Dining

From the Archives: Alexis Lichine

Thursday, December 28, 2017
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This post originally appeared in the June 1977 issue of AVENUE.


Among wine lovers, Alexis Lichine is known respectfully as The Pope. Which is a misnomer. Not only because he admits to (occasional) fallibility but – more importantly – because he is a celebrant of the senses, a man who instead of repressing pleasurable experience has greatly assisted in its expansion. Lichine might more appropriately be addressed as Bacchus, after the Greek god who roved the world adjuring mortals to plant the vine and enjoy its juices.


Or, Lichine could be described as a latter-day Horace. Like the Roman poet, who also knew and grew wine and immortalized his favorite Falernian, Lichine is a bard of the grape who can write about his favorite Medocs that they are “possessed of a subtle bouquet in age which suggests the scent of rose or violet, or an indefinable smell of woods in springtime and clean earthiness.”


With words like those, Lichine has been known to make instant oenophiles of ice-water Baptists. “You don’t have to be a musicologist to attend a concert,” he urges. “You do not have to be an art historian to like Degas. It doesn’t take any special training or equipment to learn to appreciate wine. Only a willingness to experiment – plus a corkscrew.” What Lichine has been saying for four decades is that wine is not just the fermented juice of the grape. It is also poetry, and history, and civilization. It is a benison that enhances companionship, binds families, inspires and anoints passion.


Many people – too many people – write about wine. In this era of vast and uncritical consumption of wine, any self-styled connoisseur can, it seems, turn out a book on the subject after a quick perusal of Beverage Media and a guided tour of the neighborhood grog shop. Gresham’s Law, fortunately, has not yet effect in the literary vineyard, but it should be noted that the two definitive American books on wine were both written by Lichine. The first, Wines of France, was originally published (by Knopf) in 1951 and is still generally regarded as the most knowledgeable tome on the subject ever written. Lichine is now engaged in preparing an ambitious new version of the book.


And then there is Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, also published by Knopf, and so titled because it was extensively revised and expanded in 1974 and gain in 1976. This is the most complete – and handsomest – volume on just about anything potable, but particularly wine, that anyone possessed of a curious mind and questing palate can own. Its seven hundred and nineteen pages are a wondrous blend of Larousse and The Song of Solomon, of Baedeker and Baudelaire. Like its author, it cautions, guides, advises, criticizes, exhorts, exalts, genealogizes, and minutely examines every conceivable category of tipple from Abboccato, the Italian semi-sweet wine, to Zubrowka, the grass-flavored Polish vodka.


But – ca va sans lire – Lichine is much, much more than an encyclopedist. For four decades, in a society that not too long ago (alas for Jefferson!) equated wine with furrin decadence and wastrel ways, he has implored and poured and endorsed and imported the bottles, and even acquired French vineyards, to prove his point that wine is a friend is a friend of man, indeed an essential catalyst of civilized intercourse (of whatever variety). Not the least of his achievements has been to persuade the proud and stubborn winemakers of France to mend their ways and mind their wines.


**


This fou d’Americain, as suspicious French winemakers once called him, this tall (six-foot one-inch), voluble, long-nosed Russian-born supersnooper with the incredible palate, the fast hustle and the slow burn, is in person a most gregarious and gracious man. It is no accident that his baronial Fifth Avenue apartment in a Stanford White building overlooks the Metropolitan Museum; nor that in it he entertains a procession of people who may be beautiful or smart or famous, but art almost always serious. Not severe, but serious. Alexis Lichine is a very serious man.


“The most important social trend in the U.S. today,” argues Alexis, “is the rediscovery of the importance of the dinner table. Of bringing families together, of bringing acquaintance to friendship, improved intellectual understanding, enhancing sexual relationships. Food and wine, generously shared, are the catalysts.


“For too long the wines of this country have been milk, coffee, tea, orange juice, ice water, cola and pop. None of these, however good the food, inspires remembrance, promotes ambiance, makes a meal a highlight of life. Who, years after, will remember a steak with beer when it might have been boeuf bourguinon with a Romanee- Conti?”


Indeed, Alexis Lichine may be the only American today who is made unequivocally happy by exorbitant coffee prices, the rising cost of tea, and worries about “sugar free” pop.


**


Though he is an evangelist of wine, and a super salesman of more than a hundred imported labels that bear his endorsement, and thus by definition a confirmed capitalist, Lichine is a revolutionary. Which is rather remarkable, considering that his father, a wealthy Moscow banker, fled his homeland in 1917 on the trans-Siberian Express on the shrewd supposition that Czarist Russia was headed for the heave-ho.


