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Lichine Legacy : Recollections of an Afternoon With a Valued Friend and Famed Wine Expert

July 02, 1989|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

THE SAGA of Alexis Lichine's life has ended, but the legend of the oft-dubbed "International Pope of Wines" will endure.

Lichine, who died of lung cancer at 75 in May, had an illustrious career as a wine importer and wine merchant. He also wrote books. His first wine book, "Wines of France," was described by the late publisher Alfred A. Knopf as "far and away the best book on its subject that has ever been written in any language."

But the Russian-born Lichine had a greater passion. He spent the last decades of his life enhancing the Chateau Prieure-Lichine, the Bordeaux Quatrieme Cru, a fourth-growth wine estate, to a status well beyond that outdated classification of 1855. He did so by scrupulously acquiring neighboring vineyards that produce fine grapes.

Lichine's work made Prieure-Lichine a claret almost as well known as those first-growth superstars Mouton and Lafite-Rothschild.

I remember Lichine well; he was my lifelong friend-in-wine. In late February, 1987, on an afternoon when lowering gray clouds spelled a cold, wintry afternoon, Alexis rose from his comfortable armchair in the handsome drawing room of the Chateau Prieure-Lichine near Margaux, grabbed his Windbreaker from the hall tree, and announced to his son, Sacha, that the three of us were going for a walk. I followed dutifully across the gravel courtyard, pausing momentarily to examine the collection of glazed cast-iron fire backs ornamenting the gracefully arched wall to the outside wine road. A few of these intriguingly struck bas-relief iron plaques were now hinged covers of stainless-steel vats concealed within that handsome enclosing wall. But Alexis was getting impatient to show me the newly expanded chai (cellar).

"How long has it been, Alexis," I asked, "that we've been on the wine trail together? When you first called on me as a salesman in Los Angeles? I think it was in 1938."

"My God!" he said, "That was 50 years ago!"

We walked past the familiar old 16th-Century chai, with some of the original oak beams still in place, into a large room filled with French oak barrels holding rows of aging wines. We moved on quickly to the great new "hall," where gleaming stainless-steel fermenters lined an avenue of new Swiss Sutter presses.

This quick tour brought us into another new area, a large reception hall, banked on three sides with bins of vintaged Prieure-Lichine wines. The floor-to-ceiling bins with concrete dividers were not, however, merely identical "squares" for storage but were of varying size--spaces divided with the precision of a Mondrian design, stunning to behold. We walked in silence, Alexis beaming at my obvious approval of this new technological facility.

"Now!" he announced, "a walk through the vineyards!" His large, happy black Labrador loped ahead of us, knowing the route we would take, over the railroad tracks, into the vineyards.

I told him how unhappy I had been with a Wine Spectator cover story inaccurately titled "The Rise and Fall of Alexis Lichine," which ran in June, 1986. Everything that I had just seen--the new vineyards, fermentation halls--belied any tumbling of the Lichine reputation. Alexis stopped in his tracks, turned and, with a sardonic smile, spit out an appropriate response.

"During the war, in Burgundy, when I was on his staff, (General) Dwight David Eisenhower cautioned me, 'Don't turn around at all the dogs that bark!' "

We had reached some low-trained, pruned vines that had not yet begun to show any signs of bud-break. Alexis ran his fingers along one of the shoots. "It's so cold, the sap has not yet begun to rise. Good. See those yellow stakes? Those mark each of our rows of vines. Those plots over there are Chateau Palmer vines. I just bought 13 acres in the Margaux area and planted them. We now have 165 acres.

"These vines," he noted as we continued to walk, "belong to Chateau Brane-Cantenac, those over there, Giscours. Under Napoleonic law, land always had to be divided among heirs, making these plots smaller and smaller. Prieure is a fourth growth, of course, but these same grapes," he indicated with a sweeping gesture that took in all the gnarled vine trunks, "and some of those I just purchased, neighboring Chateau Margaux holdings, would be first growth under those labels (if Margaux had bought those grapes)." The implication was obvious. Through his new purchases, from inheritors of vineyard fragments in this truly fragmented geography of the Medoc, vintages of Prieure would now continue to be better and better.

The sun had fallen below the horizon when we returned to the chateau. Two years later, the sun set on Lichine's life.

Though Alexis is gone, his monument endures. Chateau Prieure-Lichine has become even more significant since I last saw Alexis. Not only is the chateau a wine-producing estate but it also is a worthy destination for the wine-loving tourist. It's now being guided by Sacha, 28, who grew up in the trade with his father and still takes the walks I've just recalled. It's not Ave atque vale (Hail and Farewell) but Ave! Ave! Ave! Hail for Yesterday, Hail for Today, Hail for Tomorrow!

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