By Morton Hochstein
Three books have been sharing space on my night table. Though they are not entirely devoted to wine, each emphasizes the topic and would be worthwhile reading for anyone interested in wine.
The first is by Peter Sichel, whom I often describe as the man who gave the world Blue Nun. It is called “The Secrets of My Life, subtitled Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy, which pretty well tells what it is about, though I think Bon Vivant might deserve a place on that listing.
The second is by a distinguished wine writer, Alice Feiring and here again, the title tells the subject: For The Love of Wine, My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture. She travels through Georgia and introduces us to winemakers, farmers, artists and silk spinners, eating well and sharing recipes, celebrating a culture threatened by globalization.
The third, by Martin Walker is part of a mystery series about a French cop in Dordogne. His hero is also an amateur vintner and chef, and like Sichel, a bon vivant. The series is called Bruno the Cop. Reading Mr. Walker, who has won a culinary award for his hero’s gastronomical skills, I want to taste the wines he shares and become very hungry when he describes the meals Bruno prepares. While his books are about a policeman, they also give us a picture of the culture of the small French community, attractive females included, in which his hero dwells.
About Peter Sichel:
In the eighties and the nineties, before New York created bike lanes and a cycling populace, Peter Sichel could be seen, in full business attire, pedaling to midtown from his home on the upper west side. Before he braved the hazardous traffic of Manhattan, Sichel had been a refugee from Germany and an OSS and CIA agent. He arrived in the states after a perilous escape from Europe and volunteered for the U. S. army one week after Pearl Harbor. It took the military more than a year to capitalize on his potential as an intelligence agent. Assigned to duties where his background and language skills were valuable, he worked overseas with resistance groups, and helped recruit prisoners who could be turned into U.S. agents, all the while unsuccessfully agitating to go behind enemy lines. As the war in Germany drew to an end, Sichel left the spook business briefly to lead troops into Mainz, where he took possession of the family wine facilities, not until he could be assured that the contents of those cellars were safe from sabotage did he reveal to the Germans his personal stake in the winery.
He later was leader of an OSS unit in Heidelberg, charged with unearthing German leaders who had gone underground and recruiting scientists and technicians who’d worked with sophisticated weapons projects. He was later assigned to Berlin, to recruit and protect those experts from Russians who were trying to snare those skilled technicians in the same way they had been dismantling German factories and shipping them back to the Soviet Union.
Later assignments took him to Washington and then Hong Kong. His Washington stint, he writes, “was a period where we all drank too much, smoked too much, worked hard and lived intensely.” Sichel spent three years as a CIA agent in Hong Kong, which was the U.S. Listening point for China, where it lacked diplomatic representation. Here too, agents worked hard, but also lived well. “Liquor flowed freely and the more we drank, the more we seemed to want to drink. We received a generous living allowance to be able to afford our life style, which we took easily and with great joy.” In Hong Kong, as he had done in Berlin, Sichel purchased a boat as an escape valve from the pressures of his intelligence duties and chaotic social life.
In 1959, after 17 years in the army, military intelligence and the CIA, he resigned to enter a business career highlighted by building a minor wine into the impressive Blue Nun brand and reviving the Sichel family business in Germany and the United States He has been an officer of several New York wine societies and has judged at competitions here and abroad. He ends his memoir with “Some Advice on Wine” a chapter which could easily be the basis for a basic textbook in the field. Sichel created an admirable life for himself and continues to enjoy the arts and culture of New York. I have not seen him lately on his bicycle, now that he is in his nineties.
About Alice Feiring:
As a wine writer, Alice Feiring is unique. She is one of a small handful of writers who have actually worked in the vineyards and in the cellar, as well as having made her own wine. She has carved out a niche for herself as an advocate of natural wines, crusading fiercely for artisanal methods in books, articles, appearances and newsletters, while also battling the ever encroaching forces of globalism.
In her latest book “For the Love of Wine,” she travels through Georgia, one of the world’s oldest wine regions. She explores the wines of a hardscrabble land where winemakers, young and old, are reviving and exporting ancient techniques. In wineries where the grapes are still stomped by foot, we follow the revival of the qvevri, the egg-shaped underground storage chamber which had almost fallen into disuse in a land where it prevailed for centuries. Now the few craftsmen who know how to make the units are struggling to meet a demand from producers throughout the world of wine. We learn about grapes seldom scene beyond the borders of Georgia and about the battle to preserve ancient skills in the face of onrushing modernism. She takes us over unpaved roads and difficult passages into a different world where food and wine, farming, Orthodox religion and mysticism predominate. She brings to light a Georgia which has been a victim of dictatorships, brutal politics, and bitter economic hardship. We visit those farmers, share their meals and the warmth of their family and communal life.
Ms. Feiring is almost alone among wine writers who have ventured into this ancient land. She’s been there several times and has earned the confidence of its winemakers. We learn about their wine, but we also share almost nonstop feasting and drinking. Chapters end with a recipe and food paired with local wine. It is a different form of travel writing, but one which may arouse interest in a historic yet overlooked region, bringing more tourists into a struggling economy and helping Georgians preserve their traditions in a time of change.
The book is also intensely private, threading through her travels the story of her grandfather’s death, the illness of a brother and her grief, which she shares with her readers. For those who have bathed previously in her ebullience over wine and food, this is a more personal effort than those that came before. She very neatly pulls off this sleight of hand embrace of culture, tradition and intimate concerns. It is a different sort of book, but Alice Feiring has never been afraid to venture into the occasionally troublesome, yet rewarding byways of her unique wine world.
About Martin Walker and Bruno, the Cop:
In the same way that Alice Feiring introduced us into life in Georgia, Martin Walker takes us into St. Denis, a fictional French village in the Dordogne where Bruno Courreges is the police chief, mentor to young athletes, rugby player, horseman, chef and occasional romantic interest. This is one well-rounded guy.
He is a chef equally at home at the stove, with his garden and the chickens he keeps. Here’s Bruno in his kitchen: “He took down the large ham that hung from the beam that supported the kitchen roof. He sliced off some of the dense fat, chopped it into lardons, and tossed them into his big casserole dish. He pulled down six shallots and began to peel them before cutting the venison into rough cubes. He stirred the lardons and felt there was insufficient fat, so he added more from the ham and put the shallots into a separate pan to fry them with duck fat. He put more duck fat into the casserole and threw in the venison to brown.” Along with his culinary expertise, Bruno is a lover of good wine, mostly local of course, and Walker has been honored for his gastronomic writing by several wine and food societies.
St. Denis is not always the idyllic French village of innumerable books about the pastoral byways of France. Crime, bitter rivalries and international intrigue visit the Dordogne and Bruno’s skills are occasionally requisitioned to aid regional and national police. A bachelor, still mulling the possibilities of parenthood as he enters his forties, Bruno does not lack for female companionship. He shares his pleasures with locals and visitors, yet falls short of making that final commitment to a permanent relationship.
Authors often seem to be struggling when they mix gastronomy and wine with mysteries and I have seen some real bloopers when wine is mentioned. Not so with Walker. He’s the real thing with culinary arts, communal affairs and the joys of the French countryside
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