André Tchelistcheff, 1901-1994

Posted: May 15, 1994


May 15, 1994

André Tchelistcheff, 1901-1994


California's most influential winemaker since the repeal of Prohibition, André Tchelistcheff, died in Napa Valley on April 5 after a long illness. He was 92. During his 56 years in California winemaking he helped define the style of the state's best wines, most notably Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Tchelistcheff was an industry giant, guiding Beaulieu Vineyard and making BV's Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon during the glory years of 1938 to 1972. In the last two decades of his life, he consulted for wineries throughout the United States and Europe, including Jordan, Buena Vista, Firestone and Niebaum Coppola in California and Château Ste. Michelle in Washington. He was instrumental in training two generations of California winemakers, among them Joe Heitz, Mike Grgich and Jill Davis.

Born in Moscow in 1901, the French-trained enologist came to California in 1938 after BV's owner, Georges de Latour, met him in Paris and hired him. He worked for BV until 1973, when he resigned to devote more time to consulting. In 1991, BV rehired him as a consultant.

The diminutive Tchelistcheff was widely admired for his warm and charming personality, his quick wit, his graceful manner and his willingness to share knowledge with his peers. He brought scientific training and a sophisticated, worldly view of wine to California as its wineries rebuilt after Prohibition. He was also instrumental in developing winemaking in the Pacific Northwest.

"He is a fascinating man, brilliant, stimulating, creative--a catalyst for the world of wine," said Robert Mondavi when Tchelistcheff was named Wine Spectator's 1986 Distinguished Service Award winner.

Grgich, co-owner of Grgich Hills Winery, who worked under Tchelistcheff at BV from 1959 to 1968, credits him with pioneering work on fermentation techniques and frost protection for Napa Valley grapes. "We are missing him. Besides being a good wine man, he was a good human being. He had a Slavic heart, which is very soft."

Tchelistcheff's death was also mourned in Europe. "It makes me so sad," said Christian Moueix, manager of Château Pétrus in Bordeaux and joint owner of Dominus Estate in Napa Valley. "André was a wise man. And he was a master for all of us in terms of winemaking and modesty. It is really a great loss."

After arriving in Napa from Paris, where he first tasted California wines, Tchelistcheff became known as "the doctor," both for his looks and his ability to cure defective wines. Usually dressed in a white lab coat, he operated a wine laboratory in St. Helena, where he analyzed wines.

"I enjoy living," Tchelistcheff said in a 1986 interview. He lived simply, never trying to build a fortune or own a winery. "I'm not a wealthy man because I never took a chance," he said. "I was always too European and more willing to stick with my ways rather than take a chance."

Tchelistcheff's life before America was colorful. The Russian Revolution forced his family to flee their home in Moscow and he fought in the White Army against the Communists.

Tchelistcheff let few things slow him down. In his latter years he still drove a sports car on his way to various wineries to meet with the resident winemakers, taste wine from various tanks and barrels, and offer professional advice. His technical knowledge and achievements were vast, but his personal charisma and poetic approach to talking with wine lovers in and out of the industry may have been an equally important contribution.

--James Laube, Kim Marcus and James Suckling

 

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