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Balzer on Wine

Beaulieu Revisited

February 10, 1985|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

The name Beaulieu means beautiful place, exactly what it was when Georges and Fernande de Latour found the acreage at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains in Rutherford in 1900. Their villa among the vines became one of the wine country's most gracious hospitality centers, receiving Presidents, illustrious figures of the arts and sciences and international figures such as Sir Winston Churchill. The French character of the estate was continued when daughter Helene was married in 1924 to the Marquis de Pins, a wine maker from Gascony.

Though Beaulieu continued to operate during Prohibition, producing and distributing altar wines nationwide, the most illustrious production would come in the post-Repeal years. In 1937, M. de Latour and his son-in-law, the Marquis de Pins, journeyed to France to find a successor for their retiring enologist. The chief of the French agricultural ministry recommended his young Russian assistant, Andre Tchelistcheff, a research enologist. Tchelistcheff was hired and arrived at Rutherford in time for the harvest of 1938.

Early on, Tchelistcheff was convinced that the Cabernet Sauvignon from this Napa Valley region had the potential of becoming one of the world's greatest wines, and he persuaded De Latour to build a separate cellar in which to age the wines in oak barrels for two years before bottling. When the first of the wines had obtained an additional two years of bottle-age the year following the founder's death, the wine was released as "Georges de Latour Private Reserve." True to Tchelistcheff's prediction, all subsequent vintages have become proud acquisitions of world-class collectors, fetching hundreds of dollars in lively bidding at each of the Heublein auctions.

I well remember my first visit to Beaulieu Gardens as a guest of Mme. de Latour; I was a young Los Angeles wine merchant then. We lunched on the terrace of the villa, overlooking the immaculately tended formal gardens. As a warm custard pie with bits of bacon in it was served, Tchelistcheff looked at me quizzically. The young Russian wine maker poured the white wine, and I noted that it had an ever-so-slight pale-pink blush. I picked up my glass, sniffed the wine after swirling it gently, tasted it and put down the glass. "It's almost white," I remarked after a moment, "but it smells like Pinot Noir."

Tchelistcheff relaxed back into his chair, a smile spreading across his face like sunshine. "You are exactly right," he replied. "It is a white wine made from Pinot Noir grapes--a blanc de noir . That was a very astute observation." Tchelistcheff and I have been friends ever since that memorable afternoon, now more than 40 years ago.

No one interested in wine-making should underestimate the role that Beaulieu and Tchelistcheff played in the education of all those who came into this aura of California vinous excellence. Joe Heitz arrived in 1951 and remained under the jurisdiction of Tchelistcheff until 1957. Theo Rosenbrand, today at Sterling, arrived from Holland in 1957 and stayed on to become the wine maker when Andre left in 1973. Mike Grgich, co-owner of Grgich Hills, readily admits that he learned scientific discipline from Tchelistcheff during his years at Beaulieu, from 1959 until 1968. Young Richard Peterson came to Beaulieu from Gallo in 1968 and left shortly after Andre's departure in 1973. Tom Selfridge got special dispensation from UC Berkeley's graduate school to work the harvest at Beaulieu in 1972. When the harvest was over and done with, he returned for his degree at UC Davis, joining the winery in the last months of Tchelistcheff's tenure.

Those dates and those names came together as I sat in the Beaulieu tasting room with president emeritus Legh Knowles and the winery's new president (also its youngest), Tom Selfridge, barely 40 but well schooled in field and cellar and well muscled from the heavy work of shoveling pomace from the open fermenters in post-fermentation times. On May 10, 1979, I wrote in this column: "When asked which winery in California has most consistently produced the finest Cabernet, I said: 'Without doubt, the Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, dedicated to the memory of Georges de Latour since 1940, is unparalleled for excellence.' " Even five years later, I would have no reason today to alter even one word of that comment.

"We at Beaulieu share the hope all our wines have a house character that is rich and smooth, with a fine balance between all of its components," Selfridge told me as he poured a series of recent vintages. And Knowles added, in a philosophical tone: "You know, if it were commercially feasible, we'd make nothing but Cabernet Sauvignon; 65% of our production consists of red wines."

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