Monday, March 26, 2018

"André -- The Voice of Wine" is a rare wine documentary of interest to novices and experts alike

André Tchelitscheff is arguably the most important man in modern California wine history, but that doesn't guarantee that a documentary about his life will be interesting.

Fortunately, his grand-nephew Mark Tchelistcheff, who spent 10 years working on the film "André -- The Voice of Wine," enlists eloquent wine people from around the world to tell the story of a man who went from fighting on the losing side in Russia's Communist revolution to teaching all of Napa Valley about the importance of hygiene.

"My point was to bring out the terroir of André, but not necessarily to focus on the dirt," Mark Tchelistcheff told me. "There were many stories that did not make the film. 70% of the winemakers I interviewed didn't make the film. I have over 300 hours of interviews that didn't make the film."

What he chose, with some advice from three-time Oscar-winning sound editor Walter Murch, are snippets that allow winemakers to tell not just the ups and downs of André Tchelistcheff's life, but also how he affected them.

"André -- The Voice of Wine," which has its Wine Country premiere on Apr. 7 during Festival Napa Valley's new Springboard Series, is a rare achievement: a wine documentary that isn't boring for either wine experts or novices.

André Tchelistcheff made it from Russia's defeated White Army to dinner at the White House
The film's editing is crisp, particularly in two amusing sections when famous wine personalities alternate on telling Tchelistcheff stories: Andy Beckstoffer and Dick Peterson on the bitter day when Tchelistcheff learned from a newspaper article that his longtime employer had sold to a corporation, and Jordan winemaker Rob Davis and Rodney Strong winemaker Rick Sayre with a great anecdote about Tchelistcheff tasting a terrible wine.

Novices should be fascinated by the history of a man whose Russian patrician family was scattered by the revolution. Tchelistcheff moved to France and became so successful at poultry farming that he wrote two books on the subject. But his farm was destroyed by a catastrophic hailstorm, so he enrolled at the Pasteur Institute to learn enology.

Mark Tchelistcheff (right) interviews Francis Ford Coppola
Fate finally smiled on him there, sort of. Georges de Latour, the visionary owner of Beaulieu Vineyard -- then the best of the six Napa Valley wineries that survived Prohibition -- came to the Pasteur Institute in 1938 looking for a French winemaker. Tchelistcheff's instructor told de Latour that it's hard to assimilate French people into a foreign country, so he recommended the Russian expat.

Unfortunately, de Latour died within two years of hiring Tchelistcheff, and BV was inherited by a cheapskate family of aristocrats who fought their winemaker over every piece of equipment he wanted to buy. Tchelistcheff thought BV's problems couldn't be solved, and wanted to quit and go back to Europe, but UC Davis professor Maynard Amerine told him that if he left, it would set Napa Valley back a decade. So he stayed under the heel of the cheapskate owners -- for 35 years!

If BV had been Tchelistcheff's only legacy, he would not be well remembered. Tchelistcheff loved wine and he loved helping young winemakers, and he freely gave advice at a time when the few players in the wine industry tended not to cooperate much. Thus his true legacy is not the wines he made, but the people whose lives he touched, both during his time at BV and for the 21 years after his "retirement" when he worked as a consultant.

Greg La Follette worked with Tchelistcheff at the very beginning of La Follette's career. Now the winemaker for his own Alquimista Cellars, La Follette beautifully explained Tchelistcheff's philosophy in the film.

"André's wines really told stories," La Follette said. "Nowadays there's way too much of an emphasis on trying to make a wine just Photoshopped, so that everything's just right with it. André would say that for the little flaws sometimes, that actually created more charm for a wine than if everything was just picture perfect.

"If it was a cool year or a rainy years, André would go with that," La Follette said. "He would just go with the acidity and the lightness and he wouldn't try to doll it up or trick it out. He really wanted each wine to tell a story of that vintage, that year. Because he believed in the wine having its own life, telling its own story. And he believed in our job as winemakers in telling that story. We were only part of the picture and the greatness was in the wine itself. Because what we were doing as winemakers was telling the story of the land. And the story of the land is about timeless things that are much more important and bigger than we will ever be."

I told Mark Tchelistcheff that I found that section moving, and he said, "Greg carries that André spirit. He let me live with him and his family. I went through crush with him. He is an absolutely erudite man."

It's worth noting that André Tchelistcheff wasn't making dainty wine or "natural wine." In 1990, Frank Prial wrote in the New York Times after a huge 50-year vertical tasting of Tchelistcheff's most famous wine, BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve, "The Private Reserves have a richness and an accessibility that are unusual in premium California wines. No one has to learn to enjoy them."

André Tchelistcheff died in 1994. He was hugely influential on many wineries in Napa Valley and elsewhere (one of the last and most controversial decisions of his life continues to pay dividends in Tuscany: see the film). The era of "cult wines" in Napa Valley began soon after, arguably with the heralded 1997 vintage, from which most of the wines are no longer worth drinking. Watching the film, thinking about what La Follette said about Photoshopped wines, I wondered if some of the country's most expensive wines would be more interesting now if André were still alive to counsel letting nature alone. But it's a complicated topic, because maybe that Photoshopped taste profile is why they're the country's most expensive wines.

"I had a long discussion with Stephen Spurrier (of Judgment of Paris fame) about, a wine should tell a story," Mark Tchelistcheff said. "Whether it was a hot year, a cold year, a dry year, whatever, that should be reflected in the wine. Beautiful things are never the same. They're not a carbon copy. Every year is a different year. The wine should reflect what happened in that year's harvest. That's what makes wine special. I think there is a bell curve happening where we're going back to more elegant wines."

The film makes one think André would approve.

"André -- The Voice of Wine" plays on Saturday, Apr. 7 at 3 pm at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville. Tickets are a pricey $25, but with documentaries you never know when you will get another chance to see it. Buy tickets here, and I wouldn't wait because a lotttt of people in Napa Valley might be interested in this.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Jameson said...

This has to be one of the most unique stories about how someone comes to winemaking: "Tchelistcheff moved to France and became so successful at poultry farming that he wrote two books on the subject. But his farm was destroyed by a catastrophic hailstorm, so he enrolled at the Pasteur Institute to learn enology." He also had a big impact in Washington state:

clay h. said...

I have no idea what Mr. & Mrs. Tchelitscheff we’re doing in the finger lakes in 1985– but there they were in our tasting room in Hammondsport, NY. Even as a relative newbie to wine production, when he handed me his card I knew exactly who he was. I felt like I had just met Mick Jagger! Looking forward to seeing the film.

W. Blake Gray said...

That's a great story, Clay! I wonder if he had a client in the area.

Jameson: Good link.