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A Spy in the Cellar

The multifaceted life of Peter M.F. Sichel
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 10, 2016 2:20pm ET

People come to the wine business by many paths. Some are born in it. Others are drawn to it by passion, plunging in after earning success in other fields. But few—if any—can match the trajectory of Peter M.F. Sichel.

Sichel's great-grandfather began buying and selling wine in Germany in the mid-1800s. Like the famous Rothschilds, another family of German Jews, the Sichel family scattered to various European capitals to establish branches of the business, which became an international success.

Peter, born in 1922 in Mainz, Germany, grew up in prosperity amid an extended family that prized education, culture and gastronomy. His lively and comfortable childhood occupies the first third of his newly published memoir, The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy (Archway Publishing, 2016; $24).

The rise of the Nazis and World War II put an end to that happy time. The family made their way through France, Spain and Portugal before finding refuge in New York in 1941. Peter soon enlisted in the U.S. Army, and his language skills brought him into the intelligence services. He spent nearly two decades as a spy, working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and then the CIA, posted mostly in Berlin and Hong Kong. This period is the subject of the memoir's second third.

In 1959, Peter resigned from the diplomatic service and rejoined the family wine business, based in New York. The final third of the book recounts the ups and downs of his career. Among the highlights were the worldwide success of Blue Nun, in the 1960s and '70s, and his ownership of Château Fourcas Hosten in Bordeaux.

Along the way, Peter built a large, strong network of friends and colleagues, and earned an eminent place in the industry. In 1989, he was the recipient of Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award. I came to know Peter through his faithful attendance at our Wine Experience, and found him witty, urbane and knowledgeable on almost any topic raised in conversation.

Peter was 94 when his book was published, and his long and varied experience has given him a broad-minded view of the world. "I abhor the extremism of both the left and the right," he writes. "I believe in compromise, both in politics and in life."

The Secrets of My Life offers an insider's view into many of the most significant chapters in 20th-century history. Wine is a constant thread and a lifelong comfort, but for me, the most engaging passages describe his youth and his post-war intelligence career. They remind me that nothing is truly secure, and that only by seizing the day can we find meaning and happiness in our lives. But no matter what may come, it's always a good strategy to meet challenges with a glass of wine.

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