Laura Catena was born in Mendoza, Argentina, “la tierra del sol y del vino” (“the land of sun and wine”), the province where Argentina’s most famous wines are crafted. Mendoza is a land of breathtaking beauty, a mountain-flanked desert where rivers feed a bountiful oasis of grapevines, walnut trees, nectarines, tomatoes, garlic and all manner of vegetables and fruits. If ever there was a heaven for winemaking, Mendoza is it, and Laura was their girl.
This week’s Thursday Thirsty Girl is a fourth generation of an Argentine-Italian winemaking family. Wine has defined her life. Her great grandfather founded the Catena Zapata winery in Mendoza in 1902 after emigrating from Italy. Her father, Nicolas Catena, a third-generation winemaker, helped pioneer viticulture in Mendoza; he’s often referred to as “the Robert Mondavi of Argentina.” Today, their winery is internationally known for its highly rated vintages and for its role in pioneering Argentina’s malbec revolution.
After finishing high school in Berkeley, I attended Harvard where she studied biology (graduating magna cum laude). At the age of 21, the summer before she started medical school, my father invited me to travel to Bordeaux, France, with him as his translator. There I fell eternally in love with French wines, French art, and the traditions of French winemaking, where grapes made from old vines are the stuff of sublime vintages. She grew increasingly enamored with the virtues of old vines. The French believe that an old vineyard (at least 25 years old) gives you better grapes. At that time, the conventional wisdom among leading winemakers in Mendoza placed little value on old vines, and even less on purchased grapes—“grower grapes,” winemakers felt, were synonymous with poor-quality wine. After visiting the world’s great wine regions in France, Italy, California and South Africa, however, I was convinced that the conventional wisdom in Argentina was outmoded.
Ten years ago, she took to the back roads of Mendoza, scouring the countryside in search of old vines where she uncovered dozens of small, independently owned family vineyards planted with spectacular old-vine malbec, syrah and cabernet sauvignon grapes. She leapt at the opportunity to work with these growers to craft artisanal wines using their old-vine grapes. That trip deep into Mendoza was not just about discovering tangled old vines tended by passionate wine growers; it was, for her, an exhilarating journey into one of the world’s most unspoiled paradises.
In 1999 she made my first Luca wines, named after my son. Ten years later, the old-vine grapes came through: Luca Malbec 2007 was named one of the world’s 100 best wines in Wine Spectator.
Today, the family’s winery, Bodega Catena Zapata, is known internationally for its highly rated wines and for its role in pioneering Argentina’s malbec revolution. At Catena Zapata, Laura’s role as President, oversees operations, exports, and is intimately involved with our viticultural and winemaking program, including the blends and vineyard lot selections for all our wines.
Currently I live in San Francisco and spend about one third of the year in Mendoza. She is a vintner, a businesswoman, practicing physician, a medical professor at UCSF Medical Center, a mother of three, wife of one (Daniel McDermott, another ER doctor), and a world-wide ambassador for Argentine wine. She is also an author (Vino Argentino is my first book) and inventor, and on occasion, a good tango dancer.
She is truly a Thirsty Girl because she is guided in all her my endeavors by the principles of innovation, hard work, and respect and kindness for all those in my path, whether a patient, a family member, a co-worker, customer, or business partner. Her personal philosophy is to be “hard on issues, soft on people,” a credo that I believe could (if not should) be applied to all the facets of life.
Fern Berman Communications
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