Family Tree

The Mission-Driven Career of Laura Catena

With boundless energy and and a scientific viewpoint, she is leading Argentine winemaking to new heights

Laura Catena
Photo courtesy of Laura Catena.

It was 9:30 am on a Sunday in the mall-like atrium of Times Square’s Marriott Marquis, the day after the final gala dinner for Wine Spectator’s massive New York Wine Experience, its annual wine-tasting weekend. Only Laura Catena could have been so animated. The managing director of Argentina’s most influential winery, Bodega Catena Zapata, she arrived for our meeting in the hotel café wearing her signature gaucho’s beret; toting her laptop, on which she had loaded the PowerPoint presentation she gave at the Experience; and apologizing for forgetting the copy of her new book, Gold in the Vineyards, that she’d meant to bring me. She ordered me a coffee, and we launched into a broad-ranging, rapid-fire, two-hour discussion on everything from high-altitude soil microbiology to the history of the Malbec grape to . . . well, I don’t know what else because only a few seconds after she left me, I inadvertently erased the tape.

That’s when I learned how Laura Catena faces misfortune. Her response to the bad news? “Sometimes things happen,” she says. “You ship the wrong wine, or the label was scuffed. The people I work with in Argentina care so much. I say, ‘Let’s figure out how it happened and not let it happen again. Then we have to move on.’ It’s the perspective you get from being a doctor. Was a small child hurt? No.”

Why did this winemaker mention a doctor? Because she is one. For years now, Catena, a Stanford-educated physician, has run her family’s Mendoza winery largely from afar while working as an emergency room doctor in San Francisco. Until 2018, this mother of three was also a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California. In between, she’s traveled the world to promote her wines. One of the busiest people in the drinks world, Catena handles the demands on her time by having a positive attitude (“Laura’s glass is always half full,” says her friend Sara Floyd, a Master Sommelier) and keeping her eyes on the prize. And when it comes to Bodega Catena Zapata, says Catena, “the most important thing is, are we making Argentinean wines that can stand with the best in the world?”

That was the goal that her father, Nicolás Catena Zapata, established in the 1980s. It is the thesis of Gold in the Vineyards, which includes Catena’s Adrianna vineyard among the world’s most celebrated. And it’s the ethos that the Catenas impart to their 400 staffer members. Says Catena, “We make sure everyone is thinking about it all the time.”

Fernando Buscema can attest to that. The executive director of the Catena Institute of Wine, the research facility that Laura Catena founded in 1995, Buscema completed his master’s thesis at the University of California at Davis with an extensive study on Malbec and terroir that was financed by the Catenas. “After years of hard work,” he says, “I managed to publish some papers in respected journals proving that you can objectively measure terroir. Laura said, ‘It’s great work, but I have a question for you: How can we use all this to make wines in Argentina that can compete with the best in the world?’ She enjoyed the results for five minutes and again was moving forward.”

Buscema compares working with Catena to driving a Formula One race car in the middle of the city. “She’s full of energy and passion,” he says, “and she doesn’t like BS”—qualities that suit her to be the driving force in the emergence not only of the planet’s fifth-largest wine-producing nation but of its premier grape, Malbec. “She challenges you all the time,” Buscema says, “to advance Argentina to the first world of wine.”

Becoming Laura Catena

She’s told the story a million times: In 1995, Bodega Catena Zapata was invited to participate in the New York Wine Experience, and Nicolás tapped his daughter, who was fluent in English, to represent the business. The invitation was a first for any South American winery, and because of it, Laura Catena’s life—and the future of Argentine wine—changed. She was just starting her medical career, but the way the crowd treated her father’s wines convinced her that she had to start working with him.

“I watched long lines at the French and Italian producers’ tables,” Catena says. “I got one person every 10 minutes. Some just came up to spit in my bucket. My father was king in Argentina, but outside, they didn’t even know the country makes wine. I called my dad and said, ‘I’m going to have to come help you.’”

She was following three generations of her family. Her great-grandfather, Nicola Catena, an immigrant from Italy’s La Marche region, planted his first vines in Mendoza in 1902. His son Domingo became an important producer, shipping wine in large oak barriques to négociants in Buenos Aires. Domingo’s son, Nicolás earned his Ph.D. in economics while also working in his father’s vineyards. He was doing well selling wine under his own label when, in 1976, the military dictatorship seized power, rocking the country’s already-chaotic economy and sending inflation spiraling. “My uncle was kidnapped,” says Catena. “There was the Falklands War. My dad decided Argentina was too dangerous for the family.”

Nicolás left Argentina in the early ’80s, taking a position as a visiting scholar in economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Laura finished high school in California. There, Nicolás learned of Napa Cabernet makers, who had trounced Bordeaux producers at the Judgment of Paris wine competition in 1976, realizing their highest aspirations. He decided to follow suit.

“People said, ‘That’s ridiculous. Chile is doing great at the low end,’” recalls Catena. But as an economist, her father knew that Argentina’s huge domestic wine market could sustain premium labels. And he was interested in exporting. Says Catena, “He wanted to do the Mondavi thing.”

