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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
27 Feb 2016

This is a rather longer version of an article published by the Financial Times. 

Who else could subtitle their autobiography 'Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy' other than Peter M F Sichel, the tall 93-year-old New York grandee. Nor can anyone else claim senior membership of two sorts of CIA, the obvious one and the Culinary Institute of America. I can think of no one else in the wine business who commands his seniority and international standing.

In the wine world, Sichel is most famous for having driven Blue Nun Liebfraumlich to the top of the sales tree in the 1980s: 1.3 million cases of a dozen bottles a year sold in the US, not to mention 300,000 in the UK, 200,000 in Canada and 50,000 in Australia. Since then he has skilfully wheeled and dealed behind the scenes, getting out of Blue Nun as its sales slid; managing to sell the Bordeaux château he picked up along the way to the owners of Hermès; knowing who was who in all the big drinks companies and helping to place rising stars in them.

In New York he is probably best known in certain circles for the number of boards and committees he sits on and for his work raising funds for opera. He probably needs three tuxedos.

Germany's leading wine historian, Dr Daniel Deckers of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, recently described him to me as 'one of the most experienced, most sympathetic and wisest personalities I have ever met'. And yet, as a Jew hounded out of Germany in the late 1930s, the pinnacle of his formal education was a stint at his beloved Stowe (the English public school for which he has also been a major fundraiser). His parents managed to flee Germany only via an elaborate ruse involving the headmistress of his sister's English boarding school and a specially confected message that she was dying of meningitis.

Long before Peter joined the family wine business in 1959, his life had been seriously colourful, in ways that required official CIA clearance before his memoirs could be published at the beginning of this year. Just before Hitler invaded Poland, Peter's family somehow managed to meet up in Bordeaux, where he worked briefly as an apprentice to the French branch of the Sichel wine business. But before long they were all interned, the men in a converted warehouse in Libourne – a major wine centre today – and the women in the unspeakably sordid Gurs in the Pyrenees, from which many were sent to concentration camps.

Eventually, after many a nail-biting mishap and much attempted pulling of strings, they escaped from Lisbon to New York, where his mother's sisters were already ensconced. Here too the Sichel wine business tentacles had already spread and his father resumed work in the American branch. But for 19-year-old Peter, there was only one option in 1941, the US army.

Presumably thanks to his fluent German and French, he found himself on a top-secret mission in Algiers less than two years later and began what was to be his speciality for the next 16 years, intelligence gathering. He was also charged with recruiting German prisoners of war as spies and in 1945 ended up in Berlin, 'a ghastly sight'. This was followed by stints in Washington during the height of the McCarthy era and one in Hong Kong as CIA station chief in the 1950s. A minor part of his job there involved supplying powerful Laotians with champagne, caviar and Havana cigars. A running theme in his book is the dangerous level of smoking and drinking among his CIA colleagues. But it was the big picture, and a loss of faith in the methodology of the CIA, that eventually led to his resignation in 1959. He is probably the only person who left the CIA in fear of becoming an alcoholic – and then went into the wine business.

The first thing he did was to extricate the Sichel American wine business from the murkier aspects of selling wine in the US, involving kickbacks and the like, and instead got the Sichel portfolio taken on by specialist importer Schieffelin, another family-owned company run by a 'sophisticated' Texan called Tex Bomba.

Building on the work of his cousin Walter in London, he decided that one of the Sichels' most popular and memorable brands Blue Nun should be limited to a single wine, Liebfraumilch, 'the wine that goes with any dish'. It's easy to forget now but for much of the 20th century German wines were held in the highest esteem, commanding prices equal to those of Bordeaux first growths. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the Jewish merchants who dominated German wine exports played such a vital role earning the foreign currency needed by the Nazis for their armaments that they were discriminated against by Hitler's regime only relatively late.

Sichel oversaw what became memorable press and radio ads for Blue Nun and, as demand rose in an era when wine was still regarded as a complex, exotic liquid by most drinkers, he and cousin Walter realised how important quality and consistency of the blend would be. He recounts how they tested several formulations, including a 100% Riesling, and found that it was less popular than a softer blend containing the cheaper grapes Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and a dash of perfumed Gewürztraminer. The formula agreed upon had about 25 g/l of sweetness counterbalanced by about 6.3 g/l of acidity.

Nowadays Liebfraumilch is regarded as a joke, and it is easy to argue that the success of Blue Nun encouraged other German wine bottlers to flood the market with characterless sugarwater, with disastrous consequences for the reputation of German wine. But I know to what lengths the Sichel team, under talented taster and managing director Artur Meier in Germany, went to maintain quality in Blue Nun, one of the world's first and most successful branded wines. Early in my wine-writing career in the late 1970s I was given a glass of rather nice white wine blind by one of Walter Sichel's team in London and was surprised to learn it was Blue Nun.

Peter 'Max' Sichel (so-called to distinguish him from Peter Allan Sichel, his much-missed distant cousin in the Bordeaux branch of the wine business) was clever enough to sell Blue Nun at the right time, and found himself, after being diddled by a business partner, part-owner of a well-known Bordeaux château, Fourcas Hosten in the Médoc.

The book is illustrated by a handful of photographs of its author with various women: his Fulbright scholar wife Stella (above right) and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild are arguably predictable; Gloria Steinem less so. But then much is surprising about this wine man whose heroes are stated as 'Spinoza and Diderot, not Voltaire'. In other words, he favoured science and rationalism over scepticism – though all these qualities are of use in the wine business.

The Secrets of my Life, Peter M F Sichel ($23.99 Archway)

WINES WITH A SICHEL CONNECTION

Château Fourcas Hosten, Listrac
Part-owned by Peter M F Sichel 1971-1996

Château Angludet, Margaux
Owned by Peter A Sichel and descendants from 1961

Château Palmer, Margaux
Part-owned by Bordeaux négociant Sichel

Laurel Glen, Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon
Part-owned by Bettina, Peter M F Sichel's daughter

Clos de la Meslerie, Vouvray
Owned by Peter Hahn, brother of one of Peter M F Sichel's sons-in-law