The Man Behind the Rosé Renaissance

With premium products and smart marketing, the French-American entrepreneur Sacha Lichine has shaken up the winemaking world by creating a prestigious tipple out of a fruity wine long considered a low-rent drink. His rosé wines now include the best-selling bottle in the United States, as well as the world’s most expensive vintage.
Sacha Lichine. Courtesy of Château d’Esclans

Sacha Lichine was born in Bordeaux to a Russian father, whose Falstaff-like frame he has inherited, and grew up in the United States. He now splits his time between New York and Provence, where he purchased the now-renowned Château d’Esclans on the French Riviera in 2006. There, between Cannes and Saint-Tropez, 15 miles from the ancient Roman town of Fréjus, he creates the world’s most expensive rosé, Garrus, as well as Whispering Angel, the most popular rosé in America.

French? American? Russian? Sacha Lichine cares little for labels. “I have French passion when I make my wine in Provence, I feel American while selling it, and probably Russian when I am drinking it,” he says. The winemaking entrepreneur sells some five million bottles in 105 countries every year from his Château d’Esclans estate, which spans 108 acres. Some 96% of his production is sold abroad, and more than half his sales are made in the United States.

His father, Alexis Lichine, is a character straight out of a novel. This son of a Saint Petersburg banker fled the 1917 Revolution with a suitcase full of gold coins, traveling to Vladivostok, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York, and finally Paris. While in the French capital, he worked as an interpreter and assistant to Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces during World War II. At the end of the conflict, he introduced Americans to French wine.

After moving to the Bordeaux region, he purchased two châteaux, Prieuré-Cantenac, renamed Prieuré-Lichine, and Lascombes. He then tried to rewrite the prestigious Bordeaux Wine Official Classification, launched in 1855, which he considered obsolete. As a friend of Philippe de Rothschild, Claude Taittinger, the Comte de Chandon-Moët, and other jet set figures, he became known as the “pope of wine.” He even published an encyclopedia that went down in history, Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits.

The Château d’Esclans wine estate, between Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Courtesy of Château d’Esclans

Alexis Lichine was married three times, dated Barbara Walters and Kathleen Hearst, lived a life of luxury, and spent lavishly. His son paid off his debts and, growing “tired of the rather petty, snobbish people in Bordeaux,” he moved to Provence “where there is more sun.” After trying his hand at every part of the winemaking profession, including pruning, distribution, labelling, sales (in Boston), and working as a sommelier, he decided to produce his own wine in his adoptive region.

At the Château d’Esclans, he spent many years working with Patrick Léon, a former cellar master for Mouton-Rothschild who passed away in 2018 and was considered the finest oenologist in the Margaux region. Backed by cutting-edge technology, the pair developed a specific flavor of rosé to appeal to a female clientele. “The paler the rosé, the better it is, and our white bottle really showcases its color.”

Another of Sacha Lichine’s obsessions was to move away from the disastrous, “quaffable” image of rosé wines sold in boxes and guzzled over ice on beaches. To achieve this, he focused on the premium market and special vintages, seeking to make his rosé a luxury product. He drew inspiration from the distribution model of leading Champagne houses such as Dom Pérignon. This system featured four vintages and four price brackets: Whispering Angel (sold at 17 euros a bottle, the best-selling rosé in the United States), Rock Angel at 22.50 euros, Les Clans at 45 euros, and Garrus at 90 euros.

The plan paid dividends. “Today, one in every four bottles with the ‘Rosé de Provence’ appellation comes from our vineyards,” he says. Another tactic was to sell by the glass in the United States, where the Côtes-de- Provence grapes keep upping the ante for other varieties. “I moved the appellation upmarket. In 15 years, the price for a hectoliter has jumped from 90 to 360 euros! I also brought rosé to the American market, which dictates trends and tastes.”

However, competition may emerge from within the United States itself. “Rosé from Provence is currently the best, but American producers will learn to make it just as well. Californian sparkling wine by Moët & Chandon is already giving French Champagne a run for its money.”

Article published in the August 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.