When the dictatorship ended, her parents returned to Argentina, where Nicolás imported the technology and the expertise to make premium wines, inviting visiting winemakers—Alberto Antonini, Paul Hobbs, Jacques Lurton—to vinify their bottles at his winery in exchange for sharing their know-how. Laura stayed in the U.S. and graduated from Harvard in 1988.

It was on a visit to Lurton in France in 1992 that Laura witnessed her father’s next epiphany. At Harvard, she had acquired fluency in French, so she was traveling as a translator to Nicolás, who brought his friend a bottle of his Argentinean Cabernet.

“Lurton said, ‘It reminds me of a wine from the Languedoc,’” Catena recalls. “My father told me that’s the worst insult from a guy in Bordeaux. So Dad went back and changed his strategy. He needed to look for colder-climate vineyards.” His first plantings at 1,500 meters in the Andean foothills put the Uco Valley’s Gualtallary region on the map and set the upward course for Argentinean Malbec. “That was his high-altitude revolution,” says Catena. “He went places no one went before—and proved he could make aromatic, elegant wine with natural acidity.”

His eldest daughter had her own aspirations. “I didn’t think wine would help anybody,” Catena says. “I wanted to save the world”—until the world, at least the little slice of it at the Wine Experience, wouldn’t deign to taste her father’s wine and she decided she needed to change its mind. “My arrogant little self!” she says. “When you’re that age, you think you can move mountains, which is a good thing. I love people that age.”

Photo courtesy of Laura Catena.

Science for All

That’s one reason that Catena, who travels often to Mendoza, works closely with new members of Bodega Catena Zapata’s team. She also does it to enculturate them.

“I spend a lot of time with new hires,” says Catena. “I want their ambitions to be very high. I tell them that we’re working for the next generations. Yes, I want to make the best wine in Argentina, but we’re also working for our region. I don’t dictate it, but they learn this from working with me on a project.”

A young Ph.D. candidate in biology, Daniela Mezzatesta is studying the microbiology of contrasting soil types and their effects on vines and wines for the Catena Institute. She describes the effectiveness of Catena’s Socratic methods: “We talk several times a week. Sometimes we don’t agree, but we discuss it and reach a conclusion together. It’s not that she says, ‘You have to do this or that.’ She brings ideas and I bring other ones. She inspires me to think big.”

When Catena, whose network of connections is extensive, heard from JancisRobinson.com’s Julia Harding that a group at Denmark’s Aarhus University was working on a project called MicroWine, studying vines’ microbiology, she asked Mezzatesta why she wasn’t collaborating with them. “I was afraid of doing it,” says Mezzatesta, “but now we are working together, and my project has a new scope, so I couldn’t be more happy. [Catena] empowered me.”

Buscema, the Catena Institute’s director, concurs with Mezzatesta’s view and says that Catena “sets very, very high standards for herself and for everyone working with her.” Catena’s work ethic is that of a doctor who understands that excellent science can lead to positive results. “What evidence is there that a particular soil will give you a particular wine?” says Buscema. “Can we crack the aging-potential code? Those questions are tricky, particularly with high altitudes and Malbec. Laura visited local universities, and the research [they were conducting] was focused on quantity rather than quality. That’s when she decided we have to do the research ourselves.”

Whether the Catena Institute is investigating Malbec clonal variations; studying microclimates, microbiology, and the effects of UV rays; or researching the best methods for replanting Argentina and becoming sustainable there, its vision is “to use science to preserve nature and culture in Argentina,” says Buscema. It’s an ethos Laura Catena has named Catenomics, and like her mission-based approach to medicine, it’s meant to serve a larger purpose.

“We want Argentina to be important in the world, so we need to share everything that we do,” Buscema explains. “Why hasn’t phylloxera devastated all our vineyards as it did in Europe?” he asks, by way of illustration. “No one knew the answer. Laura funded a Ph.D. student to study it, and now, six years later, there is an expert on phylloxera in Argentina, and all that information is available for everyone.”

Spreading the Word

“It’s critical that [Catena] played a large part in establishing the research effort to support the growth of the Argentinean industry and increase the quality of wine produced there,” says David Block, the chair of U.C. Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology. “It is likely not a coincidence that great wine regions have key institutions to train winemakers and vineyard managers and create knowledge specific for those regions.”

Catena has supported both Ph.D. candidates and, through Fundación Angélica Zapata, the family’s charitable foundation, students at the Argentine Association of Sommeliers. But her influence doesn’t stop at her country’s borders. Three years ago, she worked with Block to establish a research fellowship to bring Davis students to Argentina to study at the Catena Institute. And she currently serves on an external advisory panel for Davis’s viticulture and enology department.

“I always write down the ideas Laura brings forward in the [advisory panel] meetings,” says Block, “because they’re without exception worth pursuing.” Catena has shared what she’s learned from her model of financing for the Catena Institute with her colleagues at Davis, and she notes that her presence has been helpful in recruiting other women to the advisory panel. She has dug deep roots in California and is an investor in Paul Hobbs Winery in the Russian River Valley. “Today,” she says, “I own more vineyards in California than in Argentina because [Catena Zapata] is my dad’s.”