He grew up trilingually in Paris and Manhattan, served with distinction in World War Ii as a U.S. Army intelligence officer who often used his intelligence to scavenge scarce vino and viands behind enemy lines.


After The Crusade in Europe, ex-Major Lichine resumed his Crusade for Wine, which took him from one American town to another, addressing any group that would listen to him on the subject. “Like a Communist,” he recalls, “I had to build cells of wine-lovers in each community. Liquor dealers and restaurants weren’t interested in selling wine – until consumers started demanding it. You’d be amazed, today, by the sophisticated questions about wine you get in so-called provincial cities. A provincial city in the U.S. will offer a finer selection of wines than you will find in any store in France. Outside of a handful of people in the wine regions or in the trade, the French know almost nothing about wine.”


That might be a safe opinion to proffer, say, at a small gourmet dinner in Peoria. Yet that is exactly what Lichine told the great, ensconced French wine Establishment.


To the wine oligarchy of Bordeaux, the cork aristocrats (l’aristocratie du bouchon), resting comfortably on centuries of assured elegance, Lichine said simply that they must employ modern methods of marketing and salesmanship. Lichine succeeded, with his own and other shipping firms that followed his example, in convincing the claretocrats that their vintages, like Yves St. Laurent gowns or Pierre Cardin socks, had to be promoted. Which, to their initial horror, he proceeded to do.


In Burgundy, which is a relative democracy of wine, Lichine faced a different problem. Most of the great wines of the region are grown on tiny plots; they had traditionally been sold by the barrel to middlemen, who all too often stretched their continents with cheap, crude wines from Algeria or the Midi. The solution, as Lichine saw it, was for the growers to bottle their own wines. Today, the majority of Burgundies shipped to the U.S. are proudly labeled Mise en Bouteilles au Domaine, Estate-Bottled (which can even mean shack-bottled), which virtually guarantees their integrity. Says he: “That was more of a revolution than anything I did in Bordeaux.”


Though wine is apt to be treated as a subject remote from the vulgar marts of commerce, it is not, of course. The making, selection, shipping and selling of wine are big and intensely competitive businesses. While Alexis Lichine, the oenophile and scholar, gives the impression of being above the arena, his business acumen matches his famed palate. It was not through quixotic impulse alone that he took on the French wine Establishment: as a businessman it pained him to see the noble product he sells in danger of losing its credibility (as in Burgundy) or simply fail to realize its potential market (as in Bordeaux). In evangelizing wine throughout the U.S., he seldom fails to promote his own products and imports. But he has always realized that the thirst he has whetted will not be satisfied by bottles of inconsistent quality or extravagant price.


With various partners, Lichine over the years has acquired vineyards in Burgundy and chateaux in Bordeaux. Today, he is sole proprietaire of Chateau Prieure-Lichine, a sixteenth-century priory in the village of Margaux, which he acquired a quarter-century ago, sensing “an air of enchantment” about the ancient domain. By some fifty shrewd trades and acquisitions, he also acquired some of the best terroir in the Cantenac, and restored new heft to the label. He has also greatly increased production: from fifteen-hundred cases in 1952 to twenty-five-thousand cases in a good year today.


Lichine’s is not all a wine and roses. He lectures incessantly, can spend fifteen-hour days sampling two hundred wines on the road in France, supervises his chateau, writes and rewrites, and makes sure that every one of the French wines bearing the label Selected by Alexis Lichine is worthy of the title. (The importing company, Somerset Wines Co., is a Norton Simon Inc. subsidiary and thus, in Lichine’s words, “spares me all the headaches of cash flow and bureaucracy.”)


The Bacchus of Fifth Avenue is not entirely delighted by the way that wine consumption in the U.S. is headed today. Lichine, an admirer of mature women as well as of well-rounded wines, deplores what he calls “The Lolita Complex” By this he means that we drink wines that are too young, that we are too impatient.


But of all the wines that have been given time to reach maturity, which, in Lichine’s view, are the greatest?


Without hesitation, but in no particular order, he lists: 1900 Chateau Margaux; 1906 Haut Brion; 1865 Chateau Montrose (“I found some two years ago, and it was still too young to be drunk”); ’93 Mouton-Rothschild. And what if, in the course of his vinous voyage, he should be ship-wrecked? What wines would he stock in Lifeboat Lichine for a desert island sojourn? We asked that the vintages be both obtainable and affordable. Lichine, who has composed some of the world’s great restaurant cartes des vins, provided AVENUE’s Lifeboat List: Haut Brion, ’66 or ’70; Ducru-Beaucaillou ’67; Richebourg ’69 (“for a good grower”); Pommard Chateau de Pommard ’71.


And of course, a Prieure-Lichine, ’70 or ’73.



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