Napa Great Tchelistcheff Posthumously for Popelouchum

[Via twitter, Randall Grahm was really flattered by the comparison. He considered Tchelistcheff a big hero because he was so hard working and progressive. I initially thought the comparison might be far fetched and I’d have to make a strong case, but apparently many readers thought it was spot on.]

Yes, I shifted the balance of varieties. I shifted already. I created a revolution. I was a revolutionary-minded man in the field of viticulture in Napa Valley. As I came in, I said, “There must be something wrong with you people, because in my European mind, you can’t build a reputation of Burgundy in the Bordeaux, and you can’t build the reputation of Rhine in the Burgundy, and you are trying to build a reputation of Burgundy and Bordeaux and Sauternes within the same geographical area, within the same soil. There must be something wrong with you people.” -Tchelistcheff p. 121

At the urging of the California Oral History Project’s associate director, I started reading André Tchelistcheff’s 1979 oral history interview. I was reading simply to learn more about the early history of California wines after having used Harold Olmo’s oral history interview to contextualize Randall Grahm’s Popelouchum project which currently has an IndieGogo fundraiser that I urge you to support. The incentives are spectacular.

Tchelistcheff, often called the dean of California fine wine makers, was brought over from Europe in the late thirties by George de Latour to help modernize Beaulieu Vineyards after prohibition. The Russian born Tchelistcheff was trained in France as an eonologist. Even in the thirties, he found California “in very primitive, colonial, pioneering shape” [p.41], but eventually turned California into the modern powerhouse of fine wine we know today.

It may be hard to believe that anyone would lump Andre Tchelistcheff, grand father of the Napa style, with Randall Grahm, but their ambitions run parallel. Just like a baton was passed from Olmo to Grahm, a different baton can easily be seen as handed to Grahm from Tchelistcheff. Grahm, after all, is a formidable Davis educated technologist (I’m waiting for Grahm to chime in and say they knew each other).

A segment that begins on page 54 starts a discussion on European and American points of view regarding ecology that relates very much to the Popelouchum project. This is all from the voice of the wine maker that launched a thousand fine wine ships and trained everyone that took a prize in the Judgement of Paris.

Big themes in the passage emerge like the difference between natural ecology versus managerial ecology [remember this is 1979!]  Tchelistcheff also describes his own efforts to find more acclimation in vineyards by launching large scale projects to uproot vineyards and replant them with different more congruent varietals. Tchelistcheff acknowledges Olmo, whom is brought up by the interviewer, but also acknowledges economic constraints that shaped and limited his efforts. Life is short and the art is long.

When Tchelistcheff came to California he inherited a less ideal Popelouchum project. California was 10,000 mixed up old grape varieties that needed attention, weeding out, and selection for advancement. In four or five decades, Tchelistcheff and close contemporaries like Maynard Amerine were able to do what happened empirically in Europe over centuries, and of course they never even came close to any kind of completion.

There are probably diminishing returns, and nothing gets easier, but the Popelouchum project of 10,000 new fine wine varietals is the next leg up. I’m sure Tchelistcheff would jump at the chance to uproot any stagnancy in the industry and possibly secure a varietal named after himself.

It was a renaissance of the industry. I mean, the country alone just barely started to recover from the damage done by the Prohibition. Everything was entirely different. Everything here was entirely new and not corresponding–neither for my thinking or feelings. See, this specific reaction that I am carrying, just for one single reason, because I am a product of the French viticultural science, and sometime even I today think, “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe my classical approach, genetically set in the classical ground of France, with a history of thousands and thousands of years, since the Roman days of cultivation of grape vine which was regulated by very strict empiric experiments and tradition, carried from one generation to another–but new continents are following entirely different orientation in the same area.”

Here, Tchelistcheff grapples with the lack of evolved congruency he faced in a the New World. Tchelistcheff is also wordier than me.

[Ruth Tesier] Were you thinking, for instance, of such genetic research as H.P. Olmo’s?


