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Laura Catena interview Part One

By Gus Clemens

By Gus ClemensPublished 5 months ago 4 min read

Laura Catena is considered the face of Argentine wine and a wine world leader. I recently interviewed her and will share the interview in successive posts.

Laura is a fourth-generation Argentine vintner. Her father, Dr. Nicolás Catena Zapata, not only ran the family winery, he also was a professor of economics at Berkeley. Laura graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and earned a medical degree from Stanford. For years she was managing director of Bodega Catena Zapata and practiced medicine at the UC-San Francisco Medical Center.

Her wines sell under the Catena and other labels. Catena makes Alamos, distributed by E&J Gallo in the U.S.. She has her own label, Luca.

• Do you still practice medicine in California?

I stopped working clinically at the end of 2019. Because I was doing mostly pediatric emergency the last few years, they didn’t need me back during the first pandemic year. Because children were not getting sick or having injuries. This was fortunate because my team at the winery needed me more than ever during the pandemic—our precautions at the winery were similar to a hospital’s which resulted in very few COVID cases over the first year. I volunteered with a vaccinating crew in San Francisco serving marginally housed people, but now I am doing 100% wine and it feels good to be there all the time for the Catena team. I am still a doctor to friends and family, and I have found that the doctor’s empathy can be practiced in the small moments of daily life, so I miss being a doctor less than I thought I would.  

• How did you balance your many responsibilities, and do you have any regrets?

I practiced medicine and wine for 25 years. It was not easy, but as a result my kids are very independent and high functioning. Our house was always very messy when the kids were in the house (the last one left for college a few days ago) and I have just had to live with that. I wouldn’t change anything. When my father turned 80 years old, I decided it was time to do 100% wine. It was a natural moment. I am not a regrets kind of person. I live my life trying to be a good person every day.  

• What is the greatest challenge running a large wine operation?

We run our family winery like a small winery—every parcel of vineyard gets vinified separately and we have no recipes. Each parcel is tasted during fermentation and aging and our vinification philosophy is to do little, and let the innate character of each place shine. This takes a lot of time and effort, but it is ingrained in our winery culture and thinking all day long is the Catena way. The greatest challenge is the fluctuation of the Argentine economy (current inflation is 120%). For me the key to success is to hire perfectionist creatives with focus on “perfectionist”. It is easier to teach creativity than perfectionism.

• Do you enjoy being the face of Catena?

I like/love people. That’s why I became a doctor. My job is to share our wines and our stories with wine drinkers around the world. It’s a privilege to have the job of making the family’s wines and ensuring our family winery’s success over hopefully another 200 years (I am on the 200 year plan because short term does not work for wine and viticulture). So to answer your question, I enjoy it, but am eager for the next generation to take over some of my ambassador job so that I can spend more time in the vineyard.  

 • Are you and your brother Ernesto competitors or mutually supportive? What role does your father Nicolás now play in operations?

My brother and I are partners in Catena, but we also have our separate wine projects. We help each other whenever we can. My father is still very involved, but I always have the final say. My father has been the best mentor and teacher imaginable. He whole heartedly supports me in my current managing director position.

• What are your plans for succession and the future of your operation?

The Catena winery was founded in 1902 by an Italian vintner immigrant to Argentina, Nicola Catena. I am the current family head of the business. My siblings Ernesto and Adrianna are working in wine in different branches of the family business. Our family philosophy is to not pressure the new generations to join the business. The next generation is still quite young, in school or working in other fields: human rights, chemistry, banking, psychology.

Tasting notes

• Alamos Malbec Mendoza 2016: Fresh, firm, clean, delicious easy drinker with great balance. Consistently is a superb expression of malbec and a superb value. $10-13 Link to my full review

Last round humor

• What do you call birds who stick together? Vel-crows.

• Did you hear about the chickens who couldn’t stop cursing? He really had some fowl language.

Email: [email protected]. Newsletter: Website: Facebook: Gus Clemens on Wine. Twitter: @gusclemens

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About the Creator

Gus Clemens

Nationally-syndicated humorist/wine writer. Gus appears in Gannett USA Today newspapers and several online platforms. Writing professionally since 1969, Gus has authored or participated in 20 books in addition to his humor/wine work.

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