Wine: André the Giant

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Ask Robert Mondavi. Ask Joseph Heitz. Ask Michael Grgich. Who is the father of Napa Valley winemaking? The Maestro, of course. Such was the sobriquet—respectfully and affectionately bestowed by his friends and students—of the region’s preeminent creative spirit and most colorful character, enological legend André Tchelistcheff.

Slight of stature (some have described him as elfin), this remarkable man’s mind and soul seemed to radiate from his piercing blue eyes, and few who came into contact with him remained unchanged by the experience. Not simply a brilliant chemist and gifted winemaker, Tchelistcheff was a political thinker, an aficionado of music, a sparkling conversationalist, and an endless tinkerer who would unleash sudden and inexplicable verbal flares of obscure knowledge, ranging in subject matter from realpolitik to avian barnyard diseases. What is most revealing about the modus operandi of Tchelist-cheff’s mind, however, was its inexhaustible generosity: Of his wisdom, experience, insight, and opinion he gave freely to all who asked—and occasionally those who hadn’t. This openness and limitless curiosity made up the crucible in which Tchelistcheff’s flagship wine, Beaulieu Vineyard’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, was forged—and in the process, the very style of Napa Valley Cabernet that has itself become legend.

Tchelistcheff, who was born 100 years ago to a patrician Moscow family, first encountered Georges de Latour, the founder of Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Vineyards, in 1938. Though the California collaboration of these two Europeans was brief (de Latour died in 1940), Tchelistcheff carried on, working closely with de Latour’s widow, Fernande. He oversaw the maturation of the 1936 BV Cabernet Sauvignon, which would win the 1939 Grand Sweepstakes Award at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and then went on to demonstrate the superior results of small-oak-barrel aging. He also delineated and perfected methodologies for malolactic fermentation and revolutionized white winemaking through the process of cold fermentation, which he developed. He remained with Beaulieu Vineyards until 1973, when he established his own consultancy firm in the town of St. Helena, Calif. In this capacity, Tchelistcheff mentored many of the valley’s most influential and respected winemakers. By the time of his death in 1994, few vines in the region had—directly or in-directly—escaped the benediction of his touch.

While Tchelistcheff became most closely associated with the Napa style of Cabernet, his pas-sion was Pinot Noir. In 1962, he persuaded the de Latour family to purchase the Carneros land at the southern end of the valley that now comprises the BV #5 vineyard. In 1992, Tchelistcheff and Joel Aiken, vice president of winemaking at BV, produced a single vintage of limited edition Pinot Noir from this vineyard to mark its 30th anniversary. The Pinot was dubbed Maestro in honor of Tchelistcheff.

This year, to mark the 100th anniversary of Tchelistcheff’s birth, Aiken has crafted the second vintage of Maestro 2000, which was released on August 5. Only 300 cases of Maestro 2000 were made—all magnum bottles—and the wine will be sold only through the vineyard’s tasting room (707.967.5230, www.bvwine.com), with a limit of two bottles per customer. The 2000 Maestro, like its namesake, may seem diminutive at first, with its emphasis on fruit, particularly cherry; yet its largeness of spirit reveals itself: Pepper, earth, and chocolate essences unfold in harmonious complications that set up a pleasingly contradictory dialectic on the palate.

If the father of Napa Valley ever thought of his wines as children, in this child he might have recognized a small part of himself.

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