Mariano Fernandez, 63, has been the Chilean ambassador to the United States since 2006. Fernandez has had a long career in diplomatic service for his country, with postings in Germany, Brussels, Italy, Spain and Great Britain dating back to the 1970s.
Fernandez is also an unofficial ambassador of Chilean wine—a collector with a cellar of approximately 3,500 bottles of his own. He is an honorary president of the Chilean Association of Sommeliers and serves as a judge at various wine fairs and contests.
Wine Spectator: How did you first get interested in wine?
Mariano Fernandez: I started young. My future father-in-law was a wine lover, and I would follow him around as a young man. He pursued his passion the old way—he would visit the vineyards and basically buy "en vrac" (filling up a jug at the winery to take home). Seeing the different vineyards and noticing how the wines changed [at each place] was a great experience.
WS: You were posted in Germany in the early 1970s. How did that affect your burgeoning love of wine?
MF: I was the Chilean embassy secretary in 1971, my first posting. I had a lot of opportunities to visit the wine regions of Germany, which was a great experience. Then in 1973, with Pinochet, I became exiled and was obviously without a job. So, I became a journalist to survive, and I wound up writing about wine.
WS: That must have been quite a change, going from the Chilean wines of your youth straight to German Rieslings.
MF: A huge change! In Chile at that time there was no exposure to German wines. It was a big change, but a quick and fun learning process.
WS: And was there any Chilean wine in Germany while you were there?
MF: Not really. One or two specialized wine shops might have had one or two [selections], but it was very much a European wine market.
WS: Wine suffered in Chile during the Pinochet years. How had wine factored in Chilean culture before then?
MF: Most people don't know, but we had a highly developed wine culture in the beginning of the 20th century. Not only for Chilean wines, but wealthy collectors who brought French wines over for their cellars. But in the 1930s, the government imposed strict health laws in reaction to the cheap wines that were being made. They wound up reducing vine plantings and ultimately wine consumption. Then later, during the economic crisis under Pinochet, things fell apart.
WS: Do you have any business interests in the wine industry?
MF: None. I get asked to join projects from time to time, but I prefer not to have any business dealings with wine.
WS: As diplomatic ambassador, you obviously get a lot of chances to promote Chilean wines. Do you wear the two hats equally?
MF: It's certainly not my official duty to convince people to like Chilean wines. But at dinners and such, it is nice to be with people who are open to drinking great wine.
WS: What are some of your personal favorites?
MF: It all depends on the occasion, of course: the season, the food. How's that for a diplomatic answer? [Laughing].
Of course, Montes, Concha y Toro and Miguel Torres are all making good wines. Torres' Superunda and Cordillera are very interesting wines that I like a lot. But actually I find myself liking the second line of wines from many wineries, the ones with less oak. I think the raw materials here in Chile—the grapes—are good enough that they don't need a lot of oak. Wines likes the Casa Concha line from Concha y Toro, for example.
WS: You've been stationed in numerous European countries, but now find yourself in the U.S. How would you compare the two wine cultures?
MF: Well, in Europe, there isn't much of a plurality when it comes to wine. Each country tends to prefer their local wines, and in Great Britain they lean to France mainly. But in the U.S. they are very open-minded about wines and appreciate good wines from many countries. There's no cultural prejudice here. It's a big difference today than in the '70s when I was in the U.S. and no one drank any wine!
I am just as happy drinking modest wines as I am great wines. I'll never stop working to get people to drink wine. The shrinking consumption in Europe is a very sad thing to watch.
WS: So what is your favorite kind of dinner party: political or wine?
MF: Ah! A political dinner is what I am paid for. A wine dinner is gratis—it is for enjoying life.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions