April 07, 1975 12:00 PM

It is a curious sensation to step off New York’s Fifth Avenue and into a French château. But that is the impression made by the 14-room apartment of Alexis Lichine, the cool, gracefully middle-aged international connoisseur who for 25 years has been called, irreverently but not facetiously, “the Pope of Wine.” The apartment is as splendid of design (Stanford White, naturellement) as it is sparing of furniture—”the result,” Lichine offers with a wry smile, “of three expensive divorces.” Art dominates the rooms: classicists, romanticists, impressionists, cubists, a riot of styles. Ah, but look closer. Here is a haunting château by Fleur Cowles, there a watercolor landscape of Beaujolais by Yves Brayer, a lush tapestry of grape-pressing by Lurçat—every work of art in Lichine’s gracious apartment celebrates the fruit or, as he would put it, the food of the vine. In a voice reminiscent of Charles Boyer, he says as he proffers a glass of fino sherry, “You will see that in the great paintings of history two themes dominate—religion and wine. That’s as it should be; wine is the perennial hallmark of civilization.”

To paraphrase James Thurber, one may be amused by Lichine’s presumption, but he is no naive domestic product. Only a week before, the peripatetic wine man could have been visited in his French domain, the splendid 130 acres of Château Prieuré-Lichine in Médoc, the district which produces most of the great red wines of Bordeaux. There, as he poured a white Graves, Château Haut-Brion 1971 (he is a director of that winery), with the asparagus vinaigrette and his own red Margaux, Château Prieuré-Lichine 1967, with the lamb chops, he expatiated on the subject. “Take the business of serving wine at room temperature,” he said. “That was invented in England, because it’s so goddam cold there. But in Florida it’s ridiculous to serve it at room temperature. All you’re going to do is bring out the wine’s acidity. Wine snobs are bores.” A little later M. Nicolas Tari, owner of the nearby Château Giscours, watched Lichine guiding visitors about his château and said with feeling, “He doesn’t have a beard, but he is our prophet.”

Lichine has made himself into the most celebrated international authority on French wine, meanwhile writing the definitive work on the subject, Wines of France, as well as an exhaustive Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits. The label “Selected by Alexis Lichine” on a bottle of imported wine has induced tens of thousands of Americans to buy.

Vintner, buyer, taster, exporter and, above all, superhuckster, he built up Alex Lichine & Co. here and in France until, by 1965, he was the biggest importer of wines in the U.S. But he was never merely hawking his brands; he was always selling wine.

The figures show just how well he accomplished his messianic task. In 1955 Americans drank 145 million gallons of wine. The figure crept up to 190 million by 1965 and soared to 350 million last year. Nor are Americans just swilling “Zapple” and “Cold Pigeon.” The French exported $43 million to the U.S. in table wines alone in 1970, and half again as much in 1973.

Yet the wine industry in the U.S. has had to do without the direct benefit of Lichine’s protean services for the past seven years. Ruefully, he explains that he sold his company—and effectively his name—in 1965 to Bass-Charrington, a British conglomerate, and took on several directorships for them. After a disagreement with the management, he resigned in 1968. But under a “no-compete” clause in his contract he was restricted, until last fall, from direct participation in another wine sales business, and particularly from endorsing the wines of another shipper or importer. Now three U.S. conglomerates are bidding for Lichine’s services as a consultant, and he is eager to again enjoy the rich harvest he so painstakingly sowed.

In his New York apartment, his 6’1″ frame draped elegantly in a French armchair, Lichine sips his preprandial sherry and reflects aloud: “Of all the senses, the palate is the most difficult to discuss. But when you are so attuned to it, well, it is great fun to discuss. Young wines are sensuous, old wines are intellectual. Old wines are more complicated, have more nuances. A great vintage has the attributes of both youth and age.”

Although Lichine is not yet a candidate for September Song, he could well be describing himself. The son of a well-to-do Moscow banker and lawyer, in 1917 little Alexis escaped the Russian revolution with his family, fleeing first to Vladivostok and then to Paris via Tokyo and New York. He was schooled there until he came to the U.S. to study business at the University of Pennsylvania. After a year he returned to sell ads for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune. Lichine proved to be an adroit salesman, especially in procuring ads from the wine country. Within two years he was back in New York, gamely trying to establish himself as an agent for French wine merchants and supporting himself as a clerk in a Madison Avenue liquor store. He built a reputation for himself in the wine-importing trade by such gambits as walking into Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans, ordering six wines and pronouncing three of them a disgrace. He and the proprietor talked into the night, lunched the next day, and Lichine left town with an order for more than 100 wines. Lichine combines chutzpah and savoir-faire to an astonishing degree.

