Book Review: The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy, by Peter M. F. Sichel

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 06-29-2016

9781480824072When I asked Peter why he chose to list Vintner first in the subtitle to his memoir—as opposed to the more enticing Prisoner, Soldier, or Spy—he replied, “Because it read better that way.” At ninety-four years old, Peter speaks with eloquence, wit, and candor. He writes that way too. The Secrets of My Life—which had to be cleared by the CIA before publication—is a fascinating account, plainly told, of a man who actively participated in some of the most significant happenings of the twentieth century.

Peter’s memoir covers, and is organized according to, what he calls his “three lives”: his childhood as a German Jew in the midst of a burgeoning Nazi regime and his eventual escape to America; his time working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor of the CIA; and his successful career in wine. While the former two occupy the majority of the book’s pages, wine was, and continues to be, an integral part of Peter’s life.

His ancestors started a wine business in the mid-1800s in Mainz, Germany, selling bulk wine to merchants. The business would grow into a family wine empire of sorts, spanning countries throughout Europe and into America. In the book, Peter discusses the ways in which wars and varying national allegiances came at times to divide the family and the business. Despite this, the Sichel name “became something of a brand,” and endures to this day, with several of Peter’s cousins running operations in Bordeaux and his daughter the proprietor of Laurel Glen Vineyards in Sonoma.

In the first section of The Secrets of My Life, Peter shares what it was like to grow up amidst the uncertainty and instability of post-WWI Germany—and the utter confusion that came with being both German and Jewish at this time. One day the Sichels were law-abiding members of their home country, and the next they were outcasts. For Peter’s father, it was “like being rejected by a lover.” In reading these vivid accounts of this period of Peter’s life, I found myself drifting into memories of listening to my grandfather tell his own postwar-era stories, and how I marveled at his ability to recall every minute detail.

If there is a common thread in Peter’s life, it’s his enduring relationships with family and friends. In fact, during our interview, when asked for his secret to longevity, he replied, “Have many good friends and treasure them and enjoy them.” I’m convinced after reading The Secrets of My Life that it was Peter’s extensive web of friends and family that enabled him to survive so much disaster and go on to achieve such success. His life is a true testament to the value of investing in people.

The middle portion of Peter’s memoir is an intriguing inner look at espionage in the post-WWII era. After escaping Germany with his family in the late 1930s, being held in an internment camp near Bordeaux by the French government, reaching America in 1941, and enlisting in the US Army a week after Pearl Harbor, Peter became a member of the OSS. He spent many years in Berlin, where he played the spy game against East Germany and the Soviets. He also spent time in Hong Kong and in Washington D.C., where a general joie de vivre characterized the CIA world at the time. Peter speaks of men who did great work for the country, all the while “drinking like fish,” as was vogue and apparently culturally acceptable at the time. Alcoholism is a topic Peter discusses at length, and he credits his own ability to reduce his consumption as one of the reasons he is still around today.

In 1959, Peter left a seventeen-year career in intelligence for a career in wine. The balance of the book is devoted to this part of Peter’s life, including an account of his involvement with the Blue Nun brand, as well as a chapter entitled “Some Advice on Wine.” Peter is keen to educate others. Once, he was even asked to record an LP, which had him providing wine advice to a young couple on one side and on the other some lovely “music to drink by.” The LP—I was shocked to read—sold over 100,000 copies!

I must say that it is quite an uncanny (or, unheimlich) experience to first read someone’s memoir and then speak with them for the first time. I felt as if I knew Peter, but didn’t really know him at all. But it was a pleasure. You can read further selections from my conversation with Peter below the fold.

A short review cannot do justice to the fascinating life of Peter Sichel. I was (again) shocked to learn that The Secrets of My Life is self-published—it has the stuff of a New York Times best seller. Perhaps major presses were deterred by the lengthy battle with the CIA for publication approval. In any case, I am thankful that Peter decided to share his story—it is one worth knowing.

My Recommendation

The Secrets of My Life is not a book about wine per se. It’s more of a journey through major occurrences of the twentieth century with a man whose life also happened to be tied to the wine industry. Nonetheless, it is a captivating read—a gem among the thousands of books self-published each year. What I loved most is the way the book historicizes wine, placing wine’s romanticism beside the blackest of human action. Peter has great wisdom and experience, and he shares it humbly in his memoir. Read it!

What’s one thing you wish you could have added to your memoir?

I always said that if I had been younger I would have rewritten them completely. But the fight I had with the CIA took years. I think I would have speculated more about the international politics and the mistakes that we as a nation make in dealing with everybody, including the Russians. We don’t seem to understand the motivation of the people, nor how we can work with them. We’re just another player in the world, and we are not sensitive to other people’s sensitivities.

You’ve had so much experience dealing with Russia in your time with the OSS. What is the fundamental disconnect between the U.S. and the Russians?

We’re still fighting the Cold War and so are they. The point of departure is that the Russians are very proud people. They have been invaded four times in a hundred years, at enormous loss of life and wealth, and they’re paranoid. And what they seek is recognition as an important nation with an important culture. And they are both. They can be engaged if you respect who they are and not try to make them something they’re not going to be.

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of getting this book cleared by the CIA?

Nobody would publish it without clearance from the CIA. So I sent an email to the publications clearance office of the CIA and they said, “Mr. Sichel, I’m afraid we don’t know you. You never worked for the CIA.” To make a long story short, because I had been under various covers they never admitted that I had worked for them. So it took a little time for them to admit that I really did work for the CIA. They treated me very nicely. It was amusing and frustrating.

Now, you’ve lived in Germany and France. Alsace-Lorraine. Is it German or French?

It’s French now. It was German once. It’s neither. It’s been sort of kicked around and the poor people don’t know whom they should be paying allegiance to. It’s a terrible situation to be in. But I think we have finally buried the French-German hatched once and for all.

You mention often your love of Riesling. What’s so great about Riesling?

You mean you haven’t seen the light? There are two grape varieties that make wines of various tastes, which can be dry or sweet or whatever. One of them is Riesling and the other is Chenin Blanc. They are both grape varieties that can make low-alcohol wines with a great deal of flavor, which are delightful to drink by themselves. They are, to my mind, the best beverage wines out there. They are versatile, delightful, they have many different regional differences that are identifiable, and Riesling’s a grape varietal that I adore more than any other white wine.

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