ANDRE TCHELISTCHEFF was one of the founding fathers of the modern Californian wine industry. In 1938, when the industry was struggling to get back on its feet after 14 years of Prohibition, Tchelistcheff was plucked at the age of 37 from his viticultural research job in Paris by Georges de Latour, the colourful owner of Beaulieu Vineyards (BV).
De Latour decided that Tchelistcheff was the man to fulfil his long-cherished ambition of making a California wine to rival the best of Bordeaux. Tchelistcheff arrived at Beaulieu Rutherford in the Napa Valley just in time for the 1938 vintage. Horrified at the primitive state of the vineyards and winery installations, Tchelistcheff, who never lost his Russian accent, brought to California in general and BV in particular the latest scientific findings accumulated from his research at the Institut National Agronomique in Paris.
There were 28 different sorts of wine being made at BV, one of the very few California wineries to survive Prohibition, thanks to a lucrative programme of altar-wine production. Schooled in the ideology of French vineyards and the practice of fitting the appropriate variety to the soil, Tchelistcheff realised after tasting wine from casks of the 1936 vintage that the cabernet sauvignon, the classic red grape of the Medoc, was the grape best suited to the dusty gravel soils of the Rutherford Bench. Sure enough, the cabernet sauvignon was to prove the making of the Napa Valley as a classic red wine region.
Settling with his wife and son Dimitri at BV, Tchelistcheff was given a free hand to modernise the estate. He cleaned it up and replaced outmoded equipment, at the same time introducing important innovations such as American oak barrels for the maturing wines and refrigeration tanks, which, with the Frigidaire compressor, had to be placed high up to guard what at the time was a trade secret. His small winery laboratory was later transferred to Saint Helena, nearby in the Napa Valley, and his consultancy business expanded to advise, over the years, 30 wineries, among them Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Charles Krug, Franciscan, Jordan and Niebaum-Coppola in the Napa Valley, Columbia Crest and Chateau Sainte Michelle in Washington state and Tenuta dell'Ornellaia in Tuscany.
The year after Georges de Latour's death in 1940, BV released to great acclaim the 1936 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which had spent three years in cask and two in bottle. Costing dollars 1.50, it was to be the first of a legendary Private Reserve Series, a single vineyard wine, the greatest vintages of which are generally reckoned to be 1951, 1958, 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1976.
With his viticultural training, Tchelistcheff spotted the potential of the marginal viticultural area of Carneros and managed to persuade the BV board to buy land in what was later to become one of California's most important American Viticultural Areas (AVA). He was later to say that one of the great successes of his career had been to get Carneros its own appellation.
Andre Tchelistcheff was born in Moscow in 1901 to landed gentry whose roots were firmly planted in the soil of Kaluga Province. Indeed, at the tender age of one he was given a 40-hectare vineyard near Yalta, although he never got to taste the wine. At two, he contracted peritonitis and, expecting the young Andre to die, his father, a law professor and chief justice, made the pilgrimage to the cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Bari. Andre survived the peritonitis as well as a bullet, which passed beteen him and his mother during street disturbances in Moscow in 1905. His father sided with the Bolsheviks, but when his socialist credentials were deemed suspect, the family was stripped of its estate following the 1917 Revolution and fled south. Andre served in the White Russian Army as a junior officer. During the Allied retreat through the Crimea to Gallipoli, his unit was ambushed and his family, thinking him dead, held a Russian Orthodox funeral for him. In fact Tchelistcheff survived.
He continued to fight in the army until 1923, when, unable to return to Russia, he enrolled at the University of Brno in Czechoslovakia to study agronomy. After graduating in 1928, he married and moved in 1930 to Paris, where he did his practical training in viticulture at a vineyard in Montmartre. Before his talents were spotted by Georges de Latour, he also worked in Beaune and in the cellars of Moet et Chandon in Epernay. In 1969, the de Latour family sold BV to Heublein for dollars 8.5m, a move Tchelistcheff described as 'a tragedy'. He remained there until 1973, when he resigned. At an age when most people would have retired, Tchelistcheff continued his consultancy business.
In February 1991, Heublein announced that Tchelistcheff was to return to the job, which was the fulfilment of a dream for the man who had devoted so much of his 56-year career in California to Beaulieu. It was a fitting tribute to this most practical of men, whose culture and common sense have done much to keep wine as a civilised drink in perspective.
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