Friday, September 16, 2016

A Tale Well Told - Peter Sichel's Autobiography - The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy

It's not often that you get to read a vintner's autobiography with a title that sounds for all the world like a John LeCarré thriller.  I am sure that was the intention behind the subtitle of Peter Sichel's autobiography The Secrets of My Life - "Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy. "

Peter A. Sichel is now 94 years old (he was born in 1922), and his autobiography covers his early life growing up in a privileged Jewish family of wine merchants in Mainz, Germany; his later youth, escaping from the Nazis; his early adult years (spanning 17 years) as an international man of CIA intrigue during the Cold War; and his later years as a renowned vintner traveling the world, much of which was spent promoting his most famous offspring - Blue Nun.

The Sichels brought this German white wine brand, based on a blend of Riesling and other white grapes, to market in 1930. Under Peter's watch, Blue Nun ultimately sold 2.5 million cases in its peak year, an impressive success story for any wine even today, let alone a German one in the 1960's and 70's.

After reading his autobiography, I think it might have been subtitled "Citizen, Refugee, Operative, and Vintner," which more closely follows his actual life.

While the book is most decidedly not in John LeCarré territory, both from the point of view of style (it's a memoir, not a thriller) as well as the amount of material the CIA must have made him leave out, it is a delightful read nonetheless. But you must be patient with it. It's not all about wine and nothing happens right away. It operates on wine time, which is to say, there's the planting of the story, the growing of the story and then the harvest.


The first 100+ pages are full of family details. At the table, there are sausages, there are eggs, there are hot rolls, there is extra delicious baloney. There are observations about his family members (a sister who was insecure, a father  who was congenial and who brought home wine business colleagues for lunch on a regular basis). There are candid admissions - "I was at best ambivalent about being Jewish" - and his family's celebrations of Christmas on a regular basis. They were not devoted to Judaism per se and like many German Jews had assimilated, so when the anti-Semitic campaigns began, Peter was taken by surprise when a close friend succumbed to Nazi propaganda.

In 1935, at the age of 13, Sichel began living abroad, and was sent off to a boarding school in England. By 1937, the warning signs at home in Germany were clearer, as the Nazis changed German culture, and the Sichels fled.

In fact, it was with the help of the boarding school that Peter's sister Ruth attended that Peter's parents were allowed to get an exit visa to leave Germany. The school made up a story about Ruth being gravely ill and possibly on her death bed in order to enable Peter's mother and father to visit London. Once there, they did not return to Germany.

Instead his parents went to France to live in Bordeaux where the family had an existing wine business, a journey Peter himself was to revisit later in his own life. When the war broke out in 1940, Peter was no longer at school in England but had begun his apprenticeship in the family wine industry in Bordeaux.

Of this time, he writes,
"France and England were at war with Germany, but there were no signs of it at all in our daily life, except for the publicity that could be seen on practically every street corner announcing that France would win, boasting of the country's vast resources. 'We will win because we are stronger,' proclaimed large posters, which then gave statistics of various products, comparing German and Allied production."
When Paris fell soon after, the Sichels fled to the Pyrenees, eventually wrangling visas from the Vichy government to get to New York, where the family arrived during the early part of the war years.


Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the third leg - "Operative" - of Peter's life begins with him volunteering for the U.S. Army. Due to his language skills and experience of living in Europe, he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) and was sent to Algiers and Tunisia, the first of many foreign postings. He was given many tasks in operations, many of which revolved around moving money and developing intelligence contacts.

Transferred to Naples and then France, he ran many intelligence missions sending agents into German occupied territories and then eventually to Heidelberg in 1945 where life was not at all bleak.
"Amazingly, Heidelberg was untouched by the war," he writes. "I was working out of a pretty  apartment on the right bank of the Neckar and did not take life too seriously, often driving to Paris for the weekend.  My bosses sat in Weisbaden-Biebrich in the Henkell Sekt (sparkling wine) factory, where I went once a week to deliver my reports and receive instructions. I was taking life pretty easily, expecting to live a pleasant and relaxed life in Heidelberg, a city untouched by the war in a pretty rural setting..."
But everything changed when Dick Helms (later the head of the CIA during the Johnson and Nixon years) hired him to work in a small, undercover group, the "Peter Unit," in war torn Berlin in the fall of 1945. There he encounters the devastation of the war, where Germans died of cold and starvation over a two year period after the war.
"In addition to the physical misery, there was the complete destruction of a society that, but a short time ago, had provided food and shelter, employment, and social contact. All these things were gone."
It is in this period that Sichel's involvement in clandestine Cold War activities begins, and one suspects it contains many secrets that Sichel is not at liberty to reveal.

"It was a great time because the world was simple; the good guys and the bad guys," he writes. For him, there were lots of parties, and drinking, and a German girlfriend he ended up marrying.

The mid 1950's saw Sichel return to Washington, D.C. where he manned the German desk at the CIA overseeing secret operations. By 1956 he was transferred to Hong Kong, where his life sounds like a chapter out of Mad Men - boozing and schmoozing, including a three day visit with the king of Laos, enjoying rides in his personal jet as well as the royal dugout canoe.

At this point he had worked with all the big boys - Allen Dulles, Dick Helms, and William Casey, among others. He was one of the gang.

By 1959, he left the CIA, tired of not being able to talk about his actual life to friends or family. He had lived 17 years of his adult life in clandestine operations.

Now he had the family wine business to fall back on.

Sichel bravely gives his observations on all of the U.S.'s foreign policy and CIA initiatives (assassinations, invasions, etc.), summing up his view as insider: "We seemingly have not learned anything from history."

