HE WAS known as “the Maestro,” and for more than a half-century, he was the dean of the American wine industry.
André Tchelistcheff, who died 20 years ago this spring, left an indelible imprint on the wine industry from Napa Valley to Washington.
“He was very proud of the years he spent up there,” said his widow, Dorothy Tchelistcheff, who lives in Napa, Calif. “I’m sure he would be amazed and astounded by what has happened in Washington.”
Tchelistcheff was born in 1901 into Russian aristocracy and fought for the White Army during the Russian Civil War until nearly dying on a Crimean battlefield.
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He left Russia to study winemaking in France, then was lured to famed Beaulieu Vineyards by owner Georges de Latour in 1938. During the next three decades, Tchelistcheff defined Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.
By the 1960s, Tchelistcheff was mostly retired and had a thriving winemaking consulting business. Wine writer Leon Adams suggested he look north to Washington, so Tchelistcheff tracked down some wines made by American Wine Growers, the precursor to Chateau Ste. Michelle.
“He wasn’t too impressed,” Dorothy Tchelistcheff said.
But then he tasted samples from a new winery called Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery in Woodinville).
“He said, ‘If this kind of wine can be made here, you can do it,’ ” she said.
By the late 1960s, the Tchelistcheffs were driving between Napa and Seattle every few months to consult for Ste. Michelle, a relationship that remained in place until he died.
“He was a gentleman,” said Allen Shoup, Ste. Michelle’s former president and now owner of Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla. “André liked the wines Washington was making, and he gave us a lot of credibility.”
Tchelistcheff worked with such winemakers as Kay Simon, then a winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle and now owner of Chinook Wines in Prosser, as well as Doug Gore at Columbia Crest and others within the company.
But his effect on Washington goes even deeper. His nephew is Alex Golitzin, who launched Quilceda Creek Vintners in Snohomish in 1978. Today, Quilceda Creek’s wines are among the most sought-after anywhere in the world.
And Rob Griffin, who has been making wine longer than anyone in Washington, met Tchelistcheff when he was in high school in California because his uncle sold grapes to Tchelistcheff. In the 1970s, Griffin was an assistant winemaker at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County, where Tchelistcheff was a consultant.
“I spent a lot of time with him and learned a lot from him,” said Griffin, who came to Washington in 1977 to work for Preston Winery and later Hogue Cellars before launching Barnard Griffin in Richland. “He had a sense of dedication to craftsmanship. He had seen it all and knew the proper way to do things. It was a lot of validation and a lot of realizing what is enormously important — and what isn’t.”
Tchelistcheff’s keen insights continue to guide these Washington winemakers, even as his words fade into history.
Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.