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Tchelistcheff's nephew sets out to make a documentary on his great-uncle André

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As a teenager, Mark Tchelistcheff spent a lot of time with his great-uncle André racing around Napa Valley in a flaming yellow 240Z. The fact that this particular great uncle was an icon of winemaking had little or no effect on the boy.

“If you’re a kid and you’re related to a movie star or someone famous, you don’t necessarily know who they are,” Tchelistcheff recalled. “You know him as ‘my great uncle.’ I didn’t realize what a rock star, so to speak, he was in the wine industry and how much respect he had and how people listened to him. I got to ride around in his fast little yellow car!”

Decades later, the 46-year-old Tchelistcheff is immersed in a project aimed at telling the world the story of this great uncle André Tchelistcheff. An accomplished producer and filmmaker, the younger Tchelistcheff is working on a feature-length documentary film titled “The Maestro — André Tchelistcheff — The Voice of Wine.”

“André’s story, regardless of whether he is my great uncle or not, is an amazing story. It’s an epic story,” Tchelistcheff said. “I think this is a film and a story that has to be told.”

The project has been on the filmmaker’s mind since André Tchelistcheff’s death in 1994, ending a career that gained him worldwide recognition for his influence on the wine industry. A legendary figure in Napa Valley, André Tchelistcheff in 2007 was among the first to be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

“When I heard that was happening,” Tchelistcheff said, “I thought that I had to be there and I have to start working on this documentary. Over the last three years, I’ve worked on the film largely with my own money with some support from Tom Jordan (Jordan Vineyard and Winery), Jim Allen of Sequoia Grove and the Culinary Institute of America. That was very kind of them.”

Tchelistcheff’s hope is to create a film that reaches beyond the wine world.

“I will not do a small, little documentary that doesn’t have the depth or the fabric of a great film,” he said. “And André deserves it to be done right. I think this has the story that can make the mainstream. I’d like this to touch a worldwide audience.”   

Indeed, the story of André Tchelistcheff does reach beyond his wine industry achievements and contributions. Born in Moscow in 1901, Tchelistcheff was part of an aristocratic family caught up in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Tchelistcheff fought with the White Russian Army until 1923 and, unable to return to Russia, enrolled in a university in Czechoslovakia to study agronomy. After graduating, he moved to Paris in 1930 and studied viticulture.

In 1938, Georges de Latour took notice of the talented young enologist and offered Tchelistcheff the winemaker position at de Latour’s Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford. Tchelistcheff took the position, moved to California and began a relationship with Beaulieu that lasted until 1973. After retiring from Beaulieu, Tchelistcheff became a sought-after consultant and mentored countless winemakers in Napa Valley, Sonoma County and beyond.

“Those were his favorite years,” said the younger Tchelistcheff. “When he retired from BV and he was consulting with so many different winemakers, telling one winemaker to try this and another winemaker to try that — he loved it. They all came to him. That’s why he is often considered one of the fathers of California wine, the dean of California winemaking.”

Mark Tchelistcheff has had an interesting and worldly life. Born in Pakistan, where his father, Victor was an engineer for Henry J. Kaiser building aqueducts and dams, Tchelistcheff and his family spent most of his childhood abroad.

“By the time I was 1, I had a certificate from Trans World Airlines that (says) I circumnavigated the earth in their airplanes,” he said. “I was born in a Muslim country and christened as a Russian Orthodox. My first schooling was in a Jewish school. Then my first deep, spiritual experiences happened when we were travelling in Africa when I was 6 with my father, mother and my brother and sister … it must have been 1970. We travelled through Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and it was just amazing.”

From Africa, Tchelistcheff’s family moved back to California then on to Japan, Indonesia and Thailand, where he began racing sailboats as a boy.

“I was Thai National Champion in sailing several times,” he said, “and represented Thailand in world championships in places like Turkey and Yugoslavia and France as a blonde boy with this weird name that was head of the Thai team.”

The globe-trotting family returned to California in 1979 and settled in Lafayette, a short drive from Uncle André in the Napa Valley. 