That’s right, and everything that we are doing entirely differently. But we are not alone, you see. We are not alone, because South Africa, Australia, now to a certain degree even the South America, and the Nordic countries, such as Soviet Union, they have been following the same pattern as we are following in America. We disregarded the classical principles of, let’s say, modern ecology. We are still thinking that we are far more powerful than the Mother Nature. Well, we did. We proved that the day before yesterday, a few days ago, when we started to suffer from the creation of our own. [Three Mile Island nuclear accident]


So therefore, despite the fact that they [Europeans] are as progressive in the field of research and technology, the empiric experience, by centuries, has been forcing them to maintain the base of their originality of thinking, directly connected with the soil’s general ecology, the most natural elements of mother nature. Here we are putting science ahead of it, and we are saying, “Yes, soil is very important as a nutritional element, and climate’s very important, of course, but we can change.” We are paying far more attention to managerial ecology than to the ecology given to us by mother nature. We are trying to manage the ecology given to us by the good Lord, in creation. That’s a very important factor, by the way. I am not disregarding the managerial ecology, but we are paying far more attention to managerial ecology than to the basic factors, which are nothing else but the foundation to a managerial ecology.

Extra powerful stuff and this is 1979. For decades to come, managerial ecology will rule the day and wineries will pursue trends like Merlot and Pinot Noir that defy what Tchelistcheff refers to as general ecology. Tchelistcheff then goes on to explain how the appellation system was an attempt to keep commercial trends from driving vineyards away from natural ecology. The free market just wasn’t creating fine wines.

In other words, what we are achieving right now, we are just trying to produce similar false norms as they produced years ago in France, without improving them through specifics. But this is a factor that I don’t think that we will be able to solve here within the next hundred years, because we hate any federal, state, or county regulation. We hate any additional controls. We are strictly individuals. We are accepting controls by corporations, and there are also very strict controls by corporations, but we do not accept federal controls in production in our particular field, specifically because that’s strictly an individual field.

Hopefully this passage can exist without all the context he builds up talking about appellations. The false norms are the appellations and the specifics are efforts like the Popelouchum project, or all of Tchelistcheff’s replanting that actually make strides for congruency and the quality that comes with it. Unless you want to wait a thousand years, fine wine takes visionary action. The most famous wine industry adage always is: to make a small fortune in wine, start with a large one.

Now, in basic agriculture, production of wheat and corn, as you know, they accept the bank, and they accept the norms and regulations, but we are a little too artistic, we are a little too small, and we are a little too sensitive to accept such a norm.

Doesn’t this sound like he’s talking about Randall Grahm?

But I revolted, when I came here, against this liberalism of interpretation of the law of ecology. It was absolutely strange for me to see Napa Valley planted with the varietals from Burgundy, from the Bordeaux, from the Rhine, from the Moselle, from Spain, and from Portugal. I just, even now, can’t understand this thing. So therefore, I have been constantly pioneering readjustment within the laws of ecology, and being a pioneer in the Napa Valley and leading the group of youth and some very intellectual people in the industry. We started to shift and uproot Several vineyards and move them to an entirely different section of Napa Valley. I am dividing, in my own mind, Napa Valley in sixteen different appellations. But officially, we have only one appellation of Napa Valley now.

Do not get confused here, Tchelistcheff isn’t putting down Spanish and Portugeuse varieties for California, but rather only Napa after he has seen first hand that they are not congruent. The conclusions from experimentation and the uprooting and replanting, knowing full well how long things take, are how Tchelistcheff had his own Popelouchum.

This is the conflict of my own, and I think I am going to carry this conflict within my mind to the rest of my days, because I don’t see any possible reforms in the situation. The most tragic thing to me, it’s not to see this interplanting as sins of the past, you see, there was a good reason. There was a very strong reason to do such a thing, by the pioneers.

The absolution.

After all, pioneers came here, let’s say, a hundred years ago, a hundred fifty years ago, and they located, really, paradise on the earth. They located, really, paradise. I mean the Frenchmen or the Spaniards or Italian or German viticulturists, grape growers, came here, and they located paradise–beautiful rainfall, heavy soil, moderate winters, a beautiful situation. So they thought, “As long as this is paradise on the earth, I can permit myself to do anything.” Plus, America was not a wine drinking nation at all. So therefore, the distributor, the marketing agent, never could accept the ideal of fine quality production such as is acceptable today. In other words, if I as a newcomer would say, “I am going to make one type of wine, or two types of wine,” I could not because I remember very well the days when there was a necessity to have everything in the line to have a distributor. That is, a distributor would demand that a winery provide him with many types of wines or he would not take any. So those sins are the compulsory sins of the past.

Paradise is never so simple.

