Industry Insiders: Laura Catena, Vino MD

Multi-tasking winemaker Laura Catena not only had a hand in the Malbec revolution that put the South American wine on the global map, she’s also an ER doc in San Francisco when she’s not running Catena Zapata back home in Argentina. Between carnivorous bites at Buenos Aires, her favorite gaucho steakhouse in New York, the Cali resident and mother of two dished on her comprehensive new book, Vino Argentino, juggling disparate lives on two continents, being part of a storied Argentine wine family, and getting iJacked in South America.

On working as both a winemaker in Argentina and an ER doctor in San Francisco: People always ask me why I work so much, and I tell them it’s because in Argentina nothing lasts, so you always have to be prepared. Argentines live from their emotional connections. You live from your family, the relationships with your friends, because the economy isn’t stable. Even the richest person in Argentina knows that sooner or later everything changes. So you end up living in the now. We live in the today. That’s what I talk about in the book.

On running a business in Argentina’s volatile economy: You usually can’t project business too far ahead in Argentina because there’s an economic crash cycle, yet with my company I have the 100-year plan which always comes as a shock in Argentina. We have 70-year-old-vineyards. And they’re still in the family, which is rare these days in Argentina, where foreigners own many of the wineries.

On her new book Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina (Chronicle Books): The book is about Argentine wine and its history. It starts in the 16th century through the present, covering all aspects of wine culture and food culture, including an actual glossary of Argentine food terms. And I also talk about trailblazers – people who’ve been important in Argentine wine history. So naturally there’s people like José Alberto Zuccardi who’s very Argentine, whose father came from Italy and started his winery. But I also include people like Michael Halstrick from Bodega Norton, José Manuel Ortega of Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier, Michel Rolland of Antucurá, and Donald Hess of Bodega Colomé. So it’s a mix of Argentines and foreigners because these days 45 percent of the wineries in Argentina that export wine are either owned by a foreigner or have a foreign consultant. But we also have our own Argentine wine tradition, of course.

On the Catena family’s penchant for multi-city pursuits: My brother is getting his PhD at Oxford. My other brother Ernesto owns a gallery in Palermo Soho and is back and forth between Buenos Aires and Mendoza, same as my father. And I’m back and forth between Argentina and California.

On the differences between her two homes in Mendoza and San Francisco: The fun part about Argentina is it’s contradictory. For example, it’s a macho society but recently became the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage. And I like the chaos. It’s interesting going back and forth. Because sometimes you get tired of the chaos. And here in the US you get tired of the order.

On her football allegiances: In the Catena family, we’re all Boca supporters.

On the Catena family’s role in bringing Argentine wine to a global audience: Argentine wine was non-existent abroad. In those days they’d tell you, ‘We don’t want expensive Argentine wines, you have to be like the Chileans.’ And we have some wines that are worth $100. People didn’t believe there could be quality wines from Argentina because nobody knew about the wine culture. Many of our $10O wines are much better than a lot of the French wines.

On the first thing after a long day: I love to come home and have a glass of Torrontes. It reminds me of home, because it is the only white wine grape that is native to Argentina. I always have a bottle of Alamos Torrontes chilling in my fridge.

On the difference between California’s and Argentina’s wine country: Americans tell me that when they visit Mendoza it feels much more real than Napa valley. That it’s not Disneyland. There’s a feeling of open space that people love. Plus the view of the Andes…

On a chef she admires: Francis Mallman doesn’t copy anyone. He’s himself.

On her bookworm antecedents: Harvard undergrad then Stanford Medical School. I love studying!

On nostalgic bus rides: I love buses in Buenos Aires. I went to the [prestigious] Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires, which is an incredible place where I learned so much. I used to take the 102 bus there from my parents’ house to go to school. And now, the Catena offices are right downtown in Plaza de Mayo, which is close to the school, so I take the same bus to work that I used to take in high school. There’s a whole bus culture in Buenos Aires. The porteño bus has something, and the bus drivers in Buenos Aires are all characters. It’s an institution.

On avoiding iJacking in Buenos Aires: I made my father a hand made iPad case so it doesn’t look like he has an iPad, because otherwise it’s not going to last too long in the streets in Buenos Aires.

On her carnivorous homeland: Everyone talks about the meat in Argentina, but what I most miss are the vegetables. The quality of the vegetables in Mendoza are superb. Much better than California.

On winemaking rivals: People asked me, ‘Doctor, how are you going to write about your competitors?’ And I asked everyone involved if they wanted to be in the book. And nobody said no! Zuccardi actually hugged me. I already knew all the other Argentine winemakers of course. And certainly we compete, and we all want to be the best and we think we’re the best. That arrogance is very Argentine and makes each winery unique and different. So and so thinks his wines are better than mine, and naturally I think mine are better than his!

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