In conversation with Laura Catena

Dr Laura Catena, emergency doctor and general manager of Bodega Catena Zapata, brings an unusual focus to wine. She speaks with Robert Joseph.

Laura Catena/Nancy Rothstein
Laura Catena/Nancy Rothstein

Laura Catena is the general manager of Bodega Catena Zapata, one of Argentina’s largest and most successful premium wine companies, founded in 1902. She joined the business after working in California, where she still practices as a physician of paediatric emergency medicine in tandem with her responsibilities in the wine industry.

Like her father Nicolás, a highly respected economist, Catena has an ambition to improve the reputation of Argentina with research and innovation.

MEININGER’S: How does your experience working in medicine affect the way you approach the wine industry?
CATENA: I would like a much more open-ended discussion about wine. There’s the natural wine discussion. The anti-natural wine people just completely vilify all natural wine. The natural wine people vilify all wine that has higher SO2. And the reality is that there are billions of people in the world, and there are people who like all kinds. And that’s why people like art. There are different tastes. There’s too much dogma in wine, but it’s often presented as science when it’s not. True science is always open-minded. It’s not dogmatic. You’re always researching. You’re always making a new hypothesis. And in wine, because we have such different vintages and such diversity of soils, you can’t be dogmatic about anything. And thinking outside your area can help.

MEININGER’S: Can you be specific?
CATENA: My whole obsession with microbes in the vineyard comes from my medical side. I really think that microbes might be able to provide the solution to a lot of the issues for sustainability and organic farming, and I probably wouldn’t have thought so much about the microbes if I wasn’t so familiar with microbes from my medical side. 

MEININGER’S: With your medical background, how do you feel about wine and health?
CATENA: That is a topic that is extremely important to me. I think that definitively, wine increases the risk of certain cancers, even in moderation. So even if you drink two glasses of wine per week, you will have some slight increases in stomach cancers, pancreas cancer, oral cancers, oesophageal cancer, colon cancer. There’s also some slight increase in some kinds of breast cancer. But those increases, depending on how much you consume, are under 10%.

Now the reduction in strokes, heart disease, dementia are in the 20-30% range. And those are more significant killers than these cancers I’ve described. So you have to decide, am I interested in these benefits? Am I scared of these negatives? Let’s say that you have a strong family history of gastric cancers in your family or colon cancer; well you should really think about alcohol and drink less. Now, once we move forward in the genetic analysis of risk for health, I think that 20 years from now you’re going to actually be able to give somebody a more specific risk of drinking.

MEININGER’S: Let’s go back to research. Have you looked into why Argentine Malbec tastes so different to most French examples?
CATENA: We’ve done a lot of research. When we started the quality project in the mid-’90s we went to what we thought was our best parcel and we did a selection by plant, by flavour, by visual inspection, by yield. We didn’t want high yields. We didn’t want a vine that looked diseased. We kept the clones separate and planted one clone per row, 135 different clones. Today, we have between five and 15 clones that we consider the most qualitative that have the good combination of flavour, yield and healthy plants that we also plant sometimes just several rows of one clone. 

Comparing French Malbec to what we have, the French bunches are bigger, the grapes are bigger, it gives a more rustic wine. It still smells like Malbec. It’s not like another variety, but it’s less refined. My theory is that when the French re-planted Malbec, they were concerned about cold and yields. If we have a cold year like 2016 in Mendoza, the Malbec volumes will be cut in half. And so we think that all these sort of lower-yielding clones were not re-planted in France. The genetic diversity of Malbec in Europe is much less rich.

MEININGER’S: Can I move on to your research into altitude and sunlight on Malbec and wine in general?
CATENA: When my father started the move towards altitude, he realised that he needed a cooler climate to make more refined wine with better texture. A lot of Argentine wine in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was acidified, and we wanted to make wine that didn’t need acidification. So he sent his team out and said, “Hey, find me good soil, cooler climate. Let’s find some vineyards and experiment.” At higher altitudes, you get more natural acidity, more floral aromatics, and a more tannic wine with more colour. We don’t know all the reasons why, but UV is certainly a factor.

We did this really cool experiment where we had this plastic cover, which only eliminated the UV rays. And we compared that to similar plant selection, similar soils, to the control. And what we found was that when we covered the UV rays, we had something like 30% less tannic content. At over 1,200m, we saw the thickening of the skin. And our theory was that it was an adaptive feature of the grape, which was protecting the seed from the radiation of the sunlight. Apart from cooler climate, soil differences may be pretty strong. We know the soil microbes completely change from one altitude to another, and we’ve been studying that. But honestly, I don’t know. Probably the main factor is still climatic.

MEININGER’S: Do you use blends of higher- and lower-altitude grapes?
CATENA: Argentine wine has always had the altitude-blending as part of how wine is made. We have this kind of gift that we can blend warmer-climate fruit with cooler-climate fruit without having to travel so far. To go from Languedoc to Champagne is a seven-hour drive. From the warm region of Argentina to the cool climate region is one hour maximum. Creating these blends to me is bringing something interesting to very particular consumers.

MEININGER’S: How far down the organic, biodynamic, sustainable route are you going?
CATENA:This is a big topic for me. In 2010 we created what basically became the first sustainability code from Argentina. It was studied by the university, and now it’s available to all the wineries in Argentina. And many are using it. You need to preserve your natural ecosystem. Because if you start losing the bees and the insects, you lose the capacity to make wine. And what we have found is that organic farming is very easy to do in certain locations, like the Adrianna vineyard, because we have very few pests. We need a lot of serious research. So for example, we’re finding that from one parcel to the next in the same vineyard, the microbes will be different. And microbes really are just incredible ecosystem supporters. They help the vine resist water stress. They help the vine resist disease.

