The Russian is coming, and it's Washington's good fortune that he is. Andre Tchelistcheff, as fine a winemaker as Russia or America has produced, will be the greatest of honor tonight at a private tasting sponsored by the Cent Chevaliers du Vin, a Washington wine group. Now 75, he is the man who made 95 vintages of Beaulieu Vineyards. (B.V.) Private Reserve from the late 1930s to the mid 1960s as well s educating and inspiring two generations - so far - of California winemakers.
The B.V. wines the Russian-born, French-trained Tchelistcheff made are the most famous single label this country has yet produced.
A tiny, articulate man of strong features, accent and opinions, he is a walking oral history of California winemaking since Prohibition. Yet to Washington, where living legends are sealed in tombs the day they leave office, he will provide a refreshing surprise.
Since his "retirement" four years ago he has taken on more than half a dozen consultancies and is more active than ever. "If wasted a tremendous amount of my energy in the past staying in one place," he said during a brisk walk to a restaurant here early this week.
He was in New York to represent one of his clients, Simi, at a tasting of premium wines from 14 California producers.
Wine culture in California is going "up up up," he said. He predicts a "red revolution" to follow the current vogue for white wines with even more emphasis on quality production and wines of lower alcoholic content made for everyday drinking.
Even when Tchelistcheff speaks or writes of 1976 - "definitely an exceptional vintage" (for reds), it is his frame of reference - "like 1939, 1946 and maybe even 1949" that excites the curiosity.
He was there then. He was present when 16 men gathered to form the American Society of Wine Chemists and proposed they call themselves enologists (implying a knowledge of the vineyard as well as the test tube). He attended the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco and tasted pre-Prohibition wines ("good wines") from vineyards such as Cresta Blanca, Concannon, Wente, Simi, Inglenook and Beringer.
In 1947 he founded the first private research laboratory in California. His colleagues and pupils - Robert and Peter Mondavi, Louis Martini Jr., Joe Heitz - banded together to plant and promote the best varietal grapes.
"When I came," Tchelistcheff recalls, "I was very depressed. The industry was living in a very primitive age. Prohibition had left a few islands - vineyards producing sacramental wines - but had damaged viticulture. One way to beat the law was home production, so growers shifted to grapes of high production, high color and tough skins that would travel well.
"After repeal it was a catastrophe. Overaged wines made for sacraments wents directly on the markets as table wine," he said, shaking his head sadly. "When I first came to New York it was not possible to talk with respect of the table wines of California."
In addition vineyard owners jealously guarded their secrets. "In those days (before and during World War II) it was taboo to share knowledge with neighbors, to discuss our production, to allow representatives of the University of California into our celars. It took us until 1947 to gain the privilege of professional academic discussion.
The insistence of merchants (and consumers) that each winery offer a wide range of products and consumers' demands for generic wines (burgundy or sauterne or chablis) didn't help raise quality standards either, in Tchelistcheff's opinion. As for the public's knowledge of wine:
"In 1945, I drove across the county,"he said. "I visited a restaurant in Texa. They didn't serve wine, so I left two bottles and asked them to taste it. On the return trip I stopped again. I asked about the wine. 'I'm sorry,' they told me. 'We don't know how to open these things."
Tchelistcheff provided a corkscrew.
"There's a new air blowing from consumers to producers," he said with a smile. "The American consumers are a beautiful species. They read. They learn. They are perfectionists. Listen to the questions they ask our tour guides (at Simi). You'd be amazed at their knowledge."
He would have the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raise the minimum requirement for varietal wines from 51 to 75 per cent (of cabernet in a wine labeled cabernet sauvignon) and begin to draw precise limits for prime winegrowing areas.
"It's time for us to mature as an industry," he said. He tartly dismissed a Wine Institute proposal to require that only 75 per cent of a vintage American wine (instead of the present 95 per cent) be from the vintage year on the label: "I do not believe that any step backward represents progress."
Andre Tchelistcheff expressed other disapproval. He doesn't like direct comparisons between wines of California and wines of France, however useful the results may be commercially. "A mathematical victory - 17.4 versus 17.3 on a scale of 20 is ridiculous," he said. He doesnt like hybrid grapes being used for wine.
He does like good wine, whether his own or a competitor's. Among the prize wine he made at Beaulieu, his personal favorites are the 1948 and the 1951 cabernets sauvignons, the 1946 pinot noir and as "a dark horse" the 1949 cabernet.
Tchelistcheff began life in Moscow and, oddly enough for a farm-oriented winemaker, was working in another city - Paris - when America beckoned. He was doing research at the National Farm Institute's tiny vineyard in Montmartre when Georges de Latour, the owner of Beaulieu, asked him to come to the Napa Valley to direct his vineyards and winery. Tchelistcheff was 37.
Two years later de Latour died and in 1941 the first B.V. Private Reserve wines bearing his name were released.
This evening's tasting in Washington is a comparison between wines of Simi and European counterparts. The Simi wines are to be rose of cabernet sauvignon, 1975; gewurztraminer, 1974, and cabernet sauvignon, 1972, Lot 1 and Lot 2, made with a blend of 7 per cent wine from the merlot grape, has been available here. Lot 1, which contains 40 per cent merlot, is difficult to find.
Andre Tchelistcheff is hard to find, too. If he is not at Simi, he will be at Buena Vista, Stag's Leap, Firestone, Hoffman, Jordan or Ste. Michelle in his capacity as consultant or perhaps visiting his son. Dimitri, who is making wine at Bodegas de Santo Tomas in Baja California. The only certainty, wherever he is found, is that there will be avineyard somewhere nearby.