Sacha Lichine is an epic man and to be in his presence is to meet a force of nature who makes you believe that anything is possible.
I decided to interview Sacha after reading an interesting article that appeared in a monthly wine magazine (unfortunately I can't remember which one. Those are the problems of getting old). I remember that I'd just interviewed Steven Spurrier and was looking for somebody to compliment the work of that interview and who might help Winefullness Magazine to grow a little bit more. I hope that you'll think it works in the piece below?
Apart from being epic company, this interview stands out for me because it was the first time I'd actually interviewed anybody in person. Thankfully, Sacha went easy on me!
We met at a hotel in Mayfair, and over the course of a couple of hours I thoroughly enjoyed his company, his conversation, and most importantly of all his excellent wines. Wines that are so ubiquitous that one cannot talk about the world of Rosé wines without mentioning his part in its rise.
Winefullness Magazine: Do you ever feel the weight of expectation because of your reputation in the wine world?
Sacha Lichine: Of course. Father was well known. Filling his shoes is difficult. Little by little you begin to grow. Hard to grow a name, easy to lose it. Took over the family vineyard and tried not to screw it up. 1998 sold the property (at 29). People in Bordeaux thought we were crazy to sell up and want to invest in Rosé in Provence. Wanted something a little bit new, a little bit different. Wanted to create a brand.
Winefullness: What do you do to forget about work?
Sacha: Go on my boat. Watch the sea and it relaxes me. The trouble is everywhere, every city, every restaurant I go I'm always thinking about the brand that I built from scratch up.
We worked hard going from city to city so you're always thinking about where the wine can be listed, so I have to be on the water or somewhere far away from it.
Winefullness: How hands on are you?
Sacha: We get out into the vineyard. Great wine is made in the vineyard first. No question that without today’s technology we wouldn’t have been able to make what we are making, because of cold systems, optical sorting machines. We were the first ones to use this approach with Rosé. A race against oxidation (closed-circuit systems to avoid air contact).
Winefullness: Is Provence as prone to climatic influences as areas like Bordeaux and Burgundy?
Sacha Lichine: It’s drier and less prone to mildew than Bordeaux. If sun was the only factor then the best wines would come from North Africa. At the end the day the climate is important, the terroir is obviously important, but the vintage variation is much smaller than it is in other areas.
Winefullness Magazine: Is Rosé a winemaker’s wine or is it reliant on terroir?
Sacha: All of our wines are free run juice, so there’s no maceration. Usually these wines macerate a little bit on the skins and they like to pick them early. We pick them at the last minute and allow the juice to run through the skins and we get this paleness of colour. We want texture, fruit.
Winefullness: What dish do you like to make for your friends?
Sacha: Oh, I to make blanquette de veau, Coq au vin. The old traditional French cuisine. I sometimes do barbeque but I prefer the old traditional French bistro dishes. I don’t always have the time, but when I do, I try to tell people what I like but they don’t always listen.
Winefullness Magazine: Do you think that Rosé will ever be given the respect it deserves?
Sacha Lichine: I think for a long time it was cheap and cheerful. It’s harder to make good Rosé than it is to make good red or white. It’s a chain of links, and the amount of effort we go through to get this much more is much greater than red. Quality wise it’s a real nightmare to try to elevate it because we try to keep the lightness in and the heaviness out. Try to keep the complexity going.
Winefullness: If you weren’t in the wine trade what would you do?
Sacha: Probably be a travel agent. I have to travel and I seem to know a lot about travel; planes and hotels, and restaurant. So I’d probably become a travel agent.
Winefullness: After France, which area of the wine world really excites you?
Sacha: I think California because it’s managed to make Cabernet Sauvignon well and that means a lot in the wine world today. Bordeaux made the best for a long time. The joint venture of Opus One through Mouton and Mondavi was quite successful. We’d like to make a Whispering Angel joint venture, which would be fun to do. There’s so much potential in California to make the first Rosé that has some legs and some sexiness.
Winefullness Magazine: What does the future hold for Château d’Esclans?
Sacha Lichine: Unfortunately, Patrick Leon died in December. He was a fantastic oenologist. He had just retired from Château Mouton Rothschild and he was looking to do some consultancy work.
