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Episode 29: El Maestro del vino (The Wine Master)

By Duolingo on Thu 30 May 2019

Héctor Vergara escaped dictatorship in Chile in the 1970s and fled to Europe, where he landed in the restaurant industry. There he discovered a passion and talent for wine that led him to become the first Master Sommelier from Latin America. But his biggest impact on the world wouldn’t take place until he found his way back home, where no one even knew what a sommelier was.

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Transcript

Martina: When Héctor Vergara was growing up in Chile, having a glass of wine at dinner was a daily tradition. His father owned a small grocery store just outside of Santiago, and every night he would bring home a bottle of wine.

Héctor: Nunca trajo botellas muy caras, solo vino común. La primera vez que probé un poco de vino tenía 12 años. Mis papás no me vieron. Nunca olvidé ese sabor cálido.

Martina: That first taste was the start of an education that would take him far from home, and eventually lead him back, with a unique distinction. He’d become the first Master Sommelier of Latin America.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again – and we also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Héctor: “Revolución con sabor a empanadas y vino tinto”.

Martina: That means, “revolution in Chile tastes of empanadas and red wine.” That was a typical phrase during the government of Salvador Allende, a socialist president democratically elected in 1970.

Héctor: El vino es parte de la identidad de Chile. Durante la conquista, los misioneros españoles trajeron uvas al país para hacer vino para las iglesias.

Martina: Since then, Chilean landowners and peasants alike grew grapes to make homemade wine. It’s part of Chile’s heritage.

Héctor: Desde ese momento, el vino acompaña a la gente en su vida y en sus celebraciones.

Martina: After Chile declared its independence from Spain in 1818, Chileans began to travel to Europe. They tasted European wines, and started to import them.

Héctor: Ahí empezó la era moderna del vino en Chile. Muchas de las primeras uvas plantadas eran francesas.

Martina: But later in the 19th century, a plague devastated vineyards in Europe and America.

Héctor: Sin embargo, en Chile las viñas se salvaron porque este país está muy aislado geográficamente: con los Andes en el este, el océano Pacífico en el oeste, el desierto en el norte y los glaciares en el sur.

Martina: As a result, Chile has some of the oldest vines in the world still being cultivated today.

Héctor: Pero, históricamente, el vino chileno no se vendió en otros países. Solo se exportó un poco a Argentina y Perú.

Martina: In the early 1970s, there was social upheaval in Chile, which only increased after socialist Salvador Allende was elected president.

Héctor: Mi familia era de clase media, pero yo sabía que Chile necesitaba un cambio social. Era un tiempo de grandes desigualdades en nuestra sociedad.

Martina: When Héctor first started noticing class inequality in Chile, he was 22 years old and studying to become a mechanical engineer.

Héctor: Yo me preguntaba: “¿Por qué yo tengo comida y vino, y hay tantos que no tienen nada?”.

Martina: So that year, in 1971, Héctor decided to join the Communist Youth party.

Héctor: En el partido, había gente de todas las clases sociales, desde obreros hasta profesionales, intelectuales y artistas. Todos creíamos que teníamos que hacer algo para mejorar la desigualdad social en Chile.

Martina: During those years, the US was waging war on communism worldwide, which brought economic turmoil to Chile. On September 11, 1973, President Allende was overthrown in a violent military coup, and General Augusto Pinochet came into power.

Héctor: Durante la dictadura, era muy peligroso ser parte del Partido Comunista.

Héctor: Un día, yo estaba marchando en una protesta. Me arrestaron y me llevaron a un centro de detención en las afueras de Santiago.

Martina: Héctor ended up in one of many detention centers set up by the military junta in the early years of the dictatorship. There they imprisoned anyone suspected of leftist tendencies and subjected them to violent interrogations.

Héctor: Me cubrieron los ojos y me torturaron durante dos semanas. Me interrogaron durante muchas horas. Pensé que me iba a morir.

Martina: Then one of the officers recognized Héctor—they had been neighbors. He decided to let Héctor go.

Héctor: Yo fui a protestar una vez más y, de nuevo, me arrestaron. Esa vez, yo supe que era demasiado peligroso quedarme en Chile. Entonces, pedí una visa para irme al Reino Unido.

