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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Heroes of Wine: André Tchelistcheff (1901-1994)

Heroes of Wine: André Tchelistcheff

They called him "the Maestro". By definition this means "a distinguished musician, especially a conductor of classical music" or "a great or distinguished figure in any sphere". He was great. He was distinguished. He conducted beautiful music in the form of wine. Earlier in his career they called him "the doctor" because of his scientific approach to winemaking and his uncanny ability to cure wine with defects. And then there was that white lab coat he loved to wear.

He was also known as the "the dean of American winemaking" because he really was the head of the university. He was the educator. The absolute most important thing about this man and his legacy was not only his ability to be a highly effective and inspiring mentor, but also his willingness and love of doing so. Combine that with all of his knowledge and talents and you have the most influential winemaker of modern history: André Tchelistcheff (pronounced CHEL-uh-cheff)

André was born in Russia, trained in France, lifted California to greatness, and took off Washington State's training wheels. He was a chain smoker. He was a ladies man. He was... tiny. There are several different accounts on his height; anywhere from 4'11" to 5'3". Regardless, this giant of a man was even shorter than me (and I'm pretty short). But he commanded a room. And his stature was always at attention, or "ramrod straight" as Randal Caparoso put it in "Napa Valley - A legacy of greatness".

Robert Mondavi said that "He is a fascinating man, brilliant, stimulating, creative - a catalyst for the world of wine", while Mike Grgich said that "He had a Slavic heart, which is very soft". Robert and Mike are just two of the many legends that André mentored. And to think that almost didn't happen. André should have died in battle as a young man, and we're all very lucky that he didn't.
People spend too much time tasting wine; not enough time drinking it. - André Tchelistcheff
Tsar Nicholas II
André was born in Moscow on December 7th of 1901, the son of the Chief Justice of the Russian Imperial Court during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. He was not only born into nobility but also a family history of farming in Russia going back eight centuries, mainly in the Kaluga Province. At just one year old he was gifted a vineyard near Yalta that spanned forty hectares, but he'd never get to actually make use of it.

At two years old he contracted peritonitis. That's when a bacterial or fungal infection causes the peritoneum membrane that lines your inner abdominal wall to inflame. Nowadays we have antibiotics for this stuff, but back in André's day you just died painfully and asked for more pain. Except this kid managed to survive, yet the damage done would give him stomach issues for the remainder of his life. At three years old he and his mother were caught in a violent revolt on the streets and were nearly shot, the bullet passing between mother and son. Because he was so sickly from peritonitis, he was tutored at home until he was ten years old when he joined the school life with other children. 

The first Russian Revolution began in February of 1917, and the second in October of that year. Daddy Tchelistcheff initially sided with the Bolsheviks (later to become the Soviets) instead of the Russian Empire that he served before, and his estate was stripped away from him when questions arose about who he was really supporting. So, as a fifteen year old junior officer, André was pulled out of the Kiev military academy so he and his family could promptly flee. They went south, away from Moscow, before the Bolsheviks took over and the Civil War began.

Nicholas II and the entire Romanov family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in July of 1918, the same year that a sixteen year old André began fighting in the Russian Civil War with the White Army.
I am a child of revolution. I know what it means to lose everything overnight. - André Tchelistcheff
The Russian White Army
The army that André joined was part of a diverse collection of groups that made up the overall White Movement. There wasn't much that ideologically united the various White factions. Some Whites were monarchists, who wanted to bring the Romanov family back to power. Some were army or navy officers who thought that only a military dictatorship could restore order to the country. Some were liberals who wanted Russia to have a western-style democracy. Some were die-hard supporters of the Russian Orthodox church who wanted to protect its traditional privileges. And some were from non-Russian ethnic groups like Cossacks or Ukrainians, who wanted to use the civil war to gain more autonomy. Does it sound like some of these groups have goals that are completely opposed to each other? Yup, that's a problem. All that really united these groups was the fact that they didn't like communism. This lack of unity among the White Army factions would in the end keep them from defeating the Reds. *

In 1921, as a nineteen year old and a three year veteran of the White Army, André Tchelistcheff was severely wounded during an attack on his unit in Crimea. By a goddamn machine gun. In a goddamn snowstorm. I'm not clear if they fled immediately from the ambush or if there was a battle, but after the exchange André's unit left him for dead. Even his parents were informed of his passing, and they mourned his loss with a Russian Orthodox funeral. But wait! Somehow this badass mofo was able to survive, recover, and return to the White Army. He continued to fight for two more years, and when he did return home in 1923, the Tchelistcheffs packed up shop yet again and headed to Yugoslavia.

