If there is a more respected and liked figure in the global wine industry than Laura Catena then I am yet to meet them. If her father, Nicolás, is widely regarded for putting Argentine wine on the world map, then Dr Laura Catena is more than ready to take it to the next generation. She has already established herself as a leading voice not just on Bodega Catena Zapata wines, but on exploring, investigating and finding the most sustainable and climate proof places to make wine for all producers across Argentina. Here in this wide ranging video interview Richard Siddle talks to her about her vision and plans for Catena, helping to raise the quality and prestige of Argentine wines internationally and managing a business through Covid-19.
Dr Laura Catena is helping to drive many of the changes across the Argentine wine industry as its viticulture first approach is helping to transform the quality and reputation of its wines.
(Click here to watch the full interview with Dr Laura Catena)
Laura Catena is a little better placed to talk about the impact of Covid-19 than anyone else in the global wine industry. For over the last 30 years she has split her time between helping to run the Bodega Catena Zapata business in Argentina with working as a doctor, mostly in the Pediatric Emergency Department in San Francisco.
It’s a way of life she is now moving away from so that she can commit more time to the family wine business as, she says, “a sort of gift to my father when he turned 80 – he deserves to have more time to spend with his eight grandchildren”. Instead she will now volunteer, when she can, at a local clinic for the homeless in San Francisco.
Catena has spent the last few months in California during Covid-19 with her daughter and her husband, who is still working as a doctor in ER in San Francisco.
She will, though, certainly miss what has been a life calling to help people on the front line in ER. Compared to the “patience” needed to work in wine where you might need to wait a decade to see a difference in a vineyard, she says life as an ER doctor is the complete opposite, where you have “such responsibility” and literally have people’s “lives in your hands” and you can make “such a difference instantly”.
It also helps to “ground her” and give her an escape from the pressures of running such a high profile family winery. For if following in the footsteps of her father was not challenging enough, she also feels a responsibility to the Argentine industry as a whole – so much so that, at times, she feels like she is “carrying an atlas on her back”.
“I have a lot on my shoulders because my father basically changed the history of Argentine wines – there was no fine wine from Argentina exported until my father had this vision to put Argentine wine in collectors’ cellars’ and the best restaurants which we now are all over the world. I feel like the whole country is on my back…but we need to continue to tell the world about Argentina and our wines,” she explains.
(Click here for Laura Catena talking about her life as a doctor, its challenges and following in her father’s footsteps)
Her first responsibility during Covid-19 has been the safety and working environment for her staff, and although she may not have been in the same country as her winery team, Catena says she actually has had chance to talk and share ideas with them more than she would if she was there, when the pressures and demands are different. Now she can talk to her viticulture, winemaking and commercial teams via Zoom any time of the week.
It has also meant her teams are talking and communicating with each other more than they might do in normal times, which is not only good for the business, but particularly so for them as individuals as that is the best way to grow and develop in your roles, she explains.
Argentina, like its fellow wine producing countries in the southern hemisphere, was just going through its 2020 harvest when Covid-19 struck in March. It turned out to be a smaller, but earlier vintage which Catena says was not ideal in terms of size, but good in that it meant 80% of its crop had been picked by the time Covid struck.
“The climate that gave us a small vintage which is normally not ideal, also give us an early vintage which was ideal,” she adds.
Thankfully smaller crops also usually turn into very good quality wines with a good balance between concentration, ripeness and acidity, which was the case for Argentina in 2020, she says.
Looking back on 2020
(Laura Catena looks back on 2020 and the impact of Covid-19 on its business and wider wine industry)
Looking back on what has happened in 2020, Catena says as been in the fortunate position of having built up such a large international distribution that has certainly helped its sales during Covid-19. But, she stresses, any gains in retail and online have been offset by so much of its global business being in restaurants and the on-trade which has largely been shut. Meaning overall it is “flat..and we should be grateful for being flat”.
She is, though, more “worried” concerned about the impact on smaller producers and their ability to have got through the last few months and the knock-on effect it is going to have on the wonderful diversity there is in the wine industry.