That hasn’t stopped her from working assiduously, however, to promote Catena and Argentina as a whole. “It could be argued,” says Block, “that she is the face of Argentinean wine.” Matteo Lunelli, the president of the Ferrari Trento Winery in Italy and the CEO of Lunelli Group, met Catena when she was the outgoing, and he was the incoming, president of the International Wine and Spirits Competition. “I was impressed at first glance by her energy and empathy,” he says. According to Lunelli, Laura Catena’s drive and personality is the key behind the winery’s global marketing success. “She’s incredibly important for the investment of the Catena winery.”

Matthew Turner, the wine director for Wally’s, the Los Angeles mini chain of fine-wine, spirits, and gourmet food markets and restaurants, agrees. “I’ve been all over the world with her, talking about wine,” he says. “We’ve done everything from staff tastings to big wine dinners. She’s charismatic, well spoken, and obviously well educated. And she’s down-to-earth.”

Catena’s enthusiasm is infectious because it’s utterly authentic, says her friend Michael Evans, the CEO and cofounder of the private vineyard club Vines of Mendoza. “With some people [the excitement] seems transactional, but Laura loves it. You see her face light up when she talks about the wines. [Bodega Catena Zapata is] a big company, but she’s just as excited about opening that next bottle of wine as she was when we first opened a bottle of wine together 13 years ago.”

Her intellect and gregariousness have combined to inspire those she works with. “She shows me that I can be a scientist, and that I can be a talkative person and have fun at the same time,” says Mezzatesta. “And the fact that we apply the science, that’s what I like most. It doesn’t just end up in a paper only the scientific community will read. It gets spread all over world through the talks Laura gives.”

Through presentations at the American Society of Enology and Viticulture, the Smithsonian Institution, the Naples Wine Auction, and at many other events, says Catena, “Everything I do is to further my goal of elevating Argentinean wine. Fifty percent of vineyards in Argentina are under 5 hectares. Even if they sold all their wine, they can’t afford to travel once a year to the U.S. If I want Argentinean wine to be among the best in the world, I have to talk about my region—and how we do have terroir, we do have a sense of place.”

Photo courtesy of Laura Catena.

Beyond Malbec

Catena has promoted this assertion in two books—Gold in the Vineyards (2017), and Vino Argentino, published in 2010—and in numerous articles she’s written for the Huffington Post and other publications. Gold in the Vineyards makes the argument that Catena’s Adrianna Vineyard should be considered in league with the world’s greatest wine-growing plots, including France’s grand cru vineyards.

“Laura never stops in the idea department,” says wine consultant Marika Vida, who helps promote Catena wines. “What does grand cru signify? Malbec has never had an opportunity to be that. It was an unwanted grape from France, and Argentina only started importing it in the late 1980s. So it’s all new, this idea of grand cru, and Laura’s become the master of that. It’s a great way to bring Malbec into the game.”

Bodega Catena Zapata’s layered, mineral-forward bottlings certainly help Catena’s case. Even so, her family estate doesn’t grow the only grapes in Argentina that interest her. With an ER doc’s devotion to rescue, she spent “one whole summer,” she says, “driving around and knocking on doors” to find, preserve, and highlight the old vines of independent growers that had long been dumped into bulk wines. The label that resulted from these efforts, La Posta Wines, is a tribute to the farmers. “We put their names on the labels,” Catena says, “so we set a precedent for their trademarks.”

With her own label, Luca Wines, she’s delved into Pinot Noir, old-vine Syrah, and Chardonnay—“Whatever I want that will sell,” she says. “At Catena, I get a salary and will someday own part of it, but here I’m making money. It’s probably putting my kids through college.”

The evolution of Luca Wines since its founding in 2002, says Catena’s friend Sara Floyd, proves that Catena “is not threatened by smart people giving her advice. Laura might seem intimidating because of her position and her family’s history in Mendoza. And her winemaker [Luis Reginato] knows she’s brilliant and has the education and experience to support that, but she’s very open to listening to ideas, and that’s why Luca Wines have continued to get better and better.”

And with her family’s collaboration with Domaines Barons de Rothschild at Mendoza’s Bodega CARO, Catena has gotten that much closer to realizing her dream of producing grand cru wines. “If you told me in 1995 that by 1999 we would be forming a partnership with Château Lafite, I would say you were insane,” she exclaims. “We hit it off culturally because we both focus on quality.”

This is an ethos that comes from being the bearer of a family tradition, argues her friend Matteo Lunelli. “The family wants to be a culture carrier and safeguard the value and principles of the winery,” he says. “This is what I want to do for Ferrari, and this is what Laura does.”

But as the most visible member of the most prominent family of winemakers in a still-emerging region, Laura Catena is not just an ambassador for Bodega Catena Zapata; she’s an ambassador for Argentina as a whole. And at 51 years old, she has no intention of slowing down. “My hundred-year plan is to keep on elevating Argentinean wine. I’m passionate about making Malbec accepted as one of the great wines of the world—age-worthy, high-priced wine that should be collected. That,” she says, “I’m still working on.”

Betsy Andrews is a journalist and poet. Her award-winning books include New Jersey and The Bottom. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

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