Noted Winemaker Dimitri Tchelistcheff Dies at the Age of 87

Son of one of the wine industry's iconic figures, he earned plaudits of his own at a variety of wineries

Dimitri Tchelistcheff, who died on July 5 at his home in Hawaii at the age of 87 (no cause of death was given), was a noted winemaker, but the son of an even more noted one: André Tchelistcheff. The elder Tchelistcheff (pronounced approximately tche-la-tchef), who himself died in 1994 at the age of 93, was almost certainly the most famous and influential California winemaker of the post-Prohibition era, and the man as responsible as anyone for the reputation of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.

Dimitri started in the wine business as a teenager helping his father, then studied with the University of California Davis’ celebrated Department of Viticulture and Enology. He went on to work for many wineries, including Schramsberg Vineyards (on two different occasions) and E. & J. Gallo, and helped pioneer the modern-day Baja California wine industry as winemaker for Bodegas de Santo Tomás.

Later in his career, he consulted for about two dozen other wineries, not just in California and Mexico but in Italy, Israel, New York and Washington states, and Hawaii.

In 1988, he began consulting with Napa's Jarvis Estate winery, becoming their full-time winemaker in 1993. During his career, he was particularly known for his vineyard practices (he began maintaining that great wine was made in the vineyard years before that idea became an industry commonplace) and for refining techniques of barrel fermentation and the cold-stabilization of wine.

I had the honor of judging wines with Tchelistcheff one year at the Los Angeles County Fair, and remember him as quiet, slyly humorous, and unassuming. He clearly knew more about wine than even his fellow winemakers at the table (and far, far more than mere wine writers like myself, of course), but he was never dismissive of other opinions and always expressed his own with great clarity and charm. The phrase "a gentleman and a scholar" occurred to me at the time.

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