"Wine remains a simple thing - a marriage of pleasure." Andre Tchelistscheff, winemaker, 1901-1994
The Great Andre
Does the man make the wine great, or merely bring forth the greatness within?
In the history of California wine, the name Andre Tchelistscheff shines forth like a beacon: the maker of great wine, the tutor and inspiration of so many winemakers who followed him, the legend of decades of winemaking. Yet this man was not born an American, did not come from a family of winemakers, and he did not study the art of winemaking until he was in his middle years.
Tchelistscheff was born in Russia in 1901. Young enough to miss the First World War, he lived through the Revolution and fought for the White Army in the Russian Civil War (1919-1921). His father held a funeral service for him after he was reported dead on the battlefield, but Andre had lived. In the face of Communist triumph, Andre and his family made their way to France. Tchelistscheff worked in agriculture, as an agronomist, and in 1938 was studying enology in Paris.
That is the point at which the history of American wine changed. George de Latour, owner and founder of Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa, was in France keeping a sharp eye out because his long-time winemaker was about to retire. He met Tchelistscheff and offered him the munificent salary of $125 per month to come to work for him. Tchelistscheff had many offers, including one from Moet & Chandon, but he came to America
Beaulieu had survived Prohibition selling sacramental wine. In 1938, Latour was trying to lead a revival of the devastated Napa Valley area, and he had found exactly the right man for the job.
Tchelistscheff convinced Latour that Cabernet was what he should concentrate on, and that he should devote special care to it. Together they began changes. Tchelistscheff insisted on oak barrels French oak, of course and instituted many changes in the winemaking operation, particularly in cleanliness and processing techniques. His very first vintage, the 1938 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet, won an important prize. Soon the Georges de Latour Private Reserve was the American wine, commanding premium prices -- $1.50 per bottle.
Latour saw little of it, unfortunately, passing away in 1939. Tchelistscheff soldiered on, building a legendary reputation as he improved not only the Beaulieu wines, but also tirelessly boosted the work of others. He was the winemaker at Beaulieu until 1973, and then became a winemaking consultant.
His influence was astounding. At the legendary Paris Tasting in 1976, two California wines bested all competitors in a head-to-head blind tasting. The winners were Miljenko Grgichs 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Warren Winiarskis Stags Leap Wine Cellars 1972 Cabernet. Both men attributed their success to the influence of Andre Tchelistscheff.
The Russian Leprechaun, as they called him, worked on through the next decade. He finally passed from this Earth in 1994 at the age of 92. Dozens of winemakers mention to this day when they met or worked with the great Andre Tchelistscheff, just as a former ballplayer might mention playing with Mickey Mantle or facing Sandy Koufax. The list is a long and distinguished one, all proud to have known the man, all proclaiming how he aided their career or taught them something essential.
Even today, some of the most sought-after and highly regarded wines in America come from Quilceda Creek Winery in Washington founded and run by Alex Golitzin, Tchelistscheffs nephew, who learned to make wine from his Uncle Andre.
So my question came to me as I read of his achievements and pondered his career: did Tchelistscheff make wine great, or did he simply coax forth the secret essence that was there all along?
As his widespread influence attests, he certainly knew wine. His palate was legendary, despite his chronic smoking. His advances in winemaking technique have long since become standards. His lively mastership and questing methods, ever seeking a better way, brought forth a long string of winemakers who advanced the art of the grape to new heights.
I dont know if there is an answer to my question. As with so many other thorny issues in life, it may be too hard to separate the beginning from the end here. Tchelistscheff was undoubtedly an example of both ends, making the wine great as he also took what the Earth had given him and learned from it. One thing is sure: without Andre Tchelistscheff, California wine would have taken a different path.
Last modified: August 07, 2007