ANDRE TCHELISTCHEFF, 83, the Russian ,emigr,e and grand old man of California wine-making, is working his 48th Napa harvest this fall. On Tuesday he is also to attend his first White House dinner, a tribute to Tchelistcheff's contribution to American wine-making, and something of an inconvenience since he did not own a tuxedo when invited. He will also have to miss two days of "crush," the crucial stage of wine-making upon which a winery's whole year depends.
He and his wife, Dorothy, will fly to Washington for the dinner and then will fly back to Napa the following day. Tchelistcheff serves as a consultant to 15 wineries and is a kind of free-lance information bureau to viticulturists, winemakers, journalists and industrialists with a million or two to invest.
Tchelistcheff came to the United States in 1938 from Paris, where he worked as a research enologist at the Institut National Agronomique. He was hired by Georges de Latour of Beaulieu Vineyards, a landmark in Napa. Tchelistcheff spoke no English and had never been to America. Born in Moscow, Tchelistcheff had been educated in Czechoslovakia and fought in the White Russian army. He remains a small but expansive man with a heavy accent. "Can you imagine," he asks, "moving directly from Paris to Rutherford in 1938? It was very western."
He did not think he would stay, but within a year he had published a paper on viniculture in English, and 10 years later created a sensation with two classic vintages of pinot noir that proved great wine could be made in California. Tchelistcheff and his wife recently tasted the 46th and 47th pinots and found them "beautiful. I never thought I was creating a wine that would live as long as the great burgundies."
He prefers pinot noir to all other red wines but has contributed more than any other person to the flowering of cabernet sauvignon in Napa. The BV Georges de Latour (a cabernet) was Tchelistcheff's creation, and today most of the clients who pay for his advice have cabernet as their foremost concern. The advance in wine-making technology is the most striking change Tchelistcheff has observed in half a century, but the emphasis, he says, has now shifted to the vineyards. "What has happened in Napa has been a miracle. When I came there were only 6,000 acres in vines and a handful of wineries. Now there are 31,000 acres planted and 130 wineries."
Overproduction is presently a problem, but he thinks the industry will recover. "We have entered a new cycle . . . We have learned a lot about wine-making since Pasteur's times, but we have as much ye learn about viticulture." He foresees many small, local appellations to distinguish new high- quality wines, among them possible new varietals developed through genetics.
The biggest absence on the American market, Tchelistcheff said, is the medium priced glass of quality wine. The public will eventually demand better, less alcoholic, good wine at affordable prices. And the red wine of the future, Tchelistcheff says, will be pinot noir, hard to grow and difficult to make, but "once you develop a burgundian palate, you can't get pinot out of your mind."