Chile’s only Master Sommelier smiles to himself, slides his reading glasses over the bridge of his nose, and opens the silky cover of his autobiography, Descorchando Mi Vida.
And I feel comfortable and welcome watching Héctor Vergara turn the glossy pages, pointing to photos spanning his fascinating life as if the book were a photo album instead of an autobiographical text – as a baby with his father, later a dapper portrait in his Air Force uniform, his late wife Marie-José pregnant with their first child.
In this intimate context, it is easy to understand how important family, history and cultural heritage are to this man, a pioneer in Chilean wine.
2012 was a momentous year for Vergara, marking 30 years as a Master Sommelier with the release of his book, and by receiving a prestigious Industry Person of the Year award, which acknowledges Vergara’s professional accomplishments and instrumental influence in establishing the sommelier profession in Chile.
“I’m very highly honored to receive that award,” Vergara says to me proudly. “And I think apart from being an award for me, I see it more as a recognition for our profession.”
Born and raised in Chile, Vergara left the country for political reasons in 1974, relocating to London, where he initially encountered his destiny in wine.
While living in United Kingdom, he studied to be a sommelier, taking specialized wine classes through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and eventually earning his Master Sommelier diploma in November 1982.
Vergara moved with his rising career and cherished family from London to France and then Toronto, before happily returning to Chile in 1991.
“I could perceive that the wine situation in Chile would change dramatically,” Vergara recalls, “and I felt that perhaps it would be a little place for myself in all this change.”
The “change” envisioned by Vergara turned out to be viticultural revolution, as Chile’s wine industry has transformed dramatically over the past decades, and Vergara played a key role in this revolution, in a large part by founding the Escuela de Sommeliers school.
Since opening 12 years ago, the internationally-accredited Escuela de Sommeliers has developed a three-stage sommelier training program, legitimizing and popularizing the profession in Chile.
“In a sense we are gaining – little by little – a place within the chain,” Vergara notes. “From the production until the bottle is open, we are the last ones … It is a very important job.”
Vergara is also the resident Master Sommelier of online wine magazine Planetavino, and he is the proprietor of El Mundo del Vino wine store, where Chilean consumers are able to taste and purchase wines from around the world – something that was once nearly impossible in Chile, during a time when premium Chilean wines were virtually unknown on the international stage.
In Descorchando Mi Vida, Vergara recounts a pivotal conversation he had with an Italian producer in 1991.
The producer advised Vergara, “’The wines of your country are very good, including some that are better than those made in Italy or in France. The problem is that they are sold very cheap. And nobody who prides himself is willing to pay so little for an excellent wine.’”
Vergara returned to Chile that year with the goal of developing the industry’s export market and familiarizing the world with fine wines from the land of his birth.
The Sommelier’s idea has been realized, and Chile is now breaking the “value wine” paradigm and producing icon wines of great quality and aging potential. Vergara is also pleased to see authentic Chilean terroirs and traditional grapes and winemaking techniques creating an impression on global on- and off-trade consumers.
Chile best expresses its heritage and natural resources through exquisite wines with history, like old-vine Carignan, a variety that is close to Vergara’s heart.
“I love the Carignan,” he says fondly, “because they are very old vines. They come from dry-farming places where there is no irrigation. They’re very much wines with an accent, a personality of that region only. They cannot be repeated anywhere else, so they have the sense of place name, of roots.”
Like his favorite wine, Héctor Vergara has honored his own roots through his tremendous accomplishments and service to Chile’s wine industry.
To read about the history of Chilean wine through the personal history of this Chilean Master Sommelier, Descorchando Mi Vida is currently available for purchase at El Mundo del Vino.