In fifteen years, Sacha Lichine has made Château d’Esclans, in the Var, a global brand. As a pioneer, he put desire into rosé and hoisted it into the world of luxury. Its Garrus cuvée is one of the most expensive and its Whispering Angel is the best-selling French wine in the United States.
His father Alexis Lichine had made French wines known in the United States in the post-war period. Flamboyant personality, sales genius, he educated millions of Americans in oenology, wrote bacchanalian bestsellers, owned classified growths in Margaux, made such a fortune that in New York he was nicknamed the Bacchus of 5th Avenue, where he had a penthouse overlooking Central Park. A true world legend of wine. Sacha Lichine is not far from becoming one in turn. With an unstoppable flair and a heritage of Franco-American culture, he sensed before anyone else that rosé would be the new champagne for millennials and would conquer the world of luxury. The angels in the chapel of Château d’Esclans, who whispered the name of the Whispering Angel cuvée to him, no doubt still have some divine secrets to whisper to him…
How did you become a wine expert?
My father tasted very well but he didn’t have much time to teach me, I had to observe. He was a great promoter of wines, I am too, I am passionate about opening people’s minds, arousing their curiosity. Fifteen years ago, the image of rosé was abominable. If I had listened to all those who didn’t believe it when I started, I wouldn’t be here. I applied the Estée Lauder method: visit every place that matters, in every city that matters and have my wines tasted by people that matter, all over the world. It was also my father’s method: “You shake hands, you make friends, you sell wines. There is know-how and know-how to sell, which are rarely combined, the success of Château d’Esclans is built on both. Technically, I owe everything to the oenologists Patrick and Bertrand Léon. Commercially, to myself and a few devotees.
How did your intuition of the phenomenal success of rosé come about?
I have traveled extensively, imported, exported and served all kinds of wines all over the world. I knew that rosé could be a great wine and a wine for laying down, provided it was flawless. I have seen this color impose itself in champagne, seduce women. They were waiting for something chic, again, I felt success would come through them. I was fascinated by the notion of a Champagne-style brand, I watched export trends, I was convinced that there was an opportunity in the American market and worldwide for rosé. I wanted to create a luxury brand in wine and to do so produce the best rosé in the world. In the early 2000s, I visited 32 properties in six years, in Provence and on the Côte d’Azur. I have never felt elsewhere the feeling that I had for Esclans, the landscape, the castle, the vineyard, which I finally acquired in 2006.
You are neither a winegrower nor an oenologist…
I hired a huge technician, Patrick Léon, who had just retired from Mouton Rothschild. He didn’t believe in my intuition but he set up the whole production process (cold, optical sorting, nitrogen presses, demi-muids, batonnage, aging on lees…) and he has made the best possible wines, wines worked on like the whites of Burgundy. Rosé is the most difficult to produce. The beginnings were dantesque. I canvassed the United States – you don’t create a global brand if you don’t succeed there first – the distributors told me that disaster would come. In Chicago, they called me crazy: “A hundred dollars for Garrus? It will never sell! It’s still very good…I’ll take two cases for myself…” It was by convincing people to taste it, by infusing my passion that I succeeded. A brand is not built on Instagram, not by buying ads, not in a marketing office, but by taking up your pilgrim’s staff, hands on! (He constantly switches from French to English and vice versa, editor’s note.) I started with 130,000 bottles, today I produce millions… (12 million for the Whispering Angel alone, editor’s note.)
Since 2019, Moët Hennessy, the wine and spirits branch of LVMH, has been your majority shareholder. Need to change size?
At some point, to grow, to penetrate more markets, you have to have more power and weight. You couldn’t find better support than Moët Hennessy. My partner sold his shares (50%) and I sold 5% of mine.
In this incredible boom of Provence rosé, are you afraid of the competition?
On the contrary, it is healthy! The more, the merrier (the more the merrier, editor’s note).
You are releasing two new wines this year, The Pale and The Beach, on the English and American markets. Why ?
On the entry level, at less than $20, we were not present, and the success of the rosé has given many people an appetite. So we had to react and produce “aspirational” wines, which make you want to discover all of our cuvées. You have to be very careful not to make the prices soar.
How far do you want to go?
Technically, we track down the smallest detail to gain even more precision and definition. Question volumes, in France, we drink more rosé than white and this is the global trend. There are still countries where it is not drunk, in Asia for example. But judging by the success of champagne in Japan for thirty years, we can hope for the same movement. South America remains to be conquered. Then, we have to convince the sommeliers that the rosé is a real wine and I hope that we will soon see Garrus on the tables alongside Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem.
You always need more grapes…
There are those we buy for Whispering Angel, The Pale and The Beach. The price per hectolitre has risen from 85 to 315 EUR in fifteen years, and they will continue to rise. And there are those that we grow to produce Garrus, Les Clans and Rock Angel, whose volumes we want to increase. We now have 140 hectares, including Les Grands Esclans, our recently acquired neighbour. We will grow again.
What lifestyle do you imagine with your rosé wines?
That of Provence, so sexy for Americans: boat in the Gulf of Saint-Tropez, lunch on the beach of Pampelonne, dinner of truffles at Bruno… Our premium consumers travel a lot, Miami, Saint-Barth, Phuket, Aspen , Gstaad, Courchevel…, where they find our wines.
Do you share the same lifestyle?
I don’t have a private jet or a mega-yacht, but a boat that smuggled during prohibition. Today I live in Switzerland, in the summer I am here, at Château d’Esclans. With the earth and the red sandstone rocks, it is one of the most beautiful vineyards in the world, in this plain of the Moors which is also called “little Africa”.
Do you feel American or French?
My father was an American of Russian origin, raised in France. I grew up in New York. I am French and proud of it. I adore France and its luxury, I appreciate American curiosity and hard work, and I love Russian extravagance.
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“We have to convince sommeliers that rosé is a real wine”
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