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Tiny California Winery Awash in Praise but not Profit

December 13, 1988|Associated Press

BOLINAS, Calif. — On the edge of the sea, where salty breezes sweep worn houses and bramble fields the year long, a hard-working vintner makes world-class wine on a patch of dirt about the size of a handball court.

"I would rather dump wine--and I do--than bottle a bad wine," said Sean Thackrey, who speaks in poetic, almost religious terms of the achievement of making a great wine.

"I taste it and follow the evolution of the wine and see what it needs," he said in an interview at the Thackrey & Co. winery, crammed with beakers, bottles, casks, tarpaulins, tanks, tools and what-not.

"I wish I had a cement floor," Thackrey said wistfully, while rhapsodizing on his favorite topic.

"You raise wine like a child," he went on. "This is a living thing and you have to raise it . . . a personal thing, you know . . . a lot of those big wineries, they process wine. There's too much emphasis on technology here; they lose touch with what's happening with the wine."

Began in '81

Although Thackrey has no formal education in wine making, his product retails for a super-premium $25.50 a bottle, a rarefied neighborhood for any wine. Much of the production goes to the posh Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.

Thackrey turned a wine world miracle with his first vintage in 1981, a merlot called "Aquino." Robert Parker, arguably the most influential wine writer in the United States, pronounced the vintage "very complex, very well made, profound wine."

Wine collectors went crazy looking for Thackrey. Bolinas? Where in the world is that? They found out, and also discovered Thackrey had only released 190 cases of the '81 winner--less than a minute's production at giant E&J Gallo.

Thackrey wondered with amusement: "How do you divide five cases between New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania?"

It was a good year for the wine but not so hot for him. He ran out of money and produced no more wine until 1986, when he bottled his first 120 cases of "Orion" Syrah, from a red grape celebrated in France's Rhone Valley.

The last thing that occurs to Thackrey is that he hasn't made a nickel in wine since that first bottling.

"The high school boy I hired to help me makes more money than I do," he said.

Thackrey buys his grapes in small lots in the Napa Valley--when he can find a vineyard that will sell to him--loads them and hauls them home in his beat-up four-wheel-drive truck, crushes the fruit in a machine half the size of a kitchen sink and runs the juice into a venerable 2,000-gallon tank.

Uses Feet

The air in his winery front yard is yeasty, rich with smells of secret things happening in the vat, the making of the 1988 vintage.

During fermentation, a 4-foot-thick "cap" of grape skins sits on the juice. Occasionally, to control the process, the cap has to be punched down. Thackrey disclosed an open secret among some wine makers; he punches down the cap with his feet.

Thackrey's small label machine, about the size of a telephone, sits on his chaotic kitchen table, wine-lab objects mingling with the domestic items of daily living. He designs, sets and pastes the labels on the bottles himself.

"Actually, this is a typical, small Burgundian operation," he said. "Some of those in Europe are the most serious about their wine making . . . the best Burgundy in Europe is made by people who make wine as I do."

"Theoretically, I should be making money," he added. "The reason I'm not is that I refuse to compromise about quality. When it's time to bottle the wine, and if it's not going to give anybody real pleasure, I don't want my name on it."

The fate for such shameful vintages is vinegar or brandy.

"I've got this little still I'm experimenting with . . ." he said.

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