Andre Tchelistcheff, America’s pioneer maker of fine wines who helped dozens of wineries get their start, has died in the Napa Valley. He was 92.
Tchelistcheff, who had worked a full schedule until recently, died Tuesday at Queen of Valley Hospital in Napa. He was found to have cancer of the esophagus three months ago and underwent surgery last week for removal of a stomach tumor.
The Russian-born, French-trained Tchelistcheff, along with Maynard Amerine of UC Davis, is credited with making the greatest strides in bringing California winemakers back from Prohibition, which nearly wiped out a wine industry that today contributes billions of dollars to the state’s economy.
“The word ‘visionary’ really applies to Andre,” said John De Luca, president of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, which represents the industry. “He added immensely to wine’s image as more than just a family beverage and one of the great pleasures of life, but also as part of culture. He was never pretentious and gave us all a sense of how simple and yet sublime wine was to him.”
Tchelistcheff arrived in California from France in 1938, 4 1/2 years after the end of Prohibition, to become winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard in the Napa Valley. He found an industry in disarray, lacking understanding of fine wine production. Immediately, he and the 27-year-old Amerine pooled their talents to educate California winemakers in such then-arcane subjects as viticulture, fermentation science and winery sanitation.
Among his contributions to winemaking were the reduced use of sulfur dioxide in wine production, pioneering use of cold fermentation to retain fruit quality, the use of fining agents to make clear wine and the development of methods to control red wine fermentation. All are now routinely used around the world.
One of Tchelistcheff’s greatest contributions was in the area of sensory evaluation. He developed standards for classical wines that are used today by hundreds of winemakers in many states, and he spoke at wine symposiums in Europe, where he was highly respected.
Tchelistcheff felt that his greatest contribution was in bridging the gap that had existed between grape growing and winemaking.
“The winemaker should be living much closer to the wine grower,” he said. “Before, enology and viticulture had been separated.”
He was a powerful influence in matching the grape varieties to the proper region.
The dynamic Tchelistcheff, a diminutive man who seemingly never tired, worked at Beaulieu through 1971 with the title of vice president. He left to go into what he called semi-retirement. But the move merely fueled a second career--consulting for other wineries.
Among his winery clients were Niebaum-Coppola, Clos Pegase, Conn Creek, Staglin and Villa Mount Eden in the Napa Valley; Jordan, Buena Vista (where he was also a part owner for decades), Field Stone and Domaine Michel in Sonoma County; Firestone in Santa Barbara, and Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington. He also aided his nephew, Alex Golitzin, whose Quilceda Creek Winery outside Seattle is one of the top producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in the nation.
Three years ago, Beaulieu rehired Tchelistcheff to assist in fine wine production.
Jan Shrem, owner of Clos Pegase, said Tchelistcheff was multitalented: “He helped me on every facet of wine--economics, public relations, education, even ethics.”
Rob Davis, winemaker at Jordan Winery, said Tchelistcheff was “learning all the time. He was so progressive, even at his age.”
For years Tchelistcheff made his rounds to winery clients in a racy yellow sports car, dashing about the Napa Valley’s back roads, but after he hurt his arm in an accident in 1990 he gave up driving.
A year later, Tchelistcheff, an inveterate smoker, gave up cigarettes. He had tried to quit years earlier, but went back to smoking after noting that his palate memory had been formed while he was a smoker, and once he quit, wines did not taste or smell the same.
Tchelistcheff could not do anything partway. When Tchelistcheff was nearing 90, Allen Shoup, president of Chateau Ste. Michelle, asked the master to assist in the making of wine at two of his Napa Valley properties, Conn Creek and Villa Mt. Eden.
“He said that to do that job right, he had to climb up on the catwalks and taste the wines, every day,” said Shoup. “I told him, ‘You don’t have to do that; we have people who will go get the wine samples and bring it down to you.’ But he said, ‘No, you must do it yourself.’ And then he accepted the jobs.”
The French government honored him in 1954 for bringing French-quality winemaking to America. In 1990 he was named “Wine Man of the Year” at the Wine Industry Technical Symposium.
Tchelistcheff is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and a son, Dmitri, a consulting winemaker who lives in Hawaii.
Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Napa.