Martina: Once he arrived in London, Héctor found a job as a dishwasher at a popular Italian restaurant.

Héctor: Pero, poco tiempo después, me dieron un trabajo de camarero.

Martina: The owner knew a lot about wine and taught Héctor about different varieties from Italy and France.

Héctor: La dueña del restaurante estaba sorprendida porque yo aprendía rápidamente. Me gustó tanto el tema de los vinos que durante mis vacaciones, siempre iba a visitar viñas en Italia.

Martina: One night, Héctor was at a party at a friend’s apartment who also really liked wine. At some point, she challenged him to a blind wine tasting.

Héctor: Yo conocía las bases para catar vinos.

Martina: Catar vinos means to taste wine.

Héctor: Pero, no tenía experiencia. Tomé la copa, respiré profundamente y probé el vino…

Héctor: “Cabernet Sauvignon de Chile”, dije rápidamente.

Martina: Héctor’s friends were impressed: in fact, the bottle was a 1971 Cabernet from San Pedro, in the north of Chile.

Héctor: Cuando sentí el olor del vino y su sabor cálido, fue como regresar a la tienda de mi papá, donde él tenía los vinos, y simplemente lo supe. En ese momento, me di cuenta de que tenía un futuro con el vino y decidí aprender todo lo que pude.

Martina: After that, Héctor hit the books. He read about gastronomy and wine, and he tried every bottle he could get his hands on, either through his job at the restaurant or by buying them himself.

Héctor: Yo gastaba mucho dinero en eso porque muchos de los mejores vinos eran también los más caros. En 1978 empecé un curso de vinos en Londres y entré en el grupo de sommeliers de esa ciudad.

Martina: Sommelier is French for ‘wine expert.’ Sommeliers work in restaurants, developing wine lists, ordering the bottles, and educating the servers.

Héctor: El trabajo más importante de un sommelier es recomendar un vino de calidad a los clientes. Y, ¿qué buscan los clientes en un vino? Un buen precio, una experiencia agradable y una comida memorable.

Martina: For five years, Héctor studied and worked with one goal in mind: to take the Master Sommelier test. This test is the highest certification in the industry, where one is certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. It’s famous for being extremely difficult.

Héctor: Estudiar para la prueba es lo más difícil que he hecho. Tuve que aprender todo sobre el vino: cómo se hace, cómo se sirve y con cuáles comidas va mejor. Y aprender todo esto no solo de los vinos de Europa, sino de todo el mundo.

Martina: The Master Sommelier test has three parts: One part is focused on customer service. You have to describe the wines in detail and try to sell them to customers.

Héctor: También hay que recomendar qué vino va mejor con qué comida. Los clientes en la prueba son Master Sommeliers. ¡No son los clientes más fáciles!

Martina: Another section of the test is a blind tasting. At the time, this consisted of about 12 wines, which Héctor had to taste and then describe to a panel of four Master Sommeliers.

Héctor: Tuve que decirle a los Master Sommeliers no solamente el tipo de vino, sino también de qué país venía, de cuál región, e incluso… su año de producción. Tuve que describir vinos de Francia, Italia, Alemania, España y Portugal.

Martina: While Héctor spoke about the wines, the judges sat silently and took notes.

Héctor: Fue uno de los momentos más estresantes de mi vida, pero pasé esa parte con 93 por ciento. De las 15 personas que tomaron el examen ese día, solo dos aprobamos esa parte.

Martina: The last section is a written exam on theory, consisting of 45 multiple choice, short answer, and matching questions.

Héctor: Esa parte es muy extensa y hay que saber todo sobre el vino para estar preparado para cualquier pregunta. Por ejemplo, te pueden preguntar en qué regiones de Chile se hace vino, de norte a sur o de dónde viene el sedimento de los vinos añejos.

Martina: Héctor passed the section about vinos añejos or mature wines, but he stumbled over questions about wines from South Africa and failed the written exam. He had to retake the test the next year. This test only has a 10% pass rate and people rarely pass on the first try, so he wasn’t alone.

