By Bill Daley, Tribune Newspapers
April 17, 2013
Andre Tchelistcheff arrived in California on the eve of World War II to find a wine industry still reeling from Prohibition. His skill at winemaking, his peerless palate and his mentorship of other winemakers helped make American wine what it is today.
If Robert Mondavi became the face of California wine to the public, Tchelistcheff served as the brain, says San Francisco-based wine writer W. Blake Gray.
"His fingerprints are still all over the classic wines of Napa Valley," says Gray, who is the nominating committee chairman for the Culinary Institute of America's Vintners Hall of Fame. Tchelistcheff was among the first to be inducted into the hall in 2007, honored as "father of modern California winemaking."
Tchelistcheff (pronounced CHEL-uh-cheff) came to California to work as chief winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard in Rutherford, Calif., a post he held from 1938 until 1973 (he returned as an adviser a few years before his death at 92 in 1994), and then as an independent wine consultant.
"Andre was an early and important voice on how to do things the right way," Gray says, noting in particular Tchelistcheff's insistence on proper hygiene in winemaking. "He still has an impact. People will say, 'Andre would not like this.' He is living in the memory of a lot of important people in the wine industry."
A list of those he worked with, encouraged and mentored reads like a who's who of wine: Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills Estate; Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars; Joe Heitz of Heitz Wine Cellars; Louis P. Martini of Louis M. Martini Winery; and, yes, Robert Mondavi himself. (And Tchelistcheff's son, Dimitri, is himself a prominent wine consultant, notably with Jarvis Winery, and his nephew, Alex Golitzin, is founder of Quilceda Creek Vintners in Snohomish, Wash.)
No wonder Frank J. Prial, late wine critic for The New York Times, once described Tchelistcheff as "something of an enological godfather to what seemed like half of Northern California."
"He was considered a great teacher," says Joel Aiken, who worked with Tchelistcheff upon the latter's return to Beaulieu. "Andre was as big as anybody in wine in America, and he was so humble. He did not have a big ego. And he was probably more knowledgeable about grape growing, winemaking, the geology of soils, than anybody.
"When Andre arrived in Napa in 1938, half the wines were sweet wines or fortified," adds Aiken, who now owns an eponymous winery and wine consulting service. "Most Napa wines weren't special. Now, Napa's are the most collectible cabernets in the country."
Tchelistcheff is remembered fondly as much for his joie de vie as for his wine knowledge. He smoked. He drove cool cars. He was courtly, "a romantic with twinkling eyes," as wine writer Dan Berger described him in a 1994 Los Angeles Times story.
"I've never met anyone like Andre," recalls Jancis Robinson, the British-based wine authority and co-author of the new "American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States" (University of California, $50).
"He was so wise, so modest and so impish," she writes in an email. "I may only have met him once over a weekend at (wine writer) Hugh Johnson's in the country and once at our house in London when he came for dinner, bringing two bottles of quite staggeringly good mid-20th-century Napa Valley cabernet, but his understanding of the wine world was so obviously both deep and broad."
The man, simply put, knew how to live. But then he had quite the dramatic life before his arrival in Napa Valley.
"The stuff of a Tolstoy novel" is how Prial described it in Tchelistcheff's New York Times obituary. The story as outlined by Prial was indeed dramatic: Tchelistcheff was born into landed gentry, endured a sickly childhood, fled from the Bolsheviks, fought with the White Russian army and ended up in Czechoslovakia, where he studied agronomy, the science of soil management and crop production.
"At that time the idea was they were sure to be able to go back into Russia, and such people would be needed," explains Dorothy Tchelistcheff, his widow, by telephone from her home in Napa.
Andre Tchelistcheff, of course, never returned to Russia but moved westward, to France, where he began studying winemaking. That's where he made the fateful acquaintance of a French-born winemaker from California looking to improve the quality of his wines, one Georges de Latour.
Among Tchelistcheff's achievements, according to the Beaulieu website, was "cold fermentation for white wines, malolactic fermentation for reds and aging red wines in small, French oak barrels." He's also credited by the winery with creating Napa's first cult cab by insisting the Latour family bottle the best of its 1936 vintage as its own distinctive wine. That wine, Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, remains Beaulieu's flagship bottling.
Today, there are grateful winemakers who refer to Tchelistcheff simply as "The Maestro." Tchelistcheff never wanted much fuss made over him, his widow said, noting Tchelistcheff insisted his life "was no different than any other emigre who came here."
Yet, of course, his life was different. What drew winemakers from around the world to him, Dorothy Tchelistcheff says, was his "simple ability to understand the wine he was working with" and his talent for connecting with them, teaching them. And that's his legacy.
"He just made all these people his family," she says. "He'd talk to these winemakers. He knew their families and their problems. They were like his children."
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC