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Beautiful Wine : At Conn Creek, Aesthetics Count and Science Is an Art

September 03, 1989|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

SINCE CONN CREEK Winery started in the '70s, it has been producing excellent wines.

Although the Napa Valley winery was sold three years ago to Stimson Lane Wines & Spirits, Conn Creek's tradition of excellence has continued. (Its varietals won several medals last year.)

Why has Conn Creek continued to excel? One reason is Andre Tchelistcheff. The hands-on wine consultant arrived at Conn Creek in 1986, when it was acquired by Stimson Lane.

This assignment is in familiar territory for Tchelistcheff. The Russian emigre, whose previous consulting job was at Stimson's Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington, has lived in the Napa Valley since 1938, when he was brought from France to be wine maker at Beaulieu Vineyards. In 1973, he retired to work as a consultant for several wineries. Tchelistcheff is a scientist who has made significant technical advances in wine making; he pioneered cooler, temperature-controlled fermentation and implemented vineyard practices such as trellising and clonal development. But wine making is not just a science to Tchelistcheff. He was the first to bridge the gap of science and imagination in the '60s, when the technological revolution threatened to obliterate aesthetics.

At that time, a Cabernet was more science than art, but Tchelistcheff would say, "We're trying to make a beautiful wine, not just Cabernet." He concentrates on the aesthetics and senses. "Imagination," he once told me, "can become lost in the scientific process, but not when there are deep feelings of love. There is no love unless there is imagination . . . and no imagination without love."

When Tchelistcheff arrived at Conn Creek in 1986, he began working with wine maker Jeff Booth, 37, who started at Conn Creek after the sale. It's not difficult to imagine Booth's surprise when the octogenarian Tchelistcheff beckoned him to follow him up and around the three-story, steel catwalks of the barrel-storage areas. Tchelistcheff might have said: "You have your eyes, your nose, your tongue, even your lips . . . let the wine talk to you." And Booth has listened.

"I taste for a living," says Booth, who was the first wine maker at Pine Ridge Winery and had worked at the Robert Mondavi Winery. "I munch grapes in the vineyard before harvesting to confirm the scientific testing. I try never to lose sight of the gustatory pleasures of wine." No wonder Tchelistcheff told me recently, "Booth may be my best student yet."

Last month, I visited Conn Creek's handsome winery on the Silverado Trail for a morning's tasting with Tchelistcheff. We began with the Conn Creek 1987 Sauvignon Blanc ($9.50), comparing it with the 1988 edition, scheduled for release next spring. Both wines have blending additions of Semillon, 20% in '87, 8% in '88. The 1987 has a lovely floral bouquet and no trace of grassiness. Tchelistcheff and Booth made the barrel-selections together for the 1988, which is a silkier wine than the '87 and is long on the taste buds.

We similarly compared the outstanding 1986 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($12) and its 1987 edition, also scheduled for release in the spring. Again, the later edition showed stylistic improvement.

We also tasted the 1983 Zinfandel--Collins Vineyard ($9.50), made from 50-year-old, head-pruned vines--vines that weren't trellised. The Zinfandel has fabulous depth, with velvety claret connotations. The 1985 Zinfandel, which will be released in December, is almost chocolaty. And the 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Lot 79 ($13.50), is complex with a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

All the foregoing lead to the 1985 Barrel-Select Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($14.50), to be released next spring. It blends 6% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 90% Cabernet Sauvignon. This palate-caressing, velvet-soft wine ranks among the most splendid Cabernets I've ever tasted. Of it, Tchelistcheff calmly stated: "It has great elegance and structure." What an understatement.

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