collection of grapes and always had an edgy menthol character, it was usually a non-vintage red made with Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Petite Syrah, Viognier, Zinfandel, Barbera and Syrah, along with small amounts of other varietals that changed from year to year. For those that have yet not had Thackrey’s wines, I highly recommend getting a chance to do so while they still exist, especially this one.
($89 to $129 Est.) 95 Points, grapelive