Laura Catena is a Harvard and Stanford-trained biologist and physician, and the founder of the Catena Institute of Wine in Argentina. The Institute is dedicated to preserving Malbec and to elevating Argentine wine. She is currently managing director of Bodega Catena Zapata and of her own Luca Winery. Recently, Bodega Catena Zapata received Argentina’s 2017 Extraordinary Winery Award from The Wine Advocate and was named most awarded winery in the world by Vivino’s Wine Style Awards. Laura is author of the wine guide, Vino Argentino. She appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, as one of the World’s Top Women Vintners. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Food and Wine Magazine, La Nación, and Decanter. In 2017 Laura released her second book, Oro en los Viñedos, an illustrated book about the world’s most famous vineyards. Laura is on the Executive Leadership Board of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. She splits her time between Mendoza, Argentina, and San Francisco, California, where she practices Emergency Medicine part-time.
Learn more about Laura Catena in the interview below:
KM: Catena Zapata has achieved great global recognition. You received The Wine Advocate’s “Extraordinary Winery” Award in 2017 and were named the most awarded winery in the world by Vivino’s 2018 Wine Style Awards. Where do you take the company from here?
LC: We are very grateful for all this recognition, but in truth, we feel that we are just lucky to be making wine in Mendoza. Our high-altitude wine country, because of its cool climate, intense sunlight, and gravelly soils rich in calcium carbonate is basically wine heaven. Wine has been made here since the 16th century, and our family winery was founded by an Italian immigrant, my great grandfather, who planted his first Malbec vines in 1902. We now know that there are a multitude of micro-terroirs with different combinations of soil, altitude and climate in Mendoza. Today, there is a “parcela” revolution going on in our region; we are obsessed with finding “Grand Cru” equivalent sites. The future is about preserving these special sites, such as parts of our Adrianna Vineyard which have been awarded 100 points six times. My personal life mission is that every wine collector in the world have an Argentina section in his or her cellar.
KM: You own your own smaller winery — What was the inspiration behind Luca Winery?
LC: When my father was getting started with his Argentine wine revolution in the late 1980s, and I was planning to be a full time doctor, I used to accompany him to France as his translator. I fell in love with the traditions behind European wines and with their old-vine obsession. In Argentina at that time, old vines were derided because their yields were low. I wanted to make wine from low-yielding, old vines (in Argentina we have thousands of hectares of ungrafted old vines), and I was in a hurry because many of these vineyards were being pulled out and sold for people to build houses. I also wanted to do new things in Mendoza, such as high-altitude Pinot Noir. I started Luca winery with the goal of preserving old-vine Malbec vineyards and of trying things that nobody else had, what I call the double vision of “preserving and making viticultural history.”
KM: Are you inspired by other wine regions? Which ones and why?
LC: Yes, I am obsessed with tasting wine from other regions, other varieties, other terroirs. Drinking wine is like falling in love over and over again. This is what inspires me daily about wine, that no wine is similar to another. And that wine has accompanied humankind for over 6,000 years, so that the history of wine is the history of humanity. I would probably say that there isn’t a region in the world that doesn’t inspire me in some way. Oregon Pinot Noir, volcanic Sicilian wines, Barolo always, wines made without sulfites because of their exotic aromas, almost any wine from Spain, very old wines, white and red. Sparkling always. I refuse to become a wine snob and will drink rosé in the summer as often as possible (while respecting my wine in moderation rule).
KM: Few of us can imagine being the head of a major winery AND an emergency physician at the same time. When you think of your own success, what character trait do you possess that has been the most helpful in getting you there?
LC: One thing that you learn as an Emergency Physician is how to prioritize, what we call triage. You need to get to the sickest patients first, and make sure you don’t leave a person with a heart attack waiting because they don’t look sick even if they are. Although I am a naturally obsessive and detail-oriented person, I have trained myself to focus on the most important things and not to sweat the small stuff. Or at least, I try to do this.
“Drinking wine is like falling in love over and over again. This is what inspires me daily about wine, that no wine is similar to another.”
KM: Are the fields of medicine and winemaking similar in some ways?
LC: Yes, in many ways. There is science in both and art in both. The best doctors, like the best winemakers, are able to combine lots of data in their heads and make a decision. Also, both professions require teamwork and trust among colleagues. In the Emergency Department, nothing would be possible without a tight-knit team of doctors, nurses, and other staff. At the winery, it’s the same way with the winery and vineyard people who have to function as a unit.
KM: How did you train your palate and become a good wine taster?
LC: Wine tasting is what took me the longest because I don’t think there is a quick way to train the palate other than tasting thousands of wines. When I started working with my father, on days that I didn’t work at the hospital, I would “shadow” a friend who was the buyer for a wonderful San Francisco restaurant, “The Flying Saucer.” I tasted wines with him and watched the various winery salespeople present. This experience taught me a lot about wine appreciation, but also about the business of buying and selling wine.
KM: Do you feel that women have a more accurate ability to taste wine than men?
LC: I know that studies have shown that there are more female than male supertasters, but there are still more men than women in the world of wine, so I wouldn’t say I’ve noticed a difference, at least not in our team in Argentina.
KM: If you could give one piece of advice to the next generation of women in the wine business, what would it be?
LC: There are five pieces of advice I would give.
- Make a big effort to find mentors, and as you become more experienced, become a mentor to others.
- Make sure you understand the finances of whatever you are doing.
- The Laura Catena golden rule: hard on issues, soft on people.
- Take risks because, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
- Be generous with your heart and with your time – KARMA is real.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise most people to learn.
LC: I went through an Origami making phase when I was a child and can make complex Origami figures. I’ve made many an Origami crane for crying children on planes (other people’s children).
More Q&A Pairs …