Posted by Book Reviews | Posted on 06-29-2016| Posted in
When 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.
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!