Sacha Lichine: The Innovation Interview

Sacha Lichine, Owner of Sacha Lichine International/ Vins Sans Frontiers shares his thoughts and insights regarding Chateau d’Esclans Rosé, Innovation, Trends and building a truly global wine brand that is expanding into Asia.

Sacha Lichine was born in Bordeaux and educated in America, Sacha Lichine began working at his family’s former property, Chateau Prieure Lichine, during the summers of his youth. At age 23, Sacha’s first enterprise was organizing luxury wine tours in France which helped facilitate the establishment of Sacha Lichine Estate Selections for wines from the Rhone. He also worked as a Sommelier at Anthony’s Pier 4 Restaurant and then with an importer/ distributor/ wholesaler both of which were in Boston.

Sacha then went on to work for Southern Wine & Spirits in California and in 1987 he established a distributorship on Saint Lucia called Caribbean Chateau. During the same year, a defining moment in Sacha’s career came about when he started running Prieure Lichine at age 27. In 1990 Sacha started a negociant business, Borvin, which he still operates focusing on selecting the best wines from Bordeaux. Recognizing the importance of innovation in an increasingly varied wine industry around the world, Sacha developed a line of new world wines from France, Sacha Lichine International / Vins Sans Frontiers which today consists of a range of blended wines from the Languedoc and varietals from other regions in France.

A pivotal moment for Sacha was his 2006 acquisition of Chateau d’Esclans in Provence. In keeping with his uncanny sense of innovation, Sacha felt that Rose had strong developmental opportunities to become more serious from a production standpoint in addition to being served and consumed more broadly. The result to this foresight energized by an abiding passion for making and promoting great wine, has resulted in building a world class brand while providing a strong contribution to unprecedented growth within the Rose category. This has made for a remarkable chapter in Sacha’s dynamic career to date.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Innovation is something new or different and, in the case of Chateau d’Esclans/ Whispering Angel, much of this is based on introducing new ideas and methods to producing Cotes de Provence Rose. Beyond painstaking, methodical vine cultivation and harvesting techniques, the wine is produced in a state of the art winery beginning with electronic sorting equipment that insures zero deficiency when it comes to guaranteeing that all grapes which go into vinification are perfectly de-stemmed and resemble each of the correct physical characteristics dictated by the wine maker including shape, size, color and general condition. This is verified by an optical eye which is programmed to detect whether grapes ‘make the grade’. Our refrigeration systems are equally sophisticated as are the vinification systems which are a cross between stainless steel vats and new & 2 year old oak barrel vinification. The ladder is quite special and, while reserved for our higher end wines, this method is part and parcel to the way we differentiate our brand as being the greatest Rose in the world. Towards that end, oak vinification is a process reserved to fine wine making, something to which Rose is generally not equated. This is where innovation, from a production standpoint, plays a role.

The innovative nature of the wines we produce get trade professionals, journalists and, of course, consumers to take notice and taste the wines. But, before doing so, they will have either heard or read about them given that Chateau d’Esclans is very established. Our packaging is quite striking. Whispering Angel is a force that has a brand personality unto itself beginning with its name putting it in a different place then most, if not all other Roses. It has been featured twice on American network television (in a popular sitcom & second on a travel and culture feature on a major morning news program). As for our higher end wines, since the most recently released vintage, 2010, the packaging has been overhauled in order to speak to their position as super premium wine. Top flight wine journalists and trade professionals including sommeliers, from around the world, marvel at how amazing our high end wines Les Clans and Garrus are.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

Speaking for our industry, this is a must and I think you can apply that to any industry because, truth be told, nothing is more constant than change & one must be in sync with this realization in order to be relevant to consumers particularly when you are building a brand.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

We don’t follow trends we set them… given to me by my father, Alexis Lichine.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

I have achieved many things that have led me to overseeing my former family’s property, Chateau Prieure Lichine and selling it followed by the acquisition and oversight of Chateau d’Esclans. In both cases I have owned and run globally distributed world class wine brands. In terms of d’Esclans, this is something that was built from scratch and about which I am particularly proud. Additionally my branded blended wines from the south of France are well positioned as wines which are easy and enjoyable to drink. We are in the process of creating a new brand encompassing 3 wines bearing visually arresting package design and good quality both of which will put them ‘out ahead’ of many wines within the value segment.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

If you are speaking of media exposure, we seek it out and respond to opportunities recognizing the importance to maintain an elevated profile amongst targeted consumers. As for newspapers, they represent an important part of the mix because of their daily frequency. Most major journals have wine columns some of which are overseen by a particular journalist and others of which provide articles written by various contributors. In terms of articles about our wines and the key people behind them going into the digital or physical space you will agree that both are becoming increasingly seamless.

What technologies do you use to manage Chateau d’Esclans when you are on the road building a global brand?

Technologies include the prevalent mode of wired devices to maintain constant contact with clients and our associates. Other technologies include promotional events which of course rely on visual aid imagery, presentations, dvds with sound, sight and motion that bring our unique proposition to life.

When did you first spot the rosé trend? Was foreseeing this trend what lead you to acquire Château d’Esclans in 2006?

I knew for some time that there was a vacant sector in the category and it was really a matter of getting to the point where the acquisition could be made in order to see things through. Today provisional information indicates that new wine drinkers are gravitating to Rose which bodes favorably for the likes of Whispering Angel and perhaps more so our new our new Rose creation, Single Blend, a Grenache based Rose made from some of the best Grenache growing areas in France. For higher end consumers there are an abundance of brand development opportunities for Les Clans and Garrus particularly because these wines add such a different dimension to the fine wine experience by comparison to the more established red and white wines on the market. So we have responded to trends pointing toward category growth by crafting different Rose wines which cater to consumers of different echelons and tastes.

We were first introduced to Whispering Angel by the sommelier at The Four Seasons Resort Nevis, West Indies and have since become loyal to the brand. You wisely chose to market the wine at luxury hotels around the world- why?

These sort of venues, luxury hotels, are key to building a prestige brand because of the echelon of consumers they draw. That being said, word of mouth endorsements from discerning consumers go a long way toward raising awareness, stimulating trial and increasing sales.

With Chateau d’Esclans available in over 51 countries and expansion into Asia well underway, what will be the largest market for rosé wine in Asia within 5 years?

It is difficult to know however in Asia alone we’re up about 50% over the past two years and note that in markets such as Hong Kong, Singapore and at resorts in places like Phuket, and in various parts of China, our Rose wines are catching on and becoming emblematic ingredient products for many trendsetters to enjoy and be seen with.

How are you balancing heritage and lifestyle as you build the Château d’Esclans brand?

We try to balance form and function by making classic and fabulous wine that, to consumers, tastes this way. Lifestyle pertains to promotional events at the Chateau and through themed events (Pink Parties) in various global markets where the Provence Rose lifestyle is experienced by consumers and trade professionals all of whom derive a sense of how lovely our wines are on their own and become superb accompaniments to the enjoyment and the enhancement of gastronomy.