A Spy Who Loved Wine
It's not often that a wine professional needs his memoir cleared by the CIA, but then again, not many have led as eventful a life as Peter M.F. Sichel. He may be best known for his masterful marketing of Blue Nun, but Sichel, as recounted in his newly released memoir The Secrets of my Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy, (Archway Publishing, 2016; $24), was on the front lines of most of the momentous events of the 20th century.
Now age 94, with a razor-sharp memory, he tells his multifaceted life story in three parts: his childhood during the rise of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, his years with the OSS and later CIA during the height of the Cold War, and his return to his family's wine business, where he worked for nearly 50 years. His adventurous story is filled with remarkable details (considering how long ago some of these events took place) and told in a lovely, fire-side chat manner.
Sichel was born in 1922 in Mainz Germany, where his great-grand father founded the original Sichel wine company in 1857. His three sons quickly grew the business and eventually expanded into Bordeaux, London and New York. Those family branches would later prove crucial in helping the family after they fled the Nazis. Sichel's parents had presciently sent Peter and his sister to boarding schools in Britain in 1935, but the authorities refused to the let the parents out. As successful business owners their assets were valuable to the state. After contemplating a swim across the Mosel his parents eventually escaped by telling the authorities their daughter was dying of meningitis in England. The ruse worked, but the Nazi's confiscated all of their property, sentenced them to five years hard labor and fined them million of marks.
By the time World War II began the family was settled in Bordeaux, but with the onset of hostilities they suddenly became "enemy aliens." Father and son were interned in Libourne, while mother and daughter were sent to the Gurs prison in the Pyrenees. Eventually, miraculously, they were all released and found each other. Together they made it to Lisbon where they boarded a ship to New York. Peter was now 19, and there was no question about his next move. He joined the U.S. Army and because he spoke French and German was stationed in Algiers collecting intelligence. He proved very good at it, and when the war was over he was sent to Berlin with the OSS (the CIA precursor) to help keep an eye on Soviet machinations.
Eventually Sichel was appointed CIA Station Chief of Hong Kong, the perfect perch to keep an eye on the Communist-Nationalist war in China and the rise of Communism in Southeast Asia. In the late 1950s President Eisenhower and his administration feared the "domino effect" whereby a Communist takeover in one country would set off a chain reaction of Communist takeovers in surrounding countries. The paranoia of such events caused the U.S. government to shift its focus from intelligence gathering to covert actions. It was a decision Sichel did not agree with, and in 1959 he resigned. Such active interference in other societies he feels is at best counterproductive but more often leads to disastrous situations (e.g. Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran). "We need to learn that each and every society has to evolve over time, sometimes over generations, and on its own terms. In my view, diplomatic action would serve us better than covert political action, let alone paramilitary action." It is often easier to act, especially with the belief that we are always right, than to wait and let problems solve themselves. This is the disease of empires." Timeless wisdom from someone who witnessed war first hand.
By 1960 Sichel had moved to New York and was working for the family wine business. This was the Mad Men era of cocktails and two-martini lunches, when wine choices were either cheap supermarket plonk like Thunderbird and Gallo Hearty Burgundy or rarified bottles like Petrus, and little in between. Blue Nun, which we cast a disdainful eye toward now, was a marketing miracle back then. The Blue Nun label first appeared on Sichel wines in 1920s and included four Liebfraumilches, two wines from the Mosel and one sparkling wine. When Sichel joined the firm he decided to narrow the product line to one wine, a Liebfraumilch, and after numerous taste tests they settled on a blend of Riesling with some Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and Gewürztraminer. Slightly sweet, it was marketed as the "wine that went with every dish" and famously promoted on the radio by Stiller and Meara. But as the wine world expanded and consumers became more discerning, Blue Nun fell out of favor. Before the business completely tanked, Sichel sold Blue Nun to a large German company, where it remains today.
Sichel's ties to Bordeaux brought about his next phase: part owner of Château Fourcas Hosten in the Medoc, which he held on to for 20 years before "retiring." These days Sichel is busier than ever with judging numerous wine competitions, speaking at conferences, sitting on boards (the other CIA, Culinary Institute of America, the Institute of Masters of Wine North America, and World Monuments Fund) and serving a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Opera. His foremost regret? Not having read all the books he's wanted to read. But who can blame him; he's been busy.