“I often spent more time with André than my own grandfather,” Tchelistcheff remembered. “I was very fortunate to have him as a great uncle. He was such a generous, interesting and funny guy and mischievous. His stories of his childhood in Russia were just wonderful.”

Perhaps those stories helped spark the filmmaker’s idea for the feature-length film on his now famous great uncle. The younger Tchelistcheff studied filmmaking at San Francisco State University where he graduated “not magna cum laude, just cum laude.” He then moved to Germany and studied law, history and philosophy along with the eastern languages Pali and Sanskrit.

“I was bridging both oriental and western philosophies,” he said, noting that he later studied philosophy in India. Tchelistcheff eventually became more serious about filmmaking.

“Filmmaking was always a passion of mine since I was a kid,” he said. “The first camera that I got to use was that Super 8 that my father had in Africa.”

Part of that developing passion was his love of cinema, which served as a constant during his international upbringing.

“When you move from one country to the next it’s a whole new arena,” Tchelistcheff said, “a new language, a new culture, new smells, new foods, new everything. But if you go into a theater and you watch ‘Gone with the Wind’ or another great film, everything else disappears. You can escape, you can go on a journey, no matter where you are in the world in a dark theater.”

Tchelistcheff said he has been involved in various film ventures through the years, including television projects, documentaries, commercials and feature films. He served as co-producer of the 2005 film “Conversations with Other Women” that starred Helena Bonham Carter. Owner of a small production company, Open Films Inc., Tchelistcheff has also produced a series of documentaries on music legends Roberta Flack, The Band and others.

Tchelistcheff’s production work was interrupted recently when he volunteered as a relief coordinator and worker in earthquake-torn Haiti.

“I saw more amputations and more death than I need to for the rest of my life on the ground there living in a tent,” he said. “It changes you, and that changed me.”

The experience also moved Tchelistcheff to re-evaluate his priorities and simplify his life. 

“That was probably one of the impetuses for myself to leave everything behind and work on this project,” he said. “I completely stopped my other work and basically shuttered my production company for now to completely devote myself to this project.”

The filmmaker has made some progress on the film about his famous great uncle, completing a promotional trailer that features interviews with several local vintners and winemakers influenced by André Tchelistcheff. The trailer was shown in October 2010, at an exhibition in Moscow honoring the famous winemaker.

A collaboration between the Moscow city government and the U.S. Embassy, the exhibition was held at the Alexander Solzhenitsyn House for Russians Abroad and featured photographs and other materials provided by André Tchelistcheff’s wife, Dorothy, and son, Dimitri. Mark Tchelistcheff and his father Victor (André’s nephew) attended the event and provided exhibition materials and support. Also present was evidence of the “Maestro’s” legacy — a collection of wines donated by wineries in California, Oregon and Washington that were influenced by the renowned winemaker.

Tchelistcheff said that after raising the necessary funding, the project will require 30 to 40 days of shooting at locations in California, Washington, Oregon, Italy, France and Russia. He hopes to complete the film in time for it to premier at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. A special premier is also planned for Napa. Those interested in the project can visit  

“When people in the audience are watching this film I hope that they go through that journey,” Tchelistcheff said “through the ups and downs, as in any great film or any great novel. And André’s personal story lends to that.”

The project is taking Tchelistcheff on his own journey, delving deep into the history of his great uncle and the Tchelistcheff family history.

“I’m not only learning about wine but I’m learning about my great uncle, how he touched so many other people. There is not one person who has a bad thing to say about André. They say he was exacting and he expected the best of you but that’s not a bad thing.”

It is safe to say that his great uncle’s high expectations even continue to influence the younger Tchelistcheff, who insists that the film about  “The Maestro” be done right and on a grand scale worthy of its subject.

“I could do a little talking heads film but that’s not what the film should be,” he said. “Great films come from great stories  and it all comes from great scripts. And the scripts have to have meat to them. André has that meat, he is a defining person.”

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