By contributing writer Joe Roberts
Laura Catena is probably best described as a force of nature.
Part of the Catena Zapata winemaking family in Argentina, Catena helps to oversee one of South America’s most important wine brands (and one of its most enduring – they now have over one hundred years and four family generations of experience in Mendoza).
Catena is also a mother, and she is an author, having penned the well-regarded Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina. Last but not least, she is a Fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians and a practicing emergency medicine physician at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. No, we’re not exactly sure how she does it all!
In this interview, we ask Catena what it’s like to balance medicine, family, winemaking, and heritage, and ask her for her insights on the changing face of Argentine wine.
Your family first planted vines in Mendoza over one hundred years ago, in 1902. How does that perspective inform what you do at Catena Zapata?
I recently presented to our winemaking and viticultural team the “next 100 years” plan. I feel very patriotic about what my father has done pioneering high altitude viticulture in Mendoza. We have discovered a place, the Adrianna Vineyard, which makes wines of extraordinary elegance and ageability. The question is how do we preserve these historic vineyards and how do we discover the vineyards of the future.
Do you and your family have a particular consumer in mind when crafting wines for Catena Zapata?
I try to stay away from analyzing the consumer. I have a vineyard and a variety planted and decades of experience making wines and blends from these places with my father and winemaker Alejandro Vigil. All I can do is make the best wine for the place, one that speaks for that place and a wine that my father and I like to drink. The rest is keeping our fingers crossed that the weather doesn’t bring us hail or frost. So far, this approach has worked for us.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Argentina wine right now?
Although we have a very distinctive cuisine (see the recipes in my book) made of outdoor barbecue, savory ingredients like chimichurri, and a mix of Italian, Spanish, and native cuisine, very few people know Argentine cuisine. It is exciting to see many fine churrasquerias opening up of Argentine and Brazilian origin that serve top quality meat and to see as well that fine American and Italian restaurants and steakhouses are embracing our wines. The Italians have a distinctive advantage with their regional restaurants all over the world. I think we need to do a lot more work identifying which are the cuisines that our wines pair best with and also promoting our native cuisine.
Argentina has been making wine for over 400 years, and we have incredible diversity of regions, altitudes, and varieties grown in our country. The viticultural regions span 2,000 miles from Salta in the north to Patagonia in the south. It is important that wine drinkers start to recognize the different flavors of Malbec from the various regions and also the multitude of styles, varieties, and blends that we are making in Argentina.
You’ve probably been asked this a thousand times, but we can’t resist: You practice Emergency Medicine in the U.S., and you are an author and a director for one of Argentina’s most important wine brands. How do you do manage all of that? As far as we know you haven’t cloned yourself.
I do have a little clone in my daughter Nicola who is blonde and green-eyed but otherwise my exact clone in terms of personality—but she is only 9!
For me it is all about setting priorities and accepting that I can’t get an A+ in everything. Our three children, my patients at the hospital, and the quality of our wines are priorities, but as my husband likes to say, I don’t take very good care of him, and that is true. Also, I have been known to forget a child at a soccer game, and they know to borrow a phone and call me. I try not to feel too guilty when no harm is done. I can’t answer all my emails, and I live apologizing for this. And so on and so forth. I aim for perfection in the most important things but not in everything!
What do you drink (or not drink!) to unwind after a difficult or particularly long day?
I am going through a white wine phase right now—lots of Chardonnay from France, Argentina, and California. I like changing up the styles. NZ Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño from Spain, Vinho Verde from Portugal, regional Italian whites such as Greco di Tufo, and dry German Rieslings.
What wines and/or wine regions have you most excited as a wine lover right now?
Well, I never get tired of my own Argentina. We are still discovering the regions of my native Mendoza, and there are exciting places in Salta, La Rioja Argentina and Argentine Patagonia. I am a regular Bordeaux drinker – the older the better – and also like the whites from Bordeaux such as my all time favorite, Pavillon Blanc.
I am going through a Chardonnay rediscovery moment, because I am so pleased with the Chardonnays we are making at extreme high altitudes in Mendoza. So I’ve been drinking a lot of Chardonnay from around the world, Russian River, Central Coast, and Burgundy of course. I don’t think there is a particular region that excites me, but rather individual producers that excite me across the wine world because of their vision to make profound and delicious wines that give pleasure.
Any thoughts on the Wine4.Me app, and how it might help wine consumers?
It’s fantastic. There is so much wine out there, so much great wine, but we each have different palates. The Wine4.Me app is a way to figure out what kinds of wines you like and get recommendations for new wines to try that might fit your taste. I can’t wait to see it in action.
Catena Zapata Wines in the Wine4.Me App
If you want to know which wines YOU will like best, download the FREE iPhone app Wine4.Me. Tell it what wines you know you like and get your own personalized rankings of best-selling, widely available wines in the US.
Joe Roberts is a writer in the greater Philadelphia area. His work has appeared in Playboy.com, Answers.com, PalatePress.com, Publix Grape Magazine, The Guardian, and Parade. He holds the Level 2 and Level 3 Certificates in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in England, the Certified Specialist of Wine certification through the Society of Wine Educators. Roberts was included among the top fifteen entries in IntoWine.com’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry for 2013, and his website received the Wine Blog Awards honor for Best Wine Blog in 2010. Follow him on Twitter at @1winedude.