Last week in London, I had the chance to sit in on a screening of Mark Tchelistcheff’s first feature-length documentary about the life of his granduncle André Tchelistcheff. Was it the glass of Beaulieu Vineyard Chardonnay I was sipping, or the dreary weather in London? Was it the film’s beautiful music by composer Alexei Aigui, recorded in André’s homeland at the Moscow Film Studios, brooding and soulful, that moved me to tears? Maybe it was the faces of the winemakers in the audience, lit by the screen, watching with recognition scenes from André’s—and the modern wine world’s—life. André: The Voice of Wine was profoundly inspiring and moving, especially as Robert Parker Wine Advocate celebrates its 40th anniversary—the trajectory of this publication and of André’s career follow much the same path.
This month in New York, we celebrate 40 years of unparalleled, unbiased, expert and comprehensive wine criticism with our last Matter of Taste event of the year. As our publication celebrates its 40th anniversary, readers will be treated to a diverse set of events including an exclusive premiere of this award-winning feature film narrated by Ralph Fiennes.
The screening will take place at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center in Brooklyn, and following the film, guests will have the chance to speak with the film’s director, Mark Tchelistcheff, as well as a panel of distinguished winemakers including Gelasio Gaetani d’Aragona Lovatelli (Ornellaia), Rob Davis (Jordan), Joel Aiken (Aiken Wines), Greg La Follette (Alquimista Winery) and Patrick Leon (Les Trois Croix/Lefkadia Valley). The matinee event will conclude with a curated wine reception. Featured wineries include Ornellaia, Beaulieu Vineyards, Grgich Hills, Alpha Omega, Les Trois Croix, Lefkadia Valley, Jordan, Schramsberg, Aiken Wines, Jarvis Estate, Alquimista Winery and Château d’Esclans.
I spoke with director Mark Tchelistcheff after viewing the film for a sneak peek at the process behind the scenes of this powerful documentary.
When the idea of the film started I was working on various other projects and documentaries. A good friend of mine, Tim Smith, a sommelier and wine director, gently and persistently pushed me to tell André’s story. So I began with some general research and this coincided with the first CIA Vintners Hall of Fame in Napa Valley that was held in 2007. That was the first day of filming on this project and the start of the journey that I never imagined would take ten years to complete. André’s story reads like an exciting novel. He led an exceptional life and what truly captivated me most to tell this story are those that I met that were touched by him. That was the inspiration that impelled me to share André’s life on film.
You begin the film with André’s life in Russia. Why did you feel it was important to include details from his life before Napa Valley?
André’s life started out in Russia and until the day of his passing, this Russian soul was always a part of his fabric. The experiences he had in his early life in Russia shaped him into the man he became, one who took enormous risks in his personal and professional life—perhaps that is why he is so honored today. As Francis Ford Coppola eruditely expresses in the film, “In life, there are tremendous forces that ultimately want you to accept whatever the widespread acceptance is. If you try to go your own way, you are punished for it, you are reprimanded and often you are fired. But at the end of your life, if you are honored it is because you did go your own way. So, it is important to remember that the things that you were fired for in your 20s are the very same things that you win the lifetime achievement award for when you are 80.” Just like making a fine wine, which incorporates every detail from vine to glass, one must look at the totality of a person’s experiences to truly understand someone. It would have been remiss not to include the stories from André’s early life in Russia.
André was your granduncle, but you don’t address this in the film. Why was that separation between family and filmmaking important for you?
From the onset of making this film I had a desire for André and those that he inspired to be the ones to tell his story. Although it is true that I’m his grandnephew, what was important was not my personal relationship to my granduncle, but instead the connection he had to those that were very close to him professionally and personally. I focused on both younger and older winemakers that spent time with him and members of my family, those that knew him best including his widow Dorothy, his son Dmitry and his nephew (my father). I had over 350 hours of material but had to condense it down to 98 minutes—to capture the life of a man who lived almost a century! If I had included my loquacious voice, we might have added another 50 or so hours, and that just would have been terrible for audiences and myself!
Was this your first documentary? What were the challenges of directing this movie?
I have worked on numerous television documentaries, but this is my first feature documentary for the cinema. I started out at the age of six having fun with my parent’s 8mm Kodak camera in Africa. I later borrowed their Pentax camera and at the age of 11 started developing and printing my own pictures in a dark room at International School Bangkok. I fell in love with celluloid. As a child going to the cinema was also an escape. Upon entering a cinema, no matter in Jakarta, Bangkok, Hong Kong or San Francisco, as the curtain goes down you begin a journey that takes you away for a short time from all the stress of life. As with books, film gives you the time and space to escape into other worlds.
Making this film certainly has been the most difficult project of my life, from the financial challenges of getting the film made to finding the material in order that André could tell his own story. It took years to uncover certain pictures, 8mm films and interviews of him. Then I spent time in the Russian film archives searching 35mm films of the civil war. Every piece of music is original in the film and I worked with one of Russia’s most interesting contemporary composers, Alexei Aigui. I tortured Aigui with my wishes and desires for certain musical perfection. The film also would certainly not be what it is today without the kind guidance from my friend and mentor, the multiple Oscar-winner Walter Murch. And it was a true honor to work with one of cinema and theater’s greatest actors, Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is a genius and the way he works his voice and body—like a Stradivarius violin, having the exceptional ability to play various roles highlighting subtle notes with authenticity while giving powerful performances. This talent Fiennes brings to the film with his superb narration. A film is a collaboration of talents and I’m in deep gratitude to those in the film and wine community as well as my family and friends whose kind contributions made it possible.
What are you hoping to achieve with this film?
Films are made for audiences, so it would be lovely to have audiences across the globe be inspired by André’s story. I feel it is a very important time for a film like this that touches the human soul. It’s a peek into the life of a true gentleman who lived with principles, wisdom and compassion and helped change an industry that sometimes did not want to be changed. What brings me joy is to see audience’s reactions. I have been to screenings from Berlin to Moscow, Bangkok to Napa, and each time I see people taken by André’s journey who come out of the theaters smiling yet moved to tears.
You describe the ripple effect of André’s influence, which extended around the world. Why do you feel André had such a profound effect on other winemakers?
André was open and willing to share everything he knew. This was true when he was a young man, later at the age of 37 when he first came to Napa Valley, and until his last breath in 1994. While others said they had proprietary methods and tried to be secretive, André believed that if everyone made better wine it would improve the whole industry and not just a single brand. The whole industry gained from his openness and knowledge. He had a charm and a way with people that inspired them and made them want to do better. Even today, many of his protégés, who are now world-class winemakers, have mentioned to me that when faced with a difficult situation they often think, “What would André do?”
André also changed the industry in terms of science. As the winemaker Patrick Leon explains in the film, many young winemakers today are unaware of the changes André brought, although they are certainly using his methods, including temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, which he invented. Hence, his techniques, methods and knowledge continue to ripple through the industry from one end of the globe to the other.