That same year he enrolled at the Czechoslovakian University of Brno to study agronomy (the science and technology of producing and using plants for food, fuel, fiber, and land reclamation). He also took a wine microbiology course at the Pasteur Institute. After he graduated from the University of Brno in 1928, he married the love of his life Dorothy in 1930. If I have the correct information, it appears that André knocked up Dorothy out of wedlock because Dimitri was born in Paris on April 22nd of 1930. Yeah, unmarried people bump uglies and get impregnated. Deal with it.

Dorothy Tchelistcheff would tell the Chicago Tribune in 2013 that the plan all along for the Tchelistcheff family was to return to Russia, and André's ambitions were fueled by the idea that their nation would need the skills that he obtained.
Well, when I think of wine, I think in French. - André Tchelistcheff
It turns out that returning to Russia was not in the cards. So what to do now? Well, André wanted to be a winemaker. Wine was his passion. And where would you go to get the best training possible in that field? The answer, of course, is France. So the newlyweds moved to Montmartre where André got hands-on experience in viticulture at a vineyard there. After that he trained and worked in Burgundy's Beaune, then at Moet & Chandon in Epernay, Champagne.

Georges de Latour
In 1938, a gentleman by the name of Georges de Latour was visiting his birth country of France. Thirty-nine years earlier, in 1899, Georges and his wife Fernande had bought a wine estate in Rutherford, California, right next to the Inglenook winery. They renamed their new estate Beaulieu Vineyard ("beau lieu" means "beautiful place"). You may know it as just "BV". The de Latour's would end up making a ton of money producing sacramental wine during Prohibition (which started in January of 1920), but the wine industry was struggling to get back on its feet after Repeal (December of 1933). For thirteen years it was illegal to sell or purchase alcohol, and the American public came out of it with a taste for beer and cocktails. The once thriving vineyards came out of it either dilapidated or producing undesirable wine. de Latour, being the founder and owner of Beaulieu, had to do something to save his business.

de Latour wanted to help revive the California wine industry and have Beaulieu Vineyard make wines that could compete with the best wines of Bordeaux, like his neighboring Inglenook did pre-Prohibition. He wanted a problem-solving winemaker. One that would could harness the power of science. So he was in France in 1938 looking for a French winemaker with a scientific background, never expecting to be so impressed with a Russian refugee.

André was a viticulture researcher for the Pasteur Institute and the French National Agronomy Institute in Paris when Leon Bonnet of the University of California, Berkeley introduced him to Georges de Latour. Impressed by his knowledge, his palate, and certainly his charm, de Latour offered André a job. And André, with plenty of job offers on the table elsewhere, including Chile and China, accepted.
I do not believe that technology or science alone can replace natural elements. - André Tchelistcheff
André Tchelistcheff
At 36 years old, he was now the new Vice President and chief winemaker of Beaulieu Vineyard. And he wasted no time getting to work. He arrived in Napa Valley in September, just in time to work on the 1938 vintage, and started completely reforming how things were done there and renovating equipment.

The place was a mess and their methods were pretty screwy. So André walked in and started metaphorically flipping tables. No more over-sulfering, no more putting ice in the crusher because it's hot as hell in Napa during harvest, no more iron pipes that give the wine high metallic concentration. It's no wonder they couldn't make fine wine, right? And it wasn't just Beaulieu that didn't grasp fine wine production; it was Napa itself. So himself and Maynard Amerine of UC Davis began educating the grapegrowers and winemakers of the region on both basic and complicated things that they needed to know, such as fermentation science and winery sanitation.

André quickly realized, after tasting everything Beaulieu had barreled from the 1936 vintage of two years earlier, that Cabernet Sauvignon was the soulmate grape with Napa's terroir. So he put his most intense focus on developing winemaking strategies and processes to produce world-class Cabernet, including aging it in small French oak barrels. (After World War II he started using small American oak barrels instead)
God made Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the Devil made Pinot Noir. - André Tchelistcheff
Georges de Latour died in 1940. After his death, André was able to convince the de Latour family that the best Cabernet of that 1936 vintage, the one that opened his eyes up to Napa Cabernet, was ready to be released and should be done so on its own and not blended with the lesser quality juice. This was the very first vintage of Georges de Latour Private Reserve. "I did not create it," André is quoted as confessing about the 1936, "Mr. de Latour did."

Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1936
1936 BV GDL

The Georges de Latour Private Reserve has been considered one of the great American wines ever since, and is regularly poured at the White House. Well, maybe not anymore. A juice box is probably the grape beverage of choice for a President that takes his steak well done with ketchup. According to The Independent, the best vintages of the Private Reserve are 1951, 1958, 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1976.

As much as Cabernet became André's love, Pinot Noir became his bane. He's quoted as saying, "I can count the number of great Cabernets I made at Beaulieu only by taking off my socks and shoes, but I can count the number of great Pinot Noirs on one hand with change left over." Yeouch!

André never stopped innovating when it came to finding solutions for viticulture and winemaking while working for Beaulieu. How to use refrigeration tanks appropriately, cold fermentation techniques, initiating malolactic fermentation, using wind machines and other ways to protect vineyards from frost, vine disease prevention, and studying subregions and microclimates for the right place to plant the right vines. He even coined the now famous "Rutherford dust" name for the Rutherford's terroir. The man just didn't quit.

Well... he did quit Beaulieu. The de Latour family sold it in 1969 to a wine and spirits conglomerate based out of Connecticut called Heublein. André spent a few years under a Heublein run Beaulieu, feeling uncomfortable among the corporate feel and the relationship between owner and winemaker, so he saw the 1971 vintage through its needs and resigned in 1973 on his 36th year at BV.
He has taught me rigorous technology, but he works off the feel of the vine and the wine. His true affiliation is to humanity. - Rob Davis, winemaker at Jordan Winery
Robert Mondavi and André Tchelistcheff

For a few years already André had his own oenologist consultation business out of Saint Helena on the side, and leaving Beaulieu just gave him more time to focus on that instead. He drove around in a fancy yellow sports car from vineyard to vineyard, client to client, spreading his knowledge and passion around Napa and Sonoma.

Check out these California heavyweights that got the Tchelistcheff touch as a mentor throughout the years: Donn Chappellet of Chappellet Winery, Jill Davis of Buena Vista, Rob Davis of Jordan Winery, Jamie Davies of Schramsberg, Mike Duffy of Optima, Mary Ann Graf of Simi, Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills, Joe Heitz of Heitz Wine Cellars, Agustin Huneeus of Franiscan and Quintessa, Louis P. Martini of Louis M. Martini, Justin Meyer of Silver Oak, Robert Mondavi of Robert Mondavi Winery, and Warren Winiarski of Stag's Leap. That's an impressive roster.

No doubt his favorite student was his own son, Dimitri Tchelistcheff. Dmitri became an esteemed Napa Valley winemaker and consultant in his own right. Dmitri worked in his father's lab as a teenager and went to UC Davis for enology. He worked at Schramsberg as a winemaker, Gallo as an enologist, winemaster of Bodegas de Santo Tomas (in Baja, Mexico), became a highly acclaimed consultant for wineries around the world, and finished off his career as winemaker at Jarvis Estate. We recently lost Dmitri just a few months ago. He died on July 5th, 2017 at the age of 87.

Dmitri Tchelistcheff
So what gives, man? If André was so great then why isn't there a Tchelistcheff Vineyards on the shelves? When asked why he never started up his own winery, according to Wine Spectator, he responded with "I enjoy living. I'm not a wealthy man because I never took a chance. I was always too European and more willing to stick with my ways rather than take a chance." Hey, even though I don't know what too European means, I get what he's saying. André was a high achiever that went to great lengths to make sure he didn't fail, and there's more roads to failure than success when taking risks. The guy just wanted to do what he's good at, and to enjoy living while doing it.

André is said to believe that one of his own greatest achievements was leading the charge to get Carneros, which is shared between Napa and Sonoma, its own AVA. He went to the mat for Carneros. He even convinced Beaulieu to buy up land there when he was still with them, and then he planted the first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (!!!) in the region. He continued to fight for Carneros after leaving Beaulieu, and in 1983 his efforts paid off with success. The Los Carneros AVA exists, in large part, due to him.
He lives with wine in his blood. - Cheryl Barber Jones, former winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle
André Tchelistcheff
IMAGE CREDIT: winecountrygeographic
In the late 1960's, a wine writer named Leon Adams told André that Washington State may be something he should look in to. So he had some wines from the oldest winery in Washington, founded in 1954. At the time they were called American Wine Growers and they were located outside of Seattle, Washington. And, no sir, he didn't like it.

