Berlin Hidden Gem: 'Andre - The Voice of Wine' Explores Napa Valley's Russian Roots

Andre The Voice of Wine H 2017
Courtesy of the Berlin Film Festival

Mark Tchelistcheff’s film, narrated by Ralph Fiennes, paints a portrait of the director’s great-uncle and how he turned the American wine industy into what it is today.

He was tiny — 4’11’’ in his socks — with a big noise and a soft voice. He was Russian — an aristocrat who escaped the Communist Revolution and death as a soldier fighting the Bolsheviks in Crimea. And he was the man who taught Napa Valley, and America, how to make wine.

The life of Andre Tchelistcheff, the man California vintners called Maestro, is told in Andre – The Voice of Wine, a documentary, that will have its world premiere on Wednesday in the Culinary Cinema section of the Berlin International Film Festival.

Tchelistcheff emigrated to California in 1938, five years after the end of Prohibition, when the U.S. wine industry “was on its ass,” says director Mark Tchelistcheff, his grand-nephew.

“The only way for vineyards to operate under Prohibition was to sell sacramental wine to the Catholic Church. The wine was bad and the industry was tiny,” he says. “When Andre arrived, there were maybe six to seven vineyards in the whole of Napa Valley. What are there now? 400? 500? That’s what Andre did.”

Andre Tchelistcheff first caught the world’s attention in 1976, when a blind tasting competition held by a panel of France’s most glorified oenophiles produced a shocking result: Two California wines — Miljenko Grgich’s 1973 Chardonnay and Warren Winiarski’s 1972 Cabernet — both made using Tchelistcheff’s methods, took the top honors for best white and best red. Time magazine put Tchelistcheff on its cover. The world began to pay attention to U.S. wine.

The film's real focus is the man behind the wine: how this diminutive Russian traveled halfway around the world, from Moscow to Paris, where he studied microbiology and fermentation at France’s Pasteur Institute, to California, and how he developed new scientific methods for making better wine.

“I was interested in the terroir that produced him,” says the filmmaker, “the environment that shaped the man, as the soil does a wine. My great-uncle was a scientist and he was a poet. It was that combination that was the key to his success.”

That and the man’s unerring nose, said to be the best in the business. A lifetime smoker, Tchelistcheff found his nose only failed him once — when, on doctor’s orders, he gave up cigarettes. He soon started puffing again.

Famed Russophile Ralph Fiennes narrates the story, and the film has plenty of famous faces, from the Hollywood stars of the 1960s and ’70s who were at the forefront of Tchelistcheff’s wine revolution to Francis Ford Coppola, who built his own wine empire on Tchelistcheff’s techniques.

The U.S. first refused to give him a visa. “If he hadn’t gotten one, he likely would have gone to China,” says Mark Tchelistcheff. “We’d now be talking about the great Chinese wine industry.”