But you need to also worry about the people. The last time I met with my viticulturalist, I thought we were going to be talking about wood disease, but they said the bigger problem is that all the young kids are trying to go to the city. They don’t want to work in the vineyards any more because they didn’t grow up working along [with] their parents. We just started a programme where we invite high-school kids to spend several days in the summer in the winery and vineyards so they can know what life in the vineyard feels like.

MEININGER’S: Making wine or running any kind of business in Argentina is arguably more challenging sometimes given the nature of your economy there. 
CATENA: My father has a PhD in economics and that’s very helpful. Lately his main answer is, “It’s best to just have your payments in multiple currencies,” because, he said, “I can’t predict what’s going to happen.” When it comes to distribution, over the nearly 25 years that I’ve been working with my dad, I’ve seen times when we’ve made more money with the wine we sold in Argentina, and times where exports were more important. And the key for me has always been to pay attention to all the markets. If the economy changes, at least we’re buffered a little bit because we sell wine in many different places.

MEININGER’S: So how much wine do you now make and how much is exported and where are your main markets?
CATENA: We don’t usually disclose the total number of cases but we export around 60%. The main markets are Europe – principally the UK – and the US. And then number three and four are usually Canada and Brazil. The main markets for the high-end wine are number one, US, with the UK as a close second. Number three would be China. It’s growing much more than any other region for us. We are doing the kind of work we did in the early ’90s in the rest of the world. So I’m spending a lot of time there, mostly explaining why we can make wines that can stand with the best of the world. We did a launch of our five wines that received 100 points from various writers at the Great Wall of China. 

MEININGER’S: How do you go about building the Catena brand?
CATENA: One big change from when I started is that the world is so big that you can only reach so many people. And the key is to tell your true story, but in an interesting way. So I put a lot of effort into really telling the authentic story, which is different because we’re all different and Argentina is a different place to make wine, our family history is different; so yes, I have the same story with the great-grandfather to the grandfather, but how do we tell it so that it’s memorable and interesting to people? I spend most of my time making sure that the kind of passion that I have for my wines is also shared by the people selling my wine. But not just by the sales people that work for Catena, also by the people who sell to the retailer, by the store owner, by the actual customer buying the bottle. So we have this thing called Malbec Camp where we bring customers, people who buy our wines from all over the world, and they actually stay at the house where I grew up. They prune, they make blends, they learn how to make a good asado [barbecue], a good empanada. 

MEININGER’S: Is Argentina at risk of being seen as a one-trick-pony with Malbec?
CATENA: To me, the diversity of flavour of Malbec is something that we’re just getting started on. There’s just so much more to explore about Malbec. But there are lots of other varieties. Malbec is about half of what’s planted in Argentina. There’s Chardonnay, there’s Cabernet, there’s Syrah, there’s Bonarda. I love Bonarda, but it’s hard to sell. There’s Torrontés. Tempranillo is actually widely planted in Argentina. There are  blends of different varieties that are particular to different regions. We’re actually making a Catena Sauvignon/Chenin Blanc blend, because it’s so good. I don’t know how much I’m going to sell of it, but I just have to try it because I love the wine. Argentines are high risk-takers because everything changes all the time. It’s like you’re basically trying to survive. Experimenting is part of our DNA. In our winery, we’re always trying new varieties and buying grapes from here and vines from here, and I think if you talk to most other wineries, they’re doing the same thing.

MEININGER’S: You could argue also that South America, and maybe still the wine industry generally, was very male-focused and didn’t really accommodate women at the high-up stages of the industry. How have you experienced that?
CATENA: I came in a privileged position because my father was probably not going to fire me. I didn’t have to do the kind of fighting that other women might have had to going into a male-dominated business. The main difficulty I had was that I wasn’t trained as a winemaker. I had to be very humble and I knew I would be judged. The family member always gets judged more harshly than anybody else. 

I think that the only way to get more women in is when there are other women in power. I didn’t start out thinking, “I’d like to hire more women.” I just wanted to hire the best people. But I think women thought, “Oh, hey, there’s a boss lady at Catena. That could be an interesting place to work because I might be able to get a boss position.” I would say in winemaking head positions, we’re probably 60% men, 40% women, which is fairly unusual. 
It’s quite extraordinary to work in mixed teams because everybody’s better for it, and I love it.

MEININGER’S: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a family business?
CATENA: In my personal life, and in my trajectory at Catena, I think family businesses are amazing. I had a very good experience with it. You’re not thinking of a quick buck. If we need to turn a vineyard organic and we’re going to lose 20% of the production, can we do that? Those are decisions that are hard for businesses that are having to respond to investors over the short term. My challenge to the Catena Institute is we are on the 100-year plan. How are we going to be making wine in Mendoza of the greatest quality in 100 years?

MEININGER’S: What’s the biggest mistake that you’d admit to?
CATENA: Cabernet that does great, and we’ve got Malbec,” and we planted a lot of Merlot. You can ask Michelle Roland, the Merlot expert. We had to pull out a lot of Merlot that we planted. And honestly, I still don’t know why it doesn’t work, but it just doesn’t work in Argentina. On a personal side, even if I have this very nice husband that is still married to me, I travel so much. I wish I had spent more time with him when we were younger. I mean, he’s still there and he’s a very nice person and I’m trying now to be a more attentive wife, but when I wake up in the morning, he asks me, “What part of the world are you going to conquer today?” I don’t know… But I’m still young.

Interview by Robert Joseph

This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or digital.

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