But then he tried some samples from Associated Vintners out of Columbia Valley, Washington. This winery was created by several professors from the University of Washington in 1962, and it was the first winery in the state focusing on Bordeaux varietals and blends. Associated Vintners renamed themselves Columbia Winery and their wines are widely available today.

Because of those wines by Associated Vintners / Columbia Winery, André was won over by the potential he saw.  The American Wine Growers guys who made those wines that he didn't like? Whelp, they hired him as soon as he showed interest in consulting in Washington. They became Chateau Ste. Michelle, which today is a favorite among American wine consumers and a powerhouse of a corporation. Every few months André and Dorothy would drive from Napa up to Washington to consult Chateau St. Michelle and others, and he was a heavy influence on everybody there until he passed away.

During his endeavors in Washington, André was a mentor / consultant to Cheryl Barber Jones of Chateau Ste Michelle, Allen Shoup of also Chateau Ste Michelle and now Shadows Vintners, Kay Simon of Chinook Wines, Doug Gore of Columbia Crest, and Rob Griffin of Preston Wine Cellars, Hogue Cellars and Barnard Griffin Winery. Without André, who knows what would have happened with Washington State wine as a whole?
He was proud of his role up here. He watched the winery grow from nothing. - Allen Shoup, former winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle
In 1978 André's own nephew, Alex Golitzin, founded Quilceda Creek Vintners in  Snohomish, Washington (just outside of Seattle) with his wife Jeannette. Quilceda is well regarded as producing among the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the entire country. Their son Paul joined his father as fellow winemaker of Quilceda in 1992, and he's now the Director of Winemaking.

But check this out because it's totally cool: Not only is Alex a nephew of André on his mother's side, but he's also a relative of Prince Lev Sergervich Golitsyn on his father's side. Prince Lev happened to be the winemaker to that Russian Tsar Nicholas II at the beginning of this article. You can read more about him in my article A Bubbly Biography - The Story of Sparkling Wine - Part 3: Sekt and the Future. Isn't history fun?

Right now Washington State is crushing it with their Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and, I don't care what any of you say, the best Merlot as a varietal in the world. Settle down, I said as a varietal.

The drive that André and Dorothy took every few months from California to Washington obviously means that they were physically passing through Oregon. So of course, André had his feet in the vineyards and his hands on the wine there too. He consulted with the likes of Dick Erath of Erath Winery, David Lett (the Papa of Pinot) of The Eyrie Vineyards, and convinced Ed King Jr. and Ed King III to buy land and establish King Estate. André may have been frustrated with Pinot Noir on the Beaulieu properties, but he recognized the greatness it could achieve in Oregon.
Wine begins in the vineyard and always, always, we must come back to the vineyard. - André Tchelistcheff
Heublein brought André back in as a consultant at Beaulieu in February of 1991 after eighteen years of separation. By then he had to quit driving around those fancy yellow cars, after breaking his arm left him unable to drive. He said of his new position at Beaulieu , "I am not looking for a new career. But I still have work I want to do."  Unfortunately, that triumphant return to Beaulieu only lasted three years.

André Tchelistcheff
That's because in early 1994 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which is closely linked to both heavy smoking and heavy drinking. André had always been a chain smoker, and he had tried to quit smoking a few times. But he continually went back to the stick. He claimed that since his palate was developed while he was a smoker, it was necessary for him to taste properly. I mean, that's a load of bull. Those are the words of a nicotine addict making an excuse to continue his habit. We all have our vices. But regardless, damage from peritonitis, smoking, drinking, or perhaps a combination of all of them finally caught up to him.

André Tchelistcheff died at the Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa on Tuesday, April 5th, 1994 at the age of 92. He shares the same day of passing as Seattle grunge legend Kurt Cobain. Just one week prior to his death, André had surgery to remove a stomach tumor. It's not clear through all of my research whether or not the cause of death was from complications or an infection from that surgery, or if it was from something else entirely.

