Assessing the Tchelistcheff Effect

TIMES WINE WRITER

The eyes beneath those formidable brows were deep-set, intense--and, at the moment, angry.

It was 1981 and I was judging Pinot Noirs at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair wine competition. Beside me was the man with the deep-set eyes, legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who died April 5 at age 92. We were part of a five-person panel.

Voting on wine No. 8, Andre firmly said: "Gold medal!" I concurred. The other panelists voted no award, so the wine was discarded. Tchelistcheff gritted his teeth and said nothing.

But at a break, as he puffed on a cigarette, he quietly said to me: "Wine No. 8 was excellent. Whoever made it, he knows Pinot Noir."

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Yet he knew he couldn't protest too loudly because of the Tchelistcheff Effect--the influence a powerful and respected judge can have on all the others in a wine judging. He was so certain about what was great wine and so forceful about expressing his opinion that he often intimidated younger judges.

In fact, after I told the competition director about Tchelistcheff's comment on wine No. 8, the director re-entered the wine in the next round, since the wine had received two gold medal votes. Tchelistcheff delivered a few favorable comments on the wine, and the second group of judges voted it a silver medal. Tchelistcheff smiled.

Later we learned that the wine was 1978 Davis Bynum Pinot Noir. Tchelistcheff knew nothing about the winemaker, but predicted great things for him.

He was right. That was the first wine made by Gary Farrell, who since has become one of California's greatest winemakers.

But Tchelistcheff was more than just a great judge and skilled winemaker. He was also a romantic with twinkling eyes.

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Rob Davis, winemaker at Jordan Winery in Sonoma County, remembered how he once asked Tchelistcheff to describe a Chardonnay. "I used terms like 'apples' and 'lactic acid,' " said Davis. "Andre shook his head. He said: 'No, this wine smells like the breast of a young woman in winter, wrapped in fur.' That was Tchelistcheff."

Tchelistcheff was also a realist and often told newcomers to viniculture of its problems, including the high cost of starting a winery. Richard Peterson, Tchelistcheff's assistant at Beaulieu Vineyard, tells of how the late Fred McCrea in 1946 asked the Russian-born enologist to help him assess what should be planted at Stony Hill, the rugged property he'd just bought.

As the two walked up the steep, rock-strewn hill, Tchelistcheff asked: "Mr. McCrea, what business did you say you recently retired from?" McCrea said he had been in advertising.

Tchelistcheff replied: "I seriously recommend that you remain in the advertising business."

Tchelistcheff arrived here a 37-year-old enologist and found a wine industry ravaged by Prohibition. He could tell stories of the problems he encountered in those days--vinegar flies in wine, a winery in ruins, an ill-prepared staff, rusted pipes, rodents everywhere. Often he spoke of himself in the third person.

"What I see is horrible technology," he said in a 1991 interview. "Look, I am coming from European wine industry to the most progressive technical country. And I locate this. . . . Sleepless nights of Andre Tchelistcheff."

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In 1991, 19 years after leaving BV, Andre rejoined the winery. By then BV had lost the prestige it once had.

"I like to leave to this place my beginning," he said. He said he hoped BV would "be as well known (now) as in the past. I like to once again capture the position of Beaulieu in the wine. . . . I got to light them, start the fire. I'm living in young people now. I believe in the youth because I used to be very young. I got to give them something, my beliefs of the past. I like to accept something very good from yesterday and today, but leave to them tomorrow."

Being back at BV, Tchelistcheff said, made him emotional.

"Sometimes when I talk about the wines, I permit myself to suffer a little bit," he said. "When I'd come home, she (wife Dorothy) would say, 'Andre, what the hell, why in your age do you suffer so much?' But that's one of the reasons I came here (again). To give back."

Tchelistcheff declined credit for the rapid rise of California wine, attributing a larger share of credit to Albert J. Winkler and Maynard Amerine, the heads of the UC Davis viticulture and enology departments, and to Ernest and Julio Gallo, for their scientific commitment to making sound wine.

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Tchelistcheff said he wished to leave one message to today's young winemakers: Make wine that tastes like grapes, not production.

"The Chardonnays of today--with 13.8% alcohol!" he exclaimed. "It's unbelievable. And the oak is too much. Give it the wood, but do not allow wood to betray the character of the wine. I am really a fighter against this thing, against the oak."

He opposed winemaking by formula.

"The tragedy of us today (is that) people are guided by big ideas, big dreams, big images, but nobody likes to do fundamental works in winemaking," he said. "Winemakers are not living with wines any more, they are in offices."

He said the winemaker must be in constant touch with the wines, which means the winemaker must be in contact with every employee. "You have to talk with your staff. That includes the grower, the man in charge of crush, even the man in charge of barrel washing, every little thing."

In my many meetings with Tchelistcheff, I always got the feeling of his dedication to simple wines. He was the man who developed the famed BV Private Reserve Cabernet, but he took as much joy in a well-made glass of inexpensive red table wine, and he gave me the feeling that wine was an essential part of daily living.

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