Here are his insights as to why that was to be the case:
"Most of these senior officers...considered their wartime career a high point in their lives and to some extent tried to recreate during the Cold War the excitement they had experienced in facing the war. Though this was undoubtedly unconscious, it nevertheless motivated them to a degree where often their judgments could be questioned."

Sichel doesn't get into the wine trade chapter of his life until page 275 of the book (out of a total of 370 pages), at which point he is 37, so if you're anxiously looking for a wine memoir in the first part of the book, you've now been forewarned - be patient.

He remarries (having divorced his first wife), this time wedding a Greek woman (whom he loves for more than 50 years), and returns to the German wine world (more visits with vintners, that include beer and sausages).

He astutely realizes the wine times he lives in - "when you are in the wine business, you are really in the lifestyle business" - and makes the most of them. He kickstarts his re-engagement in the U.S. wine scene by moving to New York where he works for an uncle during a six month transition period where he is to learn the ropes, where he quickly analyzes the business situation with the family firm and begins to transform it and forms lasting partnerships. In 1960, he decides to focus on Blue Nun, the most successful wine in his portfolio.

"I was lucky that I started in the US market just as it started to become wine-conscious...By this time, two notable wine importers, Frank Schoonmaker and Alexis Lichine, had become the prophets of the wine world, and I decided I that I would try to emulate them..."

"I had some advantages over them: I was young, my family had been in the wine business for four generations, and I was not busily traveling the world to sell wine; I had delegated that job in every country of the world..."

He cultivates high level contacts only, and joins groups - the Commanderie de Bordeaux, the Society of Wine Educators, the Confrere des Chevaliers du Tastevin (the Burgundians), the German Wine Society (which he creates), the board of the Culinary Institute of America (another CIA), and the North American Board of the Institute of Masters of Wine. But that's not all. There's still the Los Angeles County Fair and the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.

"It can be said that the wine trade is an international fraternity," he writes.

Coming of age in an age when advertising and branding were guiding American consumers to products, including wine, Sichel is right in step. Blue Nun, made to taste the same year after year from a blend of white German wine grapes (primarily Riesling), is "the wine that is correct to serve with any dish." The brand positioning was developed by Walter Sichel back in the 1920s.

It's surprising to see how his wine-selling strategies are so modern. He popularizes Blue Nun with appearances on television - Good Morning America and The Today Show. He writes a book - Which Wine - and records a record "Wine with Peter Sichel" which sells 100,000 copies.

But all is not smooth sailing. Business is a life of ups and downs, and he has his fair share, but somehow manages to land - again and again - on his feet, thanks to his family connections and his business friendships.

My favorite chapter may be the last one, "The Rise and Fall of Blue Nun: A Singular Story." Liebfraumilch - a terms for a basic white wine from the Rhine - literally means the milk of the Holy Virgin. The Blue Nun wines feature a picture of nuns in blue attire working in a vineyard.  (Today's version has just one nun).

He hires an ad agency and they launch radio spots featuring comedians - Jerry Stiller and Anna Meara (parents of Ben Stiller of Zoolander fame) -

It was a brilliant campaign targeted at entry level drinkers - a market the current wine industry is still trying to tame. (Moscato, sweet wines and more are the current bait.)

Luckily Sichel knew when it was time to sell, getting out and moving back to Bordeaux for further adventures.

Sichel has remained au courant even now, where he sees that "the market has become very crowded with thousands of labels, making it more and more difficult for producers to sell their wines and for consumers to choose them." Amen.

"My father used to say," he writes, "that you need a reliable lawyer, a reliable doctor and a reliable wine merchant."

We are lucky to have his insights on wine and life.


By now you may well be wondering, how is the story of Peter Sichel's life related to organically grown wine? I will tell you.

Sichel's granddaughter - Bettina Sichel - is the manager and part owner of Laurel Glen Vineyard, one of my favorite Cabernet producers in Sonoma County. She worked for many years in Napa in wine marketing before setting out with a group of partners to buy and restore Laurel Glen, which is a small but legendary vineyard on a primo site on Sonoma Mountain. (The 2011 Estate Cabernet, which sells for $75, got a rare 95 point rating from Wine & Spirits magazine, for example.) The property is certified organic and farmed by Phil Coturri.

Bettina graciously hosted me on a tour of the vineyard (not open to the public, alas) last year and guided me through a tasting of her wines at Laurel Glen's Glen Ellen tasting room (which is open to the public). I would recommend the tasting experience to any of you.

If you're not aware of Sonoma Mountain as a source of great cabs, now may be the time to discover them. Compared to Napa, they offer much better value at half the price. But that's not the reason to check out Laurel Glen. Not all Sonoma Mountain Cabs are worth of your attention, but Laurel Glen's is.

So the Sichel family's wine stories are far from over. The various branches of the Sichel family still operate in Bordeaux and here in the U.S. But their history is unique - and one well worth exploring both on the page and in the glass.

Here's Bettina in 2011, when she bought Laurel Glen from founder Patrick Campbell and began a new chapter in Sichel wine history:

PS. Once you've finished Peter Sichel's book, you might enjoy John le Carré's autobiographical sketches in his new book Pigeon Tunnel. It's interesting to read le Carre's coming clean versus Sichel's, but both have some remarkably similar views on the shenanigans of the Cold War intelligence era. Then...go see the movie Snowden (and rewatch CitizenFour - 99 cent rental on Apple's iTunes) to see how these same intelligence agencies look in 2016.

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