(Laura Catena on how its Appellations range captures Burgundy villages concept for Malbec in Mendoza, Argentina)
Where Laura Catena has already made an enormous contribution to the overall Argentine wine industry is through the research centre she set up, the Catena Institute of Wine, to help raise the overall quality of wine by identifying the best places and terroir to grow the right vines.
Work that has allowed the industry as a whole to define and introduce specific new appellations through which all producers can benefit and learn about the kinds of wines that can be made in their unique soils and climate and how to farm them.
She has now encapsulated some of that work in the Catena Appellations range which she says is inspired by the village concept in Burgundy, where each town and mini region has its own story, culture, identity and terroir and thought “we have the same thing in Argentina”.
Hence a range of 10 wines that is made up of different styles of Malbec true to a specific micro climate or area (Indicaciones Geográficas) including: Catena Appellations Malbec Vista Flores; Catena Appellations Malbec La Consulta; Catena Appellations Malbec Agrelo; and Catena Appellations Malbec Paraje Altamira.
A range that also helps get across the message that each micro region of Argentina produces slightly differences styles of Malbec. “Each region of Malbec has a different flavour. Malbec is a variety that soaks up terroir. It is different in a different soil, climate combination.”
She adds: “What I love about the village concept is that it’s the traditions of the people there. Everybody knows each other and the same thing happens in Argentina and in wine country all over the world. People in wine country know each other because they tend to be multi-generational.”
The range has been particularly popular, she says, during lockdown as wine drinkers are spending more time at home to seek out interesting wines, with a back story that they can discover and find out about. This is very much what the Appellations wines hope to offer, she adds.
(Laura Catena on how restaurants have changed during their wine offer during Covid-19)
The price point also works as it sits more comfortably with friends and family wanting to find something good but not too expensive to drink, be it at home or when they can go to a restaurant.
So whereas before premium restaurants could rely on selling big ticket wines for business lunches and dinners, they now need a wider selection of wines that local customers are happy buying. Which is where the Appellations wines priced at around £50 on a wine list can do very well, she adds.
She has been particularly impressed by how restaurants in London, in particular, have worked quickly with their suppliers (in her case Bibendum) to come up with new ideas to keep wine sales moving. It means that throughout the year her London on-trade sales are only 10%.
Another key aspect of Catena’s work at the Institute has been around sustainability and looking at ways in which producers and growers can better work the land they have for the common good.
But in order to know what “you need to preserve” you have to also determine what it is you are protecting. That’s what the Institute is focused on delivering, she explains. Detailed analysis right down to microbe level that helps explain and understand the eco systems involved.
This is also not just about being sustainable from a wine point of view, stresses Catena, but a way to get people to care for a particular place, so that they will go on and protect its people, its towns, its churches, its way of life, she explains.
“If people don’t care where a wine comes from then nobody is going to bother to preserve the little church, say, in that town, or the vineyards,” she adds.
It’s also what clearly drives her, and her work to really help first define and put these appellations on the map, literally, and then do all she can to get as many influential people as possible to shout about and celebrate them.
(Laura Catena on her passion for sustainability and protect Argentina’s wine lands)
Fine wine outside of Mendoza
The Catenas are also keen to do what they can to promote all areas of Argentina and whilst its proud of the fact Mendoza produces 70% of the country’s wine, it is also important to develop its other wine regions too.
In particular they are looking to see if there are regions of Salta in the north, La Rioja in the north west, and Patagonia in the south capable of making fine wine. A project that has been going on for some 15 years and is now starting to produce some “extraordinary” results, particularly in high altitude areas and with old vines, noticeably in Salta.
Its own result is the Pasarisa wine brand that shows the styles and potential of these three regions, with a particular focus on different varieties in each area – like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Patagonia, Bonarda and Syrah in La Rioja, and Cabernet Sauvignon in Salta. As well as different expressions of Malbec.
Catena says it is all about trying to highlight and shine the light on these regions. If it can show they are capable of making fine wines then that will have an enormous impact on the local communities, it can help them grow, build better homes and schools and help be part of a much needed rejuvenation of those areas.
