A Sean Thackrey Vertical: Tasting Orion

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Drinking a bottle of Sean Thackrey wine has become emblematic of a wine geek’s attempt to find American wine that pushes far beyond what most of American wine making has become. Opening a bottle of Sean Thackrey wine with a group of friends – Jake from Cherries and Clay, Matt and Aron from Kits Wine, and Huong – luckily, is a more humane and down to earth experience.

This ‘aura’ of Sean Thackrey has developed because of his unconventional, but compelling, philosophies and ideas about wine and wine making, and because he makes wine in a hermit-like setting and has what he thinks is the world’s largest collection of Medieval books on wine making, from which he gathers techniques he actually uses, such as open air, open vat fermentation. The history of wine has also had a profound impact on Thackrey’s philosophies, such as his view that the French concept of terroir is more about producing and maintaining real estate values than it is about what he considers the obvious idea that grapes are different depending on where they are grown.

The Orion, what tends to be considered Thackrey’s flagship wine, is as of 1992 made from the fruit grown in the Rossi Vineyard in Napa Valley. To understand this vineyard and what’s in it one has to understand a little about the history of the syrah grape and its migration to the United States. Through his historical research, Thackrey has found that in the 19th century, Hermitage and Cote Rotie grew completely different clones of Syrah, with Cote Rotie having what was known as “Serene” and Hermitage having syrah clones that are more similar to what some people now call Petite Sirah (which Thackrey argues has probably around a dozen clones itself). After the Phylloxera infestations in France, these differences were eviscerated and experts began calling all the red grapes grown in the Northern Rhone by one name: Syrah.

However, some time in the late 19th century was when immigrants brought many of the French grapes into California, including many of the old clones of Syrah that existed in pre-phylloxera Rhone Valley. Thackrey believes it is some of these old cuttings that were planted in the Rossi Vineyard in 1905 and that now comprise the mix of (mostly syrah) vines along with some other non-vinifera indigenous varieties. For Thackrey, clones are essential for determining the quality and style of a wine, and this is why he thinks the Rossi Vineyard is so unique.

But Thackrey doesn’t believe in a “terroir” approach that attempts to find the ideal expression of the site. He believes that a “wine maker” is like a chef, and that great wine is made through the creative process that occurs after the fruit is in his hands. Raw ingredients are essential (Thackrey harvests the grapes himself), but not determinative. Wine making is also, for Thackrey, decidedly not Enology, as he stated in an interview:

“Enology isn’t winemaking. It’s Enology. And that’s fine. It’s a perfectly separate, perfectly valid scientific discipline. What amazes me is that people think they have been trained as winemakers once they’ve got a degree in Enology. They haven’t even started. That doesn’t mean they may not be good ­ there are wonderful winemakers, great winemakers, who have degrees in Enology and came up through the Davis system, but it’s not because of Enology that they are great winemakers. It’s because they actually had a talent for it quite aside from that.”

It is in following this philosophy that Thackrey finds his style changing from year to year. For example sometimes he destems, other times not, depending on what he feels works in a given vintage. He also uses very little SO2 because he believes that too much of it in high alcohol wines (which the Orions tend to be) creates tremendous astringency and renders the finished wine undrinkable. Accordingly, he believes that the feeling of heat and aggressiveness people associate with high alcohol usually results from the addition of too much SO2 rather than the alcohol itself.

Tasting the Orions is an interesting experience, and I think one that benefits with the right perspective, a perspective that I think Thackrey captured well when he said:

“There’s no question that the exact same wine will often taste unrecognizably different from one day to the next. Exactly the same wine, so we’re not talking about microbial processes or anything; it’s just that the interface between human tasting and the wine will be quite different, thus, the wine will “taste” quite different. Taste is a verb, as in the old saying, “there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine”.

One day I’ll taste the Orion ­ it’s true of anyone going around and tasting with me, it’s not that this is just some problem of personal body chemistry ­ and it’ll be tasting harsh and nasty and closed and (snoring noises) ­ the next day, gorgeous, voluptuous, rich, complex, endless, absolutely wonderful stuff. Why is that? I have no idea whatever. Atmospheric pressure? Phases of the moon? Who knows? The point is to admit the fact; the explanation comes later.

