My favorite Russian winemaker:André Tchelistcheff
There has been much chatter about Russians in recent months. But you rarely hear much discussion about Russian wine. That’s because there is not much of it — Russian wine, that is.
So it is all the more interesting that a diminutive Russian born at the turn of the 20th century would come to be regarded as perhaps the most important player in the emergence of the California wine industry that we know today. His name was André Tchelistcheff (pronounced chel-LEEST-cheff), and now a new film has been released that documents and chronicles the impact he had on the wines that we drink to this day.
Titled “André Tchelistcheff: The Voice of Wine,” the film is more than just a documentary. It is a beautifully conceived and produced cinematic love letter from André’s grandnephew, Mark Tchelistcheff, to his late great-granduncle.
With narration provided by Academy Award nominated actor Ralph Fiennes and a score by Russian composer Alexei Aigui, the film provides polish and professionalism that defies the expectations for a film from a virgin director.
While Mark has spent a career as a producer, the decade that he took painstakingly making this film marked his first foray as a director. It is hoped that he will find another subject that inspires him as much as André.
But that may be impossible, for André’s life was nothing short of amazing.
Born in 1901 in Moscow to a powerful family, he spent a privileged youth among the bourgeois until Lenin and the Bolsheviks put the family on their death list. A passage early in the film describes the family’s flight from their estate as the Bolsheviks hanged their hunting dogs from the trees.
What followed was a circuitous journey punctuated by fortune, both tragic and triumphant, that eventually led André to the Napa Valley in 1938, just a few years after the repeal of Prohibition. Georges de Latour had a notion that Napa could become a home for great wines and offered André a position at the Beaulieu Winery. It was here that André finally found his calling in his late 30s.
Winemaking at that time in Napa was primitive at best. Sanitation was a problem and sweet wines were the main product produced by wineries that survived Prohibition by making Sacramental wines. Though shocked by the lack of professional wine expertise, André began to make changes in the way in which wines were made. He opened a laboratory to study wine chemistry, introduced cold fermentation techniques and changed the varieties of grapes that were grown in the vineyards.
And, until his death in 1994, he mentored generations of young winemakers who would go on to make not just the Napa Valley, but Sonoma, Santa Barbara and even Washington state great winemaking regions. It is impossible to overstate his role in the growth of the industry. The quality we see today in American wine can be traced directly to the attitude that he imbued in those who worked for and with him.
In the film, there are so many wonderful scenes of the 4-foot, 11-inch giant. One of the most endearing is a video of the old man leaning in and dropping his ear onto a barrel of wine. He is listening to what is happening inside, the language of wine as it ages in the barrel. He, too, speaks to the barrel and the wine. It is indicative of the passion and the lifelong relationship André had with wine. To him, wine was a living, breathing entity that was like a friend.
The film is punctuated by interviews with generations of winemaking legends, including Christian Mouiex, Warren Winiarski, Miljenko Grgich, Marchese Ludovico Antinori, Greg Lafollette, Robert Mondavi and Francis Ford Coppola, among others.
The evening I saw the film, it was at a small showing in Francis Ford Coppola’s private screening room on the Inglenook Niebaum-Coppola Estate. Winemakers, including Greg Lafollette, members of the Grgich family and Jean Claude Boisset, had settled in the sofas and on the couches for a late-night screening, glasses of wine in hand. When the final credits rolled there was an ovation, both for the man and for the film.
Wine movies are a tough sell. There have been few that have captured the passion that people feel for the process and the journey of winemakers. But due to the subject and the crafting of “André Tchelistcheff: The Voice of Wine,” this is one worth seeking out.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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