By JAY MCINERNEY
Updated Feb. 12, 2011
Even in a life as eventful as Alexis Lichine’s, 1951 would count as a very big year. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Mr. Lichine’s “The Wines of France,” which would go through many editions and would influence several generations of American wine drinkers.
That same year he realized a lifelong dream and purchased Château Prieuré-Cantenac, a classified Bordeaux château which would soon be officially rechristened as Château Prieuré-Lichine. Mr. Lichine’s gifts as a salesman were inseparable from his gift for self-promotion, and for many years his name was one of the most successful brands in the world of fine wine.
Along the way he married a countess and a movie star, won a Bronze Star and a Croix de Guerre for his service in the Second World War, bought a vast apartment on Fifth Avenue, and intrepidly barnstormed the heartland, spreading the gospel of fine wine.
Mr. Lichine’s father, a wealthy businessman, managed to escape Moscow with his family in 1917 shortly after the Bolshevik revolution. After a brief stay in New York, the family settled in Paris, where Alexis attended a lycée. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania he returned to Paris, where he landed a job at the Herald Tribune.
Shortly after the repeal of Prohibition in the U.S., the publisher of the Tribune commissioned Mr. Lichine to write a series of articles about French wines for the benefit of virgin American palates. He honed his own palate while researching the articles, touring the great wine regions of France.
Though he would continue to write about wine throughout his life, Mr. Lichine was a salesman at heart and debarked to New York to get in on the emerging market for French wines.
After working for several retailers he teamed up with Frank Schoonmaker, a connoisseur and author of “The Complete Book of Wine,” who had established a successful importing business in the wake of repeal. Messrs. Schoonmaker and Lichine were a potent team, an odd couple who shared a passion for wine.
Together, and then separately, as rivals, they virtually created the American market for French wine. When the Second World War cut off their sources in France, they went to Calfornia and cultivated the best winemakers.
Their association was highly successful despite, or because of, temperamental differences. “Although he respected [Lichine’s] palate, Schoonmaker evidently considered Lichine something of an upstart,” according to importer Frank E. Johnson, “and Lichine never had much faith in Schoonmaker’s salesmanship.”
There was also romantic competition, with Mr. Schoonmaker eventually marrying one of Mr. Lichine’s ex-girlfriends. The differences might ultimately be summed up by acknowledging that in the end, Mr. Schoonmaker was a partisan of Burgundy and Mr. Lichine was a Bordeaux man—sort of like the dichotomy between breast men and leg men, or between Mets and Yankees fans. (The first chapter of Mr. Lichine’s “Wines of France” is entitled “Bordeaux, the Greatest Wine District.”)
When war broke out in Europe and they were cut off from their French sources they went to California to seek domestic wines. At the time most Californian winemakers slapped French regional names like Chabis and Burgundy on their products, but Messrs. Lichine and Schoonmaker convinced several California estates to label their wines according to grape variety, a practice which has since become universal.
Eventually both men enlisted; Mr. Lichine with army intelligence and Mr. Schoonmaker in the OSS. Although Mr. Lichine rose to the rank of major and was eventually decorated for bravery, his wartime service as he recounted it was an extension of his civilian profession.
“I was an aide to a very wine-minded general stationed in Corsica,” he told an interviewer some 30 years later. He seems to have brought his gift for the good life to war.
Landing on Elba, he managed to spend a night in Napoleon’s bed. By his own account he endeared himself to his comrades when he slipped through enemy lines in the south of France and returned with several bottles of drinkable rosé.
He was subsequently charged with contacting Cognac producers and shipping Cognac to the troops on leave in southern France. Eventually he ended up as an aide de camp to General Eisenhower, in which capacity he met Winston Churchill.
“The prime minister talked war for a while,” he recalled, “then started telling me about wines over his claret. I politely intervened, and he finally sat down and said, ‘You do the talking and I’ll do the listening, young man.’ ” It’s a great story, whether or not it’s true; all of these anecdotes of his service having been provided by Mr. Lichine himself.
What is indisputable is that on his return to New York he married Countess Renée de Villeneuve, whom he’d met in Marseilles, though the marriage lasted only a year. Mr. Lichine returned to France in 1948, touring the wine regions and persuading growers to sell him their wines exclusively for the American market. His buying trips also formed the basis for “The Wines of France,” which in turn helped to create an American market for Mr. Lichine’s wines.
Within a few years he’d made enough to purchase the run-down Prieuré-Cantenac in Bordeaux, not that the initial purchase price was high; his son Sacha told me he paid £11,000 (then about $16,000) for the former priory, ranked as a fourth growth in the 1855 classification, and some 25 neglected acres of vines.
Within a year, with a consortium of banker friends, he bought the nearby Château Lascombes, a second growth. He restored and managed both properties in between sales trips to the U.S.
Mr. Lichine’s proselytizing was indefatigable. According to Sacha, who was in Hong Kong when I caught up with him, “he’d hop on a Greyhound bus, go to Buffalo and Syracuse and Chicago, drop a hundred and fifty, two hundred cases.” It’s difficult to imagine the dashing and impeccably tailored Mr. Lichine on a Greyhound bus, and yet he seems to have been able to summon the common touch, speaking to ladies’ clubs, going on radio shows, conducting wine tastings.
Dining at Gallatoire’s in New Orleans, he ordered six wines at once, declared three of them undrinkable, and promptly revamped the wine list with the stunned acquiescence of the proprietor.
He brought American-style salesmanship to Bordeaux, where the great châteaux had always been closed to the public, by opening a tasting room at the Prieure and posting billboards on the main road.
He gave Georges Duboeuf, the king of Beaujolais, his first job, and at one point owned 25% of his company. He also had a flourishing career as a ladies’ man, from which he took a brief hiatus when the actress Arlene Dahl became his third wife.
As successful as he was, Mr. Lichine was always undercapitalized, according to Sacha, and he was a man of lavish tastes. In the ’60s he sold his company to get access to working capital, staying on as president until business disagreements prompted him to walk out after three years. Unfortunately, under the terms of the contract, he was banned from using the name Alexis Lichine Selections. Like Halston, the fashion designer, he’d sold his own name.
This fact shadowed his later years, according to Sacha Lichine, although he continued to run Prieuré-Lichine and to write about wine, publishing and revising the influential “Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wine and Spirits” and “Alexis Lichine’s Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France.” Sacha served as designated driver on the research expeditions for the latter. “The image I retain is of him tasting, of us tasting together. He disliked mediocrity, which made him a difficult father. But he taught me how to taste.
“I don’t think the American wine market would be nearly as evolved as it is without him,” says Sacha, who sold Prieuré in 1999 and is the proprietor of a premium Provençal rosé estate called Château d’Esclains.
By the time his father died at his beloved Prieuré in 1989, his adoptive country was in the grip of a wine boom which shows no signs of abating to this day. And his inevitable advice, when asked how one learns about wine, remains invaluable: “Buy a corkscrew, and use it.”
By JAY MCINERNEY