But who wants to admit so inconvenient a fact? Does a sommelier want to have to recalibrate his or her entire wine list from one day to the next? Does a wine geek want to cancel a trophy tasting just because the wines will actually be worthless to taste on that particular day? No, no. It’s much better to go Republican about the whole thing. Hierarchy is hierarchy. These wines are wonderful, because these wines, no matter what they taste like, are the best, because we’re drinking these wines, and we only drink the best, therefore, these wines are wonderful. If you try to talk about the problem, even otherwise rational people tend to say: ‘Oh well, I guess, maybe it’s bottle variation.’ No. We’re not talking about that at all. There’s something about the interface between people tasting and what’s being tasted – particularly in the case of dry red wines – that can lead to fantastic changes from one day to the next. Again, for whatever reason, I’ve never noticed this at all in wines with residual sugar, such as Ports or Sauternes, and it’s much less of an issue with whites. Even in my own wines, it’s a major factor in tasting the Orion, and not much of one at all with the Pleiades.”

This is a great perspective to have when reflecting back on my notes of the four Thackrey wines we tasted, and one to keep in mind more generally.

We started with the three Orions, moving from youngest to oldest. The 2006 Orion showed a very expressive nose with eucalyptus, road tar, black fruit and some varnish, which made Matt wonder if there was a lot of volatile acidity in the wine. Upon further research I discovered that the Rossi vineyard has a large amount of a particular naturally occurring yeast that produces a lot of volatile acidity, so I think it is safe to say that there was some of that going on here. This, as Aron said, is a monstrous wine to drink. It has extreme oak and black fruit, but also a very nice herbal component that we found consistent across the three vintages. And, given the 15.5% alcohol, this was balanced for its ‘category’. $75 USD + ~$140 at Kitsilano Wine Cellar.

The 2005 Orion, unfortunately, was hugely muted and likely had a touch of cork taint in it as the aromatics were suppressed and the finish very short. It could also just be in a dumb phase or perhaps was less of a successful vintage, but the chances of a flaw were too high to analyze this effectively. $75 USD.

The 2004 Orion was the unanimous favourite at the table. It was far more elegant than the 2006 and extremely expressive on the nose, with similar aromas, but more subtlety and more classic syrah-like characteristics like smoke and olives and, again, that great herbal quality that makes these wines so interesting. This is still an oaky and tannic wine, but not really like what you associate with those words and California. It was long, smooth and tremendously elegant for such a big wine. I loved it and would love to see how it developed over the next several years. 14.4% alcohol. $75 USD.

We also tasted the 2004 Sirius Petite Sirah, which was made from 6 clones of Petite Sirah grown in the Eaglepoint Ranch Vineyard in Mendocino County. This was over the top in its density and much more difficult to appreciate compared to the Orion. It lacked the expressivity and nuance and the elegance that the Orions managed to put together. It did, however, have huge tannins, some blue fruits, and herbal qualities that make it unlike many other Petite Sirahs, suggesting that the clonal selection is as important as Thackrey believes. 15.3% alcohol.

These were all very fascinating wines, but the consensus was also that they are difficult to drink a lot of. Their high alcohol and tannin are overwhelming, even as the wines, particularly the 04, were delicious. But, as Thackrey notes in his quotation, wine tasting is an inherently inconsistent exercise, and that is what makes it so interesting. The fact is that these wines are unlike pretty much anything else coming out of California right now and are wines worth revisiting over time and considering in the larger context of California wine. All are decidedly new world in style but also singular and complete wines in themselves, and these days that is a rarity in the world of high end Napa Valley reds.

Note: Interview quotes taken from the full interview on Gang of Pour.


  1. Joon S.
    August 2, 2010

    Fascinating post, Shea–very well-researched and thorough. I too am enamored of Sean Thackrey, though I’ve never been able to try any of his wines other than Pleiades (which is fantastic). It would be amazing to do a vertical of Orion/Sirius like you did though!

  2. Shea
    August 3, 2010

    Joon, been a while since I’ve heard from you! Glad you enjoyed the post. THe pleiades continues to be my go to example of the kind of accessible, interesting and delicious wine that California should be making for $25 a bottle.

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