To be honest, he didn’t want to make the styles of wine that I wanted to make, and I fought with him to try to get him to make some of these lighter style precise wines. Like a lot of winemakers he wanted to make something big and juicy, almost a Tavel style of Rosê that had flavour and taste. I fought with him at length, for a long time to get him to make these sort of styles, but as he was technically orientated he got it quite quickly, but it wasn’t his favourite flavour and taste profile.
At first he didn’t believe in the project at the beginning, but he was open-minded enough to see what I had a vision of and he made wines that I wanted to drink. You’re usually better off selling wines that you want to drink than wines you don't.
Patrick’s son, Bertrand works for us and Patrick is going to be sorely missed, but we have the system down pretty good.
Winefullness: Do you ever feel that you will return to Margaux?
Sacha: I don’t think so. There’s a good expression, 'Been there and done that'. So I think in order to go back to making a red wine today, after drinking as much Rosé as I do now it would be difficult. The red grape variety I drink a little bit of is more Pinot driven than Cabernet driven. You drink a big Cabernet after Rosé and you feel like you’re shoving a big sweater in your mouth. Very dry, very heavy
The red variety that marries well with my Rosé is Pinot; but I wouldn’t consider Burgundy because there is so much to do in this category, and I’m not about to go back to red. The world is afloat with red.
Winefullness: Will Brexit have a long-term effect on the British Wine Industry?
Sacha: I think besides taxes, it’s already a product that’s highly taxed in the UK. Unless, if they impose huge tariffs, I don’t see much effect. A good wine will always sell and find a market.
Winefullness Magazine: How will Château d’Esclans develop with Whispering Angel being the most popular Rosé in the world?
Sacha Lichine: It’s the biggest French success in the last twenty years.
Winefullness Magazine: Was that because France took its position in the wine world for granted?
Sacha: No, I think France doesn’t always understand wine brands. All the top wine brands in France have been Champagnes. It’s not like in Italy where they have an Antinori. Well, maybe Chapoutier has made an interesting brand. Unfortunately in France, everytime they have a wine brand they seem to cheapen it. They’re not at the level of Frescobaldi or Antinori, Ruffino things like that. The French are more into Domaine and Châteaux.
Winefullness: Would you include Bordeaux First Growths as brands?
Sacha Lichine: They’re not brands are they? A brand has a lot of estates. There’s Tignanello by Antinori and Solaia by Antinori. The First Growths have been around for 300 years and they’re more like an elite brand.
Winefullness: Which winemakers do you most admire and why?
Sacha: Antinori is a fantastic worldwide brand. Torres is Spain, quality wise. I have a lot of respect for Michel Roland, Patrick Leon. For Brands that have become global, and with volume and with quality have been able to build a prestigious feel around them. I think one should never forget quality for quantity.
Winefullness: Have you tried English sparkling wine?
Sacha: Yes. It was quite impressive, quite well made. I tried some with Steven Spurrier.
Winefullness Magazine: How do you relax besides going on your boat? Do you watch television?
Sacha Lichine: I watch a little television to fall asleep. I watch a bit of sports, a bit of football. I watch movies on aeroplanes. I watch some series every now and then. My wife and I will sometimes binge watch a series like The Crown and Downton Abbey, but you have to have time to do that.
Winefullness: What sort of music do you listen to?
Sacha: It’s a big variety. I love Rod Steward and the Old American songbook, Sinatra and The Rat Pack. I listen every now and then to the Rolling Stones cause it brings me back to my youth. I love the piano
Winefullness: Do you play an instrument?
Sacha: No, unfortunately not. That’s one of my frustrations in life. I always wanted to.
Winefullness Magazine: What was the last book you read?
Sacha Lichine: Oh my, the last was a long time ago. I’ve been so busy the last five years that I don’t think I’ve read a book fully. George Orwell’s '1984' I read a long time ago. 'A Year in Provence' maybe. I’ve started a lot of books, but I’ve never got around to finishing them. My mind is always racing, and when you’ve spent twelve years building a brand there’s little time to sit down and simply read.
Winefullness: Do you think that your time spent as a sommelier in Boston helped you understand marketing of Château d’Esclans?
Sacha: At the end of the day, I was looking to build a global brand. We’re in 106 countries. To build a global brand there’s no question that you have to go to America. In L.A. Miami, the Hamptons, New York people travel and it helped when our wines became stocked in placed where they travel to like St. Bart’s, Phuket and Bali.
Winefullness: Researching about you, among the many compliments that constantly appear are, ‘surrounded by laughter’ and ‘what you see is what you get’. Do these do you justice?
Sacha: I think one should always have a sense of humour. Those who take themselves seriously are not my cup of tea. Humour and laughter and joie de vive in this business are important. You can wake up in this business knowing nothing and one day you know a little more. Depends on what side of the bed you wake up on and taste. Sometimes you taste awkwardly. Knowing about fine wines is about being humble, knowing humility. It’s the type of business where you can’t know it all. You go to a blind tasting and you sometimes realise that you have no idea what it is. I take it all with a grain of salt and chalk it up to experience. I like to laugh and I don’t take myself too seriously. Sommeliers take themselves much too seriously in my view.
Winefullness Magazine: Do you try and make jokes with your children.
Sacha Lichine: Yes, and they’re like, ‘Dad, you don’t get it’. I’m an embarrassment sometimes.
Winefullness: How do you view the latest vintage of Garrus?
Sacha: To be honest, we’ve taken all the heaviness out of it. Taken all the richness out of it. We’ve tried to make it as precise. I think it’s the best Garrus we’ve ever made. I’ve finally got it to where I want it to be. I think it makes you stop and think, ‘I’ve never tasted anything like this before’. Keeps its freshness and lingers on your palette. 100% barrel fermented. You don’t really taste the wood.
Winefullness: In your wines, you use a small parcel of Vermentino. Was this already in the vineyard when you bought it, or was it the result of trial and error?
Sacha: We ripped everything out and started from scratch. At the end of the day we identified Grenache was predominant and had style. Syrah coloured too much and candied too much. Looking to make something precise and very light. More on the lighter Sauvignon side as opposed to the heavier Chardonnay texture. Vermentino/Rolle was giving aromas, fatness and something in the middle.
Winefullness: Garrus is one of those great wines that seem to signify a particular lifestyle. Do you think that it is true of Whispering Angel, or is it a wine that opens lifestyle possibilities and allows most of us to dream?
Sacha Lichine: Garrus is a fine wine. More for the fine wine consumer. It was an attempt to make Rosé grand. It obviously caught the eye of the bling crowd in St Tropez, but at the end of the day it’s real wine that’s in the bottle. If we can command that type of price, it’s because people appreciate the finesse that goes into the bottle. I started out by thinking that if sparkling Rosé could command the price of Champagne Rosé, then why couldn’t still Rosé? So we tried to make this an accumulation of detail, the chain of links as I said earlier, so it would be as impressive as it could be as a wine. It’s quality driven, it’s in the bottle, and it’s what people really enjoy sort of drinking. Whereas, the others have a different market. We use a Champagne marketing approach. Garrus is Dom Perignon, d’Esclans is the brut Imperial, Rocking Angel is the brut non-vintage and Whispering Angel is the original white star. There is integrity where each product helps to sell the other. Like drinking a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and then moving on to La Grande Dame.
Originally in France, Garrus was more popular than Whispering Angel. One is by the glass and one is for the wine list.
Winefullness Magazine: What is the one question you wish you’d have been asked, and how would you answer it?
Sacha Lichine: I wish you’d have asked me more about sommeliers. I have a friend out in Australia who started a club called 'The Sommelier Liberation Army'. He has a real allergy towards them.
For the most part, they never listen. Instead of bringing something you want to drink they bring something you don’t want to drink. They never give you pleasure, they make things difficult. I feel that they are the worst enemies to wine.
If a man takes his partner on a special date and you don’t know much about wine, the sommelier comes up with a huge book. What happens? The man buys Champagne because it goes well with his date, the food, the establishment and they make no effort at making you feel at ease.
You have to wait twenty minutes, and instead of drinking a litre of water, you could have drunk a litre of wine. I tell everybody to get rid of his or her sommeliers and to do a lot more educating of their staff. You may not sell that bottle of 82 Lafite, but you’ll sell a lot more wine.
They turn consumers off.