“What will it mean for the people there, the economy, the winemaking?” asks Catena. “If you can make fine wine somewhere it changes everything for that region.”
(Laura Catena on helping local communicates by making fine wine in different regions)
Exploring natural wines
As part of their own wine exploration the Catena family have also been investigating and looking at the benefits and differences that minimum intervention winemaking can have on their wines – which has culminated in them producing their first natural wine – La Marchigiana Malbec (that Bibendum has first introduced into Gaucho in the UK).
Catena says she was initially curious, but also sceptical about how wine can taste without any sulphur and her first experiences of natural wine was, like so many others, was mixed – 50/50 between those she liked and those she didn’t.
But as she experimented with different natural wines the more she became “accustomed” to the oxidised flavours and actually really started to like it. She was then keen to see if they could take this low /no sulphur approach and adapt it to winemaking in Argentina and see which varieties and method would work best.
Having invested in clay pots to help with the ageing process, her research showed her that that this was the way wine was made in Argentina in 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. So it all started to make sense – particularly as she then discovered that was how her own great grandfather had made his wine.
(Click here for Laura Catena explaining how they got into making natural wines)
What she found was Malbec, with its strong tannins and high acidity was particularly well suited to natural wine, as is Criolla Grande, which has more of a pink skin, which was a real breakthrough for her. By not using sulphur it turns what is usually quite a bland pink wine into something really interesting.
The La Marchigiana Malbec she has produced is also a nice tribute to her great grandfather as it use the same label he used to put on the barriques he would send off by train featuring an illustration of a man and a woman in a vineyard – which he had made as a tribute to his wife.
Working through Covid-19
Not being able to travel has meant rather than doing her usual worldwide trips hosting wine dinners and masterclasses in cities all over the globe, she has been doing what she can from her home in San Francisco. She says she is ultimately happy to do whatever her customers want her to do. “I have talked to so many people around the world and everyone is doing something different.”
Which has meant doing an enormous amount of online tastings, including over 100 Zoom tastings, over 100 short videos for customers to use to help sell her wines and around 25 Instagram Lives.
She has even had to act out a play herself that the Catenas had created in 2018 that tells the story of Malbec through four women that are depicted on the the award winning labels on her Catena Zapata wines. The four act play had toured key cities using professional actors and was produced in partnership with her playwright brother-in-law, Gustavo Ballejo.
A restaurateur in San Diego had sold tickets to customers on the back of her recording and performing the play herself. So there she was in San Francisco “putting on crowns and acting like a queen”. “But why not? He knows his customers, so why not have some fun and do it.”
Looking ahead and she expects that when it is safe to do so then she will be back travelling and much of the wine industry will go back to how things were before Covid-19. But one with big difference. There will not be the demand for tens of producers to travel for, say, a one day generic Argentine tasting in London – it just does not justify the carbon footprint or the expense any more, she stresses.
“I think we are going to be more thoughtful about our travelling and what we can do online. Wine tasting can be done quite easily online.”
Helping to preserve Argentina’s wine regions
(Laura Catena on finding scientific solutions to preserve Argentina’s wine regions)
We finished our conversation looking ahead to the scientific work she still wants to do through the Catena Institute. “I think it’s important we use science to make decisions,” she explains. Particularly when it comes to protecting vineyards, water, animal species.
It’s why she feels her medical background and experience has actually been a “preparation” to help her “use scientific thinking to preserve the region of Mendoza and the winemaking regions of Argentina”. How the country as a whole can farm more sustainably in the future.
“Nature is just as worthy of being saved as humans.”
Equally she is committed to playing her part in improving the quality of life for vineyard workers and the communities that live and rely on the wine industry in Argentina. “You can’t be selling your wine in the best restaurants in London and your employees don’t have enough money to eat. That is something we are extremely mindful of, how are the lives and health of the people working in the vineyards?”
Which is why the Catena family has an extensive support system providing housing and funding children to go to school, including providing buses to take them to and fro. Doing what they can to take on staff from the local community and helping them to grow within the business.
“We really believe it is a whole culture behind wine that needs to be preserved.”
- Laura Catena’s wines are available in the UK through Bibendum.