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Women Winemakers: Meet Laura Catena

Could you discuss how your career in medicine has helped you in the wine industry?

Working in medicine has taught me how to think about problems in a scientific manner and this approach is what we needed in Mendoza in the 1980s when my father began his wine revolution. Despite being the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, very little Argentine wine was being exported back then. Argentina was making wines in the old Italian style, which meant keeping wines in large oak barrels and allowing oxygen to come in.

The results were sherry-like wines with little distinctiveness or sense of place. I persuaded my father to create a research institute, which we now call the Catena Institute of Wine. At the Institute, we tested and challenged everything that was known about Malbec and high altitude winemaking, two subjects that were virtually unknown to the world. We made selections from century-old Malbec plantings. We also experimented with Malbec vinification until we realized that the grape needed to be handled more like Pinot Noir than a Bordeaux variety. We studied our high altitude terroir until we understood the complex relationship between sunlight intensity and the cool Andean mountain air.

Today our Institute performs over 1000 micro-vinifications per year and publishes in prestigious wine journals all over the world. Most importantly, the wines of Mendoza and the other Argentine winemaking regions, are now recognized as truly world-class and Malbec has become as much a symbol of Argentina as futbol, tango, and beef.

Spending so much time in San Francisco, what food traditions from Argentina do you miss the most? What Argentine foods or dishes are you easily able to find in restaurants or cook at home in the US?

What I miss the most about Argentina when I am in the U.S. is Sunday lunch at la nonna’s (grandmother in Italian) house. For our family, the Sunday tradition is a lunch of ravioli with home-made pomodoro sauce followed by delicious asado. As you may know, between the 19th and 20th centuries, six million mostly Spanish and Italian immigrants sailed to Argentina. One of these immigrants was my Italian great grandfather, Nicola Catena, who founded the winery in 1902.

I am pleased to be able to find some fantastic Italian food, similar to what my mother makes in Argentina, in San Francisco at places like Delfina and A16. The Argentine asado or barbecue is what I miss the most. I know people in the U.S. who have built Argentine-style outdoor barbecues in their backyards. These use real wood and cook the meat slowly.

Fortunately I can easily find what we call chorizo, but is often called Italian sausage here in the U.S. I put the chorizo inside a baguette, add chimichurri sauce, and cut it up into small pieces and serve as an appetizer. It’s very simple. The name for this classic finger food is choripan and it is also my American husband's favorite. My favorite dessert is dulce de leche pancakes.

Which Catena Zapata wine is your go-to, weeknight choice? Which do you like to pour on special occasions? 

Malbec with its rich flavors and smooth tannins is a perfect weeknight wine. I really enjoy the Catena Malbec because it has nice acidity and goes well with anything - including some of my favorite foods such as Indian and Thai. For a special occasion there is nothing better than an old vintage of Nicolas Catena Zapata, a