According to his obituary in The New York Times, he left his wife, Dorothy; his son, Dmitri; two grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

He also left an incredible legacy. The things he accomplished and the people he inspired are way more important to this legacy than his awards. But hey, I have to list them, right? During his insanely long and successful career, André was awarded The Merit Award of the American Society of Enologists (1970), The Distinguished Service Award by Wine Spectator (1986),  Wine Man of The Year by the Wine Industry Technical Symposium (1990), The Reader's Choice Award by Wine Spectator (2000), Lifetime Acheivement Award by COPIA (2004), and placed in the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America (2007). The French government named him a Chevelier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole in 1954, then promoted him to Officier du Merite Agricole in 1979.

Today there's a statue of The Maestro outside of the Beaulieu Vineyard tasting room, toasting visitors with a stone glass of wine as they enter and exit the building. The 7th day of next month will be his 106th birthday.

- Joey Casco, CSW/CSS

* paragraph written by Graham Richardson, my personal history consultant. Thank you again, Graham.
Appreciating old wine is like making love to a very old lady. It is possible. It can even be enjoyable. But it requires a bit of imagination. - André Tchelistcheff
The Oxford Companion to Wine
André Tchelistcheff -
Napa Valley - A legacy of greatness
The Maestro: André Tchelistcheff
The Maestro - Wine Wit and Wisdom
20 years later, André Tchelistcheff’s influence remains in Washington
Mentor-winemaker André Tchelistcheff helped make Washington a major player
Quilceda Creek Vineyards
Society of Bacchus: André Tchelistcheff
Wine Spectator: André Tchelistcheff
Tchelistcheff's Wine Spectator Obituary
Tchelistcheff's New York Times Obituary
Tchelistcheff's Los Angeles Times Obituary
Tchelistcheff's The Independant Times Obituary
"There's Life After Wine"
Death of Esteemed Napa Valley Winemaker Dimitri Tchelistcheff at the age of 87
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  1. Hello,
    Please be aware there are a number of incorrect facts / statements in your above descripton: "Daddy Tchelistcheff initially sided with the Bolsheviks (later to become the Soviets) instead of the Russian Empire that he served before, and his estate was stripped away from him when questions arose about who he was really supporting. So, as a fifteen year old junior officer, André was pulled out of the Kiev military academy so he and his family could promptly flee. They went south, away from Moscow, before the Bolsheviks took over and the Civil War began." 1. André's father never sided with the Bolsheviks! 2. The family only fled after the Bolshevik uprising and André's father was never stripped of his property by the previous government only by the Bolshevik's led by Lenin who put André's father on the first list to be exterminated. That is when the family fled the estate and Moscow not before! 3. André only started the military academy after they fled so he could not have been pulled out of it prior to fleeing. I have based these factual corrections on my great grandfather's memoirs as well as from André, his brother Victor and sister Alexandra's own recollections.

    Additional incorrect facts:

    "In 1921, as a nineteen year old and a three year veteran of the White Army, André Tchelistcheff was severely wounded during an attack on his unit in Crimea. By a goddamn machine gun. In a goddamn snowstorm. I'm not clear if they fled immediately from the ambush or if there was a battle, but after the exchange André's unit left him for dead. Even his parents were informed of his passing, and they mourned his loss with a Russian Orthodox funeral. But wait! Somehow this badass mofo was able to survive, recover, and return to the White Army. He continued to fight for two more years, and when he did return home in 1923, the Tchelistcheffs packed up shop yet again and headed to Yugoslavia." André left Russia in 1920 during the mass exodus under the direction of General Wrangel. All of the following statements that are made that André left in 1923 are incorrect as well as he was no longer in Russia at that time. Thank you for taking the time to look this over and hopefully you will be kind enough to correct the above false statement. Sincerely yours, Mark Tchelistcheff

    1. Wow, thank you so much for this, Mark! I did a ton of research on this article and it appears that some of it was incorrect. If there’s one thing I hate as a writer it’s being the source of any misleading or false information. I’ll fix the article as soon as I can, and if you’d like to discuss it further please email me at

  2. I might be totally wrong, but I think that photo you have referenced as from the Napa Register is actually of Will Jarvis and not of Dimitri.



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  4. Great review on André! It’s always interesting to explore different sparkling wines and how they pair with various occasions and foods. Speaking of pairing and presentation, for those who love to entertain or enjoy a chilled glass of champagne at its best, choosing the right ice machine can be just as crucial as selecting the right bottle. Different types of ice machines offer various benefits, from producing crystal-clear cubes that melt slowly to fluffy nuggets perfect for cocktails. This guide can help you find the ideal match for your entertaining needs, ensuring that every glass of champagne is served perfectly chilled and more enjoyable.



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