By Libbie Agran
André Tchelistcheff is remembered as the man who shaped the rise of the California premium wine industry after the repeal of Prohibition. His knowledge and leadership raised the standards of grape growing and winemaking in California to a level of excellence never before seen in our region’s wine history. This legendary man inspired, educated, and pioneered the sharing of technical data among winemakers in Napa County and throughout California. He once said that the highest title he aspired to was that of a “permanent student of the University of California.”
André was born in Russia but fled with his family to Eastern Europe during the Russian Revolution. He earned his degree in agricultural science at the University of Brno in Czechoslovakia and moved to France to study enological science and viticulture. In 1937 Andre Tchelistcheff lived in France and worked at the Institute of National Agronomy just outside Paris. In spite of being a chain smoker, he became known for his remarkable palate. When Georges de Latour, the owner of Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley traveled to France to find a top chemist to hire at Beaulieu he offered the job to André. Beaulieu premiums wines had been shipped to East Coast in 1937 but arrived with spoiled and undrinkable. George wanted André to improve the chemical stability of his wines and to modernize the equipment, technology and winemaking process. André accepted the job and arrived in Napa, California on September 15, 1938.
André Tchelistcheff was surprised at the primitive and unsanitary conditions both in the California vineyards and wineries. He established new standards with the vines and the wines at Beaulieu by controlling fermentation and upgrading the equipment. One year later, Tchelistcheff’s Burgundy won the grand prize at the Golden Gate Exposition of 1939. André insisted on helping local wineries participate in developing new standards in winemaking. He built a community of winemakers who shared technical information and technology, first in Napa and later in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. The reputation of the quality of California wines made Napa famous as a world-class wine growing region.
André’s first remarkable success at Beaulieu was to create a series of outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon vintages. When he retired in 1973, André had produced twenty-five Cabernet Sauvignon vintages that he considered to be superior.
Every winemaker has a wine that changes and challenges his future. The Burgundian grape, Pinot Noir, represented a “life challenge” for him. André tasted a 1918 Stanly Pinot Noir from grapes grown in the Carneros region of Napa County. John A. Stanly, a San Francisco lawyer, inherited a fortune in 1878; he bought 1600 acres south west of the town of Napa where ocean breezes brought cooler temperatures. He planted Cabernet, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir in the 1880s and 1890s and sold bulk wine to Gundlach-Bundschu and Inglenook Wineries among others. Stanly died in 1899 but the winery flourished under the supervision of Henry Alphonse Pellet, a great winemaker in St. Helena, and a vineyardist, famous for his knowledge of trellis management and a pioneer in the use of resistant rootstock. The Stanly vines and wines survived Prohibition. When André tasted the 1918 Pinot Noir, he realized the potential to produce outstanding Pinot Noir in the Burgundian style from the Carneros region. André later would state that in his career at Beaulieu from 1938 to 1973, he could only name three superior vintages for Pinot Noir. He considered the 1946 Beaulieu Vineyard Beaumont Pinot Noir his best wine.
André formed relationships with the scholars of wines and vines at UC Davis, promoted enology and viticulture, and continuing education for everyone in the wine industry. His influence and consultations with the modern wine industry in the state of Washington were profound; André Tchelistcheff is known as the founding father of the Washington wine industry.
In 1973 André became a full-time consultant to California wineries including HMR, purchased by Dr. Stanley Hoffman in the early 1960s in the Santa Lucia Mountain range in San Luis Obispo County. He advised the Hoffman family on new technology and equipment for their winery built in 1975. André described the Hoffman Mountain Ranch as “a jewel of ecological elements.” David Hoffman managed the vineyards and his brother Mike made the wines. The 1973 HMR Chardonnay won a gold medal at the 1975 International Wine Competition in London. The Pinot Noir, made in the Burgundian tradition, soon developed an outstanding reputation and made HMR famous. André advised local grower Richard Sauret to continue growing his Zinfandel grapes, dry farmed hedge pruned in the old-world style and predicted that Richard would become recognized for his unique grapes. HMR was the first Winery in the County to designate the vineyard from which they sourced their grapes on the HMR label: Zinfandel from the Richard Sauret Vineyard.
Andre died in Napa in 1994.
In March 2017 the documentary, André: The Voice of Wine, directed by Mark Tchelistcheff, was screened at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival and sponsored by the Wine History Project of SLO County.