Alexis Lichine

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Alexis Lichine

In the decades following World War II, America learned much of what it knows about wine from a Russian exile. Alexis Lichine was a larger-than-life character. A wine lover, importer, Bordeaux château owner, educator and perpetual salesman, he once walked into Antoine's (New Orleans’ oldest restaurant), ordered six bottles of prestigious French wine, pronounced three undrinkable and spent the next few hours selling the proprietor on his portfolio.

Lichine was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Moscow in 1913. They fled the Russian revolution, landing briefly in New York and then Paris. Lichine alternated between the two countries all his life. In 1935, believing America had potential as a wine market, he took a clerk's job at Manhattan wineshop and spent his lunch hours trying to drum up business as an importer. He next worked as sales manager for Frank Schoonmaker, learning the business from one of the best. He was drafted in 1944 and sent to France as an army intelligence officer, charming his comrades by foraging for first-class food and wine.

In 1951 he joined the Bordeaux wine aristocracy, purchasing Château Prieuré-Cantenac in Margaux. It was run down, but had the virtue of having been awarded fifth-growth status in the 1855 Classification. He promptly renamed it Prieuré-Lichine, restored it, and startled the locals by erecting billboards offering château tours. He later put together a partnership to acquire Margaux second-growth Château Lascombes and founded Alexis Lichine & Co., a U.S. importing firm.

Lichine's 1951 book The Wines of France and his subsequent publications became essential guides for Americans learning about wine. Consistently ahead of his time, Lichine helped change the wine world for the better. He died in 1989.