While the emergence of the Napa Cab might be marked by the Judgement of Paris in 1976, the transformation of Napa wines and American premium wine making began about 40 years earlier. Georges de Latour, founder of Beaulieu Vineyards, had navigated the business through Prohibition leveraging a close relationship to the Catholic Church as a provider of sacramental wine. When Prohibition was repealed, he traveled to his native France to find a new wine maker, and returned with a young enologist, André Tchlistcheff. André would become known as The Maestro of Napa Valley, but when he arrived, he found himself in a world of wine making he sadly described as primitive and careless, with rudimentary laboratory facilities lacking any exacting controls, and fruit of course varieties that were grown to high yields.
Tchlistcheff had gained his experience at the French National Agronomy Institute and the Institute Pasteur where he was doing research on wine making techniques. His path to wine making was driven by the tides of social change. Born to an aristocratic Russian family, he fought in the White Army, and barely escape with his life when the Bolsheviks finally triumphed in the Russian revolution. Fleeing into Bulgarian he worked briefly as a coal miner and then moved on to study Agriculture and Viticulture at Brno University in Czechoslovakia before arriving in France.
André’s impact in Napa Valley was immediate and transformative. The American palate after Prohibition favored sweeter wines, and André found those in the Beaulieu cellars to be at least of passing quality, but the dry wines were shocking. He set out to make a Cabernet Sauvignon that would set a standard for wine making in Napa Valley, and eventually the world. André traversed Napa Valley in search of the ideal fruit, identifying the premier locations and improving the viticultural techniques with European methods of cultivation and pruning. His first creation was the Georges de Latour Private Reserve which became the benchmark for Napa Valley Cabernet for decades.
André was the pioneer for American wine making in the use of small French oak barrels for aging, and during World War II the introduction of American oak. He established the practice of cold fermentation for Napa Valley white wines and malolactic conversion as a standard for Napa Valley red wines. He invented techniques for frost protection in the vineyards and stainless steel for fermentation tanks. But his influence extended far beyond the winery, Tchlistcheff was the catalyst for the development of many of America’s now famous wine regions, recommending planting Pinot Noir in the Carneros south of Napa Valley, Pinot Gris in Oregon and Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington.
The DNA of that first, seminal Napa Cabernet – Georges de Latour Private Reserve – is found in the generations that made the Napa Cabernet world famous. André shared his knowledge, mentoring the likes of Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz, Louis Martini, August Sebastiani and Richard Peterson. So when you taste the Cabernets of Napa Valley from wineries such as Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Beaulieu Vineyards, Niebaum Coppola, Heitz Cellars, Robert Mondavi, Grgich Hills and Conn Creek, you’re capturing the lingering finish of that first great Napa Valley Cab and the touch of The Maestro.