But the newcomers today, rather than to clarify the situation completely, due to the financial, economical pressures of the market, are following the same pattern. The wineries that start with one or two, within the next four or five years start to create five or six, or even create a second line of products. So you see, this is an uncurable situation.

Randall Grahm has been here. The IndieGogo endowment, and other aspects of the Popelouchum plan such as direct to consumer sales are about alleviating this pressure.

Now Mr. Francis Gould said, “What we need here, to purify the quality of California, we need the Rothschilds, Rockefellers in the industry.” And I think we, to a certain degree, already have it–a certain infiltration of Rothschilds and Rockefellers, but they are also very practical people. Besides that, we have a heavy infiltration of the corporate business such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Heublein, National Distillers, etcetera. Their interests, the commercial aspects, definitely are not corresponding to the dreams of fine quality winemaking. So this is tragedy. It’s a sore point in my feelings, and that sore point, by the way, to a certain degree forced me to take a position of free-lance consultant, when I can publicly open my mouth and say what I think about the California wine industry, you see.

The price of so many wines is a gift. You can drink so many Rothschilds that turn their large fortunes into small ones or you can just drink wine makers of tremendous foresight and any money you give them is prudently spent and wisely invested. Then of course there are the Heubleins, but I think they are going away. There are economies of scale to be gained by being under a Heublein. They have the good intentions these days because demand for fine wines has proven so large, but they can’t hire enough people with vision. They need to see templates like Popelouchum, they have the means but cannot invent them.

Because before, when I was working for a private company, and then the corporation, I never would have a chance to have an interview like this today with you, unless I would have a p.r. man of the corporation sitting right here and controlling my answer, or saying, “Well, this we are not going to discuss.” That’s right.

Now, I jumped very probably out my program–

I should stop here but he’s on a roll.

What we did in forty years, it can be accomplished normally in Europe in four or five centuries. See, that’s what we did [strikes table for emphasis], and what was good then, it is not good any more. It would be a great error today to say, Louis Martini is going to produce only red wines in Napa Valley, and Wente Brothers are going to produce white wines in Livermore Valley, because the wines of today that are produced in the Livermore Valley in several cases are quite different than the white wines produced today with our knowledge in Napa Valley.

This would benefit from a little more context, but what he is getting at is how in forty years of hard work pursuing congruency and acclimation, by degrees they got there. This was all just careful sensitive replanting, and when Tchelistcheff said what was good then, is not good any more is still somewhat true today. Strides were made simply replanting, but the next step is fine wine hybrids.

The varietal wines were unknown then, just barely started to grow in the little molecules, you know, in embryo in some fine quality wineries such as Inglenook, Schram’s, Beaulieu, Beringer, etcerta. But they were really unknown here. It was the beginning of the orientation towards varietals. And the beginning remedy for this tragedy of the California wine industry was that Dr. Winkler and Dr. Arnerine, with a tremendous amount of individual effort, without the machinery to proceed with this effort, solved it by pushing and repeating, constantly, “You have [slowly striking table for emphasis] to plant a better variety. You just got to pull your old vineyards. You just got to pull all the vineyards that are not corresponding to the climate, reputation, and possibilities of production of fine quality wines of California.”


Maybe the IndieGogo would go better if Randall Grahm [pounded the table for emphasis.]

To a certain degree the problem was corrected, and to a certain degree it still remains uncorrected, because a great amount of wines are still produced from Flame Tokay and Thompson Seedless. They are still functionally physical elements of the industry and never should be. They should be assigned strictly as raisin or food product varieties. But you see, this is our lot. I mean, this is the whole thing. If you would go into the depth of this problem, you got to go step by step, because all our regulations, all our legal interpretations of our functions of our living with wines and grapes have been dictated by ourselves, in the self defense against the physical structure of our industry that we inherited from the past.


If you have to have a complete understanding, you should statistically, as a historian, go step by step, year by year, to understand this problem. I am just abhorring a weakness of this tragedy, and despite of my critical approach to everything I am still saying what we accomplished during forty years will put California industry on the competitive level of European industry. In other words, what we accomplished in [only] 150 years, disregarding the Prohibition, was accomplished there during hundreds and hundreds of years. But if you go step by step, there is so much to do yet.

#Popelouchum #Grahmcru

I urge you to find your favorite perk and support the Popelouchum Indiegogo.

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