This weekend’s vertical tasting of Sean Thackrey’s Pleiades XI-XVIII offered a thrilling departure from the familiar variables more traditional vertical tasting sessions showcase; particularly the satisfying intellectual discovery stemming from sensory embodiment of vintage variation against a backdrop of consistent terroir. Then again, Marin County based Thackrey is the antithetic picture of California wine producers, coming at it with an unconventional twist intertwined in his deep appreciation of art and wine making history. While Pleiades is an entry level bottling in the Thackrey portfolio, in some ways it defines his eccentricity since each release pays little hommage to the rules of consistency in vintage, varietal, and blending ratios. With Thackrey expressing his personal biases in each wine’s construction, on this pastoral, summer-like, highly anticipated, and energy charged evening at my home, good friend and The Passionate Foodie Rich Auffrey presented eight different releases for nine of us to explore.
Thackrey produces and sells 4000 cases of his wines each year without traditional marketing. He has Robert Parker to thank for that, heralding his Orion Syrahs in Wine Advocate pages since the late eighties when I started buying and drinking them young and with gusto. These were big, gargantuan wines that have been made from St. Helena’s Rossi Vineyard fruit since the early nineties, and from a different vineyard in Yountville during the late eighties. My younger, developing palate craved these exotic and flavor-full wines back then, and I snubbed my nose at the Pleiades for sitting low in the portfolio and not producing as racy or dramatic mouthful on release. Also, Parker called these “bistro wines” in many vintages with sub-90 point scores and limited age-worthiness. Our vertical inspection of these eight releases makes me wish I behaved differently in that regard.
I had three major takeaways from the tasting:
- We did not taste the wines blind, instead from oldest to youngest, but if we had we could have unanimously picked the two rich and firm oldest wines to be the newest releases. Parker underestimated the age-worthiness on some of these wines.
- The wines did show inconsistent age-worthiness and liveliness
- Often compelling, sometimes muted, aromatic and flavor components vary wildly from release to release
My favorite three wines included the two oldest that were released approximately nine and eight years ago, Pleiades XI and XII, and then Pleiades XVI.
- Pleaides XI: Darkest in color of all eight wines, combined a strong gamy, zoo like nose character that was reminiscent of fresh bush kill, with black cherry, herbal aromatics. The wine had amazingly good acidity with a lasting finish of firm tannins. This wine has at least 6-8 more years of life and offers a dazzling tasting experience.
- Pleiades XII: A magical wine with cedar wood and tobacco leaf aromas that mix with tar like secondary flavors. It has a fantastically silk like mouth feel, finishes with an appropriate streak of sweet fruit flavors and offers a touch of herbal quality in the finishing sensation. Honestly, the wine reminded me of an old Chateauneuf du Pape from the late eighties. This ran a close tie for the most compelling wine of the night along with the XI.
- Pleaides XV: The wine was totally mirky, unable to look through the top of the tasting sized pour to where stem meets bowl. The wine was wildly alive with stiff acidity that suggested many years left in the bottle, a hint of wild animal smell, and a candied sweetness to the finish that was perfectly fitted to the wine.
The XIII was lightly colored and you really had to coax the flavors out of the glass. It, along with the youngest, XVIII and the XVI was missing fruit in the mid palate and disappointed in the finish. Still, the wines showed arrays of coffee, mocha, burnt wood, mint, honey, bacon, and cola and were expressive in their own ways, but did not have a lot of life left to them. The XVII finished in the last position of the top four wines showing an extremely dark color of great clarity, a cherry chocolate nose, mint, and a really long finish. The XIV was the least interesting wine, actually flawed to the point that we were uncertain if it was a bad bottle, giving off nail polish aromas alongside sweet floral notes with extremely stiff acidity that offered little compliment to the wine.
I was literally exhausted after a diligent tasting of two flights of four of these wines. The excitement from the lack of predictability approaching each glass combined with the intensity of focus required to capture the array of flavors and aromatics broadcast by each one. None of us were surprised by this considering that the wide range of varietals that appear to be included in some releases but not others, including Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Carignan, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Mourvedre, Merlot, Grenache, and a few more including Viognier and other white wines combined with vintage blending to provide free and clean palates for Thackrey to be consistently creative with.
These wines are really special and worth exploring. You can buy the XVIII in the low twenty dollar range now. It is not a bad strategy to buy enough to drink freely when young and to stash a few bottles of Pleiades away from every release so you can also discover, on a comparative basis, how an artist creates wine without the restrictions of varietal and vintage boundaries from release to release.