Héctor: Estudié durante un año más y, la segunda vez, aprobé.

Martina: Which means he passed. There are only about 250 people worldwide who have ever reached this level. Héctor became the first Master Sommelier from Latin America.

Martina: We’ll get right back to the story in just a moment, but first we want to tell you about a great way to support this podcast and continue practicing your Spanish. If you haven’t already tried duolingo, you can download it today and learn over 30 languages completely free. For even more convenience, like offline lessons and an add-free learning experience, upgrade to Duolingo Plus. You can start your 7 day free trial of Duolingo Plus by going to duolingo.com/getplus. Your subscription supports free content that you already know and love, like this podcast. Thanks and now let’s get back to the story.

Héctor: Con el título de Master Sommelier, mi carrera en Londres tomó vuelo. Tuve muchas oportunidades y empecé a conocer algo que nunca vi en Chile: el mundo de la élite, un mundo lleno de riquezas.

Martina: Despite his success, Héctor left London shortly after. He fell in love with a woman from France and she convinced him to move to Paris.

Héctor: Ahí empecé a conocer más sobre el vino francés.

Martina: In 1982, Héctor got a job as a sommelier in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. It was a great opportunity to keep learning.

Héctor: En 1984 decidí casarme. Mis padres vinieron a París para mi matrimonio. No los veía desde que me fui de Chile, unos 10 años antes.

Martina: At his wedding, Héctor finally shared his first glass of wine with his parents in nearly a decade - a Chilean wine, of course. It was a red wine from one of the best vineyards in Chile, Concha y Toro.

Héctor: Cuando probé ese vino, tuve una sensación extraña. Estaba feliz, era el día de mi matrimonio y mi vida iba bien. Pero también echaba de menos el lugar de mi infancia, Chile. Mi familia no era rica, pero tuve amigos de diferentes contextos y clases sociales.

Martina: Sharing a glass of wine with his parents that day is one of Héctor’s fondest memories. They stayed in Paris for two months after the wedding. Héctor showed them around the city and taught them a little about French wine.

Héctor: En 1986, después de cuatro años en París, me ofrecieron un trabajo como sommelier en uno de los mejores hoteles de Canadá. Irme otra vez fue una decisión difícil, pero la oportunidad era tan buena que no podía decir que no.

Martina: Héctor’s new job was at a very posh hotel in Toronto. During the five years he worked there, he served many celebrities.

Héctor: ¡Les serví vino a Marlon Brando y a Rod Stewart! También conocí al presidente de Francia y al primer ministro del Reino Unido. Estas dos personas representaban a los dos países europeos donde yo había vivido y aprendido sobre el vino.

Martina: Meanwhile, in the early nineties, things were starting to change back home in Chile.

Héctor: La dictadura había terminado y, ahora, la industria del vino podía crecer.

Martina: During the dictatorship, the wine industry had remained stagnant. There was no international trade or exchange of information, no innovation of any kind.

Héctor: La gente estaba viajando a Chile de nuevo. Los extranjeros empezaron a llegar de todas partes del mundo.

Martina: International producers started to invest in the country, realizing the potential of its mediterranean climate. Chile’s warm dry summers and cold rainy winters were perfect for growing grapes.

Héctor: Además, el Océano Pacífico por el oeste y la Cordillera de Los Andes por el este protegen a las viñas de las pestes. Yo sabía que la industria del vino iba a crecer en los próximos años, y sentía que tenía que volver a Chile. Yo quería ayudar y ser parte de ese cambio.

Martina: Unlike when Héctor moved to Canada, there was no job at a five-star hotel waiting for him in Chile. His decision was much more risky this time, but somehow he knew it was the right thing to do.

Héctor: Convencí a mi esposa de regresar a mi país, el que había dejado atrás hace casi 20 años.

Martina: When Héctor arrived in Chile in 1991, he confirmed that the public and restaurateurs were not very knowledgeable about wine.

Héctor: Una vez, conocí a alguien y le dije que era “Master Sommelier”. Él nunca había escuchado esa palabra y pensó que “sommelier” era mi apellido.

