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Knowledge and Passion


Louis Guida

"Wine is a beverage of pleasure," Andre Tchelistcheff told a New York Times writer some years ago. "It is a mistake to over analyze wine. Ask a European what's in Haut-Brion. He'll say, 'I don't know.' He's buying wine, not technology."

Mr. Tchelistcheff, who died in 1994 at the age of 92, was one of America's most celebrated wine makers. Born in Russia and educated in France, he became wine maker at Beaulieu Vineyard in California's Napa Valley in 1938. He pioneered cold fermentation and malolactic fermentation in American wine and produced some of the world's greatest cabernet sauvignon at Beaulieu before retiring in 1973 to become a roving consultant, for Beaulieu and other wineries.

Mr. Tchelistcheff was still at Beaulieu when I worked there as a cellarman during a fall harvest. I got to know him only slightly, but his presence, and his reputation as a legend in American wine, gave a sense of pride and purpose to my work of shoveling pomace from the bottom of 10,000-gallon fermentation tanks.

There was a feeling, shared I think by most of the cellarmen, that somewhere at the end of our daily sweat would be a world-class wine. The pay was good, and our labor wasn't being squandered on generic bulk burgundy or run-of-the-mill Napa cabernet. Even corporate distiller Heublein, which bought Beaulieu in 1969, wasn't tampering with the Private Reserve.

For all his celebrity status and the trickle-down pride he generated, Mr. Tchelistcheff didn't seem a prima donna or dictatorial master of the realm--at least not from my perspective as a low man on the totem pole. He seemed intense and energetic, but approachable, a star you could talk to--if you weren't asking a stupid question.

His comments to the New York Times remind me of an anecdote I heard about him. Mr. Tchelistcheff, a long-time heavy smoker, once quit smoking. After a short while, however, he started again because his wine tasting had suffered. His renowned palate had apparently grown accustomed to tobacco.

I don't know how true that story is, but for me it illustrates how personal and idiosyncratic wine tasting and appreciation can be. It may be nice, drinking a glass of wine, to know about vintage and soil, fermentation temperature and residual sugar. But, as Mr. Tchelistcheff implied, such knowledge is no substitute for passion.

© 1996 Louis Guida

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