After the war started he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was commissioned an intelligence officer. Landing in the South of France in August 1944, he won the hearts of his comrades by slipping through enemy lines and returning with several bottles of a drinkable rosé. He also became the first American to have a drink at the Carlton Hotel bar in liberated Cannes. Captain Lichine was detached to serve as an aide to General Eisenhower at his villa at Cap d’Antibes, where he was called upon to entertain Winston Churchill: “The prime minister talked war for a while, then started telling me about wines over his claret. I politely intervened, and he finally sat down and said, ‘You do the talking and I’ll do the listening, young man.’ ”

Even while earning the Croix de Guerre with 3 palms and one citation and a Bronze Star—among other decorations—Lichine’s taste for luxury rarely failed him—landing on Elba, he managed to spend the first night in Napoleon’s bed. In 1946 he returned to a precarious civilian life in New York and not long after married Countess Renée de Villeneuve, whom he had met in Marseilles. The union lasted a year. While Alexis was working aimlessly for the United Distillers of America, a close friend, Claudius Philippe, of the Waldorf-Astoria, asked Lichine to come along on a wine-buying trip to France in 1948. That was his chance. Lichine raced through the South of France tasting wines and persuading growers to bypass the staid establishment firms and hire him as their agent. It was no discountable feat for a Russian-born Jew to perform in such insular districts as Champagne and the Loire, but the French have a special fondness for anyone who can make money for them. The sheer force of his hustle was impressive—and the unarguable discernment of his nose and palate.

With his growing affluence, Lichine was able to acquire Château Prieuré-Lichine in 1952 and, with American partners, another Margaux vineyard, Château Lascombes. (The latter was sold to Bass-Charrington in 1971, but Prieuré-Lichine was retained and has been expanded.) Lichine’s flamboyance as a host and his frequent 18-hour days also cost him his second wife, Gisèle Edenbourgh, a lovely Belgian-German whom Lichine has always referred to as “the mother of my children.”

In the 1950s Lichine was producing and shipping wine from France; the supply was there, he heeded demand. “In the early days,” he says, “I took six-week trips and covered the country in depth. In each town I’d speak to women’s clubs, radio and TV talk shows, anywhere. I would take three very social people and install wine cellars for them. They’d introduce me to their friends and eventually the local retailers. After that I’d go to the wholesalers and turn them around, and then go out on calls with their salesmen.”

The import firm that Lichine founded in New York in 1956 boomed as he raised American wine consciousness. Nor did he scorn the homegrown product in doing it. “Hell, a lot of the California product is much better than the French vin de table.”

Lichine is equally candid about the hard times which have recently come to the Bordeaux wine growers—himself among them. “The prices of the wines had become ridiculous, absurd,” he says. “The Burgundys had been going up just bit by bit—that was normal—but in 1971 outside speculators discovered Bordeaux wine. Better than stocks, they said, better than gold. The prices doubled and tripled almost overnight. On top of that, you had the scandale with some important people caught cheating and making phony Bordeaux. The consumer said screw this and turned his back. In 1973 the prices started to break. By now some have fallen as much as 75 percent. Restaurants in the States and in France had been just as criminal as the other cheaters. It’s a disgrace when recent château bottlings go for $20 or more a bottle, even in Bordeaux. I see the future for good wines at around $5 or $6 a bottle in liquor stores, and maybe $10 or $12 for a first growth.”

Back in his Manhattan apartment, Lichine moves from the dining room after an ethereal soufflé prepared by his French cook, modestly acknowledging the excellence of the 1964 Château Prieuré-Lichine. He apologizes that his air-conditioned cellar in the basement of the building contains but 2,000 bottles and laments that a little over a year ago thieves made off with 600 old, irreplaceable bottles from his château.

But even the recollection of such an outrage can barely ruffle his sangfroid. In his salon, taking one of his occasional cigarettes and only a spartan tea after lunch, Lichine reminisces about such diverse friends as Orson Welles, the former Grace Kelly (“a helluva girl”), Artur Rubinstein, the late Aga Khan and Melvin Purvis (the FBI man who shot John Dillinger). His global experiences raise a question about his age. Lichine demurs. But surely he doesn’t mind? “It is a question of my inventory.” Inventory? Bottles again? A beguiling smile, a Continental shrug. “You know, les demoiselles.” As a testimony to Alexis’ way with les demoiselles, his friends note that his second and third wives (the latter was actress Arlene Dahl, 1965-68) still come to lunch regularly. He is close to his children, Alexandra, a freshman at Duke University, and Alexis, a junior at the Choate School.

The gentleman who could be the most eligible over-50 bachelor in America is currently often seen escorting Barbara Walters, but a TV hostess has to go to work distressingly early for such an accomplished bon vivant.

Wealthy, subtle, an officer of the Légion d’Honneur for his dedication to France’s finest exports, Alexis Lichine nonetheless would like to demystify wine. How does one go about building a sensitive palate? The question may be pretentious, but not the answer. “Simple,” he smiles, “buy a corkscrew and use it.”

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