Martina: Since no one really knew what a sommelier was, it wasn’t easy for Héctor to find work in Chile. He ended up getting a job at a supermarket as head of the wine section.

Héctor: Yo sabía que el vino chileno se vendería solo si la persona correcta se encargaba de su promoción.

Martina: So, using his two decades of experience living and studying wine abroad, Héctor decided he would promote Chilean wine any way he could.

Héctor: Una de las primeras cosas que hice, fue ayudar a fundar la primera escuela de sommeliers en Chile.

Martina: At first, the school was simply a group of people interested in wine who met in hotels and conference rooms to exchange ideas and expertise about the industry.

Héctor: También daba catas en los supermercados, organizaba eventos privados e, incluso, iba a las casas de los clientes para dar degustaciones.

Martina: Degustaciones are tastings. Héctor was on the ground teaching people about wine, just as Chilean wine was evolving. New vineyards were appearing and tastes were changing. But Chilean wine had one big problem: it was too inexpensive.

Héctor: A diferencia del vino francés, el vino chileno es barato. Primero, la producción era para el consumo personal, y cuando se profesionalizó, los precios quedaron bajos pensando en los clientes chilenos.

Martina: You can get a good bottle for as little as 7 US dollars. But this low cost had hurt the perception of Chilean wine on the world stage - because many associate high price with quality.

Héctor: El vino chileno es tan barato que muchos lo tratan como “vino de supermercado” y no como un vino de alta calidad. Pero como soy un experto en el tema, puedo decir que es mucho mejor que eso.

Martina: Chile’s best-tasting and most emblematic grape is the “Carmenere”.

Héctor: Por años, se creía que esta uva había desaparecido de Francia con la plaga del siglo XIX. Pero, en 1994, se descubrió en Chile.

Martina: Today Chile is the largest producer in the world of Carmenere wines.

Héctor: Su sabor es de frutos rojos y especias, y esto lo ha convertido en un favorito en todo el mundo.

Martina: According to Héctor, Chilean wine, on the whole, tends to have a very good color–it’s not too heavy or alcoholic. It has a good acidity level and is very fresh. Eventually, Héctor convinced people that a good bottle didn’t have to break the bank.

Héctor: El vino chileno, un vino bueno y barato, me dio la oportunidad de trabajar con clientes de toda clase social, y no solo con la élite como en Europa o Canadá.

Martina: As awareness of wine grew in Chile, Héctor’s opportunities also grew. After seven years at the supermarket, the father of one of his children’s classmates approached him with a business proposition: to open their own wine store.

Héctor: Se llama “El Mundo del Vino” y ahora tiene cinco tiendas en Chile, y nuestra distribuidora es una de las más grandes en el país.

Martina: Today, Chile is the fifth-largest exporter of wines in the world and the seventh largest producer. And Héctor has been there every step of the way. The sommelier school has grown, with around 2,000 students in its 20 years of existence.

Héctor: Ahora, todos en la industria me dicen “El Master”, pero yo ya no quiero ser el único Master Sommelier en América Latina.

Martina: For Héctor, every wine has a soul, a character, just like a person. Every time he tastes a wine he goes on a journey, and he wants to share that expansive quality of wine with as many people as he can.

Héctor: Salí de Chile para escapar de la violencia y la desigualdad. En otros países aprendí del mundo de los vinos, pero era un mundo de élite. Volver a Chile fue regresar a mi tierra, y aquí me gustaría hacer del vino una experiencia accesible para todos.

Martina: Héctor Vergara has been a Master Sommelier for 37 years. He lives in Chile and is the only Master Sommelier working in Latin America.

Martina: This story was written by Paige Sutherland, a journalist from the U.S. currently living in Santiago, Chile.

If you liked this story, we’d love for you to share it. At podcast.duolingo.com, you can find a transcript of this story and of all the other episodes. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss one. With over 300 million users, Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at duolingo.com. I’m the podcast’s executive producer, Martina Castro – gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from InspectorJ.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Author: Paige Sutherland
Narrator: Héctor Vergara
Script Editor: Megan McDowell
Senior Editor: Catalina May
Sound Designer: Ana Lucía Murillo
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro