Don’t be put off by the rather dull cover of this book: there is treasure within! This is an incredibly interesting memoir/history by Peter Sichel (pronounced like seashell), who escaped Nazi Germany, worked for the CIA, and eventually became a top vintner.
I have read many accounts of the Holocaust and of escapes from Germany, but never involving someone from a family with the money and connections so helpful for leaving. Sichel grew up in Mainz, Germany, where his family had established a very successful business buying and selling wine. His parents were well-educated; his father came from a well-to-do family, and his mother was from “a politically conscious home.” It was she who insisted they had to leave; his father was in denial – he could not accept that this country to which he had given his loyalty and love would reject him like this.
Sichel family members had started wine import companies in France, London, and New York, which proved critical when the family needed to get out of Germany. France and London became way stations for Sichel before he eventually landed in New York. Most of his family was able to get out of Germany, in spite of (1) being Jews, and (2) having assets coveted by the Nazis.
In World War II, Sichel was assigned to the intelligence division, then called the OSS. He remained when it became the CIA, spending a total of sixteen years in the intelligence services. He left in the middle of the Cold War, after realizing, as he explained:
“. . . my ideas of what was necessary for the United States to prevail in that war did not coincide with the then-prevailing US government policy.”
Specifically, Sichel objected to the “action side” of the CIA that, at the government’s behest, was involved in effectuating regime changes around the world, leading to a series of debacles resulting in severe blowback for the U.S. He lamented that the “action side” of the CIA paid no heed to the “intelligence side” and failed to take into account “local, cultural, and political realities.”
As Sichel observes about U.S. policies at that time:
“The overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, as well as the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba, are good examples of when and where our American presidents found it expedient to dispose of those whom they and their national security advisors perceived as inimical rulers, to be replaced often by rulers and systems that were infinitely worse.”
[Note that in a book I recently reviewed, America’s War in the Greater Middle East, Andrew Bacevich, makes exactly these same points about our current policies, i.e., that the continued efforts of the U.S. to employ military might to advance our own interests and values without any consideration for the inhabitants of those countries or their needs or grievances, or even in the wider geopolitical repercussions, but in the putative pursuit of “freedom” for them, is only having disastrous consequences and fueling the recruitment success of terrorists.]
Sichel also has some interesting observations about the extent of alcoholism in those who served in the OSS and CIA. The dangers faced by agents, particularly in other countries; the necessity of getting others to loosen up and talk; and the feelings of being outside the usual laws all contributed to these problems. He recalls that almost no business was conducted in the afternoons; agents had already consumed too much alcohol.
Sichel was no stranger to this practice but managed to overcome it, and even get into the family’s wine trade business after leaving the CIA. He eventually became famous in the wine world for having made Blue Nun Liebfraumlich a global marketing success in the 1980s, and for taking leadership roles in promoting the wine industry generally around the world.
The last chapters in the book have a great deal of information about wine, albeit more about the selling end than the growing process. Nevertheless, it is quite fascinating as he details the many demands of the wine business. Especially important is ensuring that a blend for a particular label is relatively consistent over time, given the vagaries of grape sourcing and harvesting, weather, etc. One of the biggest challenges now is that wines are increasingly higher in alcohol content than twenty years ago because of global warming. He remarks:
“High-alcohol wines often do not blend well with food; the alcohol tends to burn the mouth and palate.”
Evaluation: This book is more than a memoir; it is also a history of an era distilled through the lenses of a colorful, intelligent, and talented tour guide and oenologist. [Ironically, the old word for guide, cicerone, would have been perfect here, but it has been usurped by the beer trade to mean expert on beer, analogous to a wine sommelier.]
Sichel has a remarkable memory which he supplemented with interviews with people from his past, and with a great deal of reading, for which he appends a bibliography. He knew many famous people in his time, and rarely has a bad word to say about anyone. His inside look at the OSS and early days of the CIA by itself makes the book worth reading.
This consistently fascinating book includes a selection of photographs.
Published by Archway Publishing, 2016
Note: There is also a film on Sichel’s life, which you can get on DVD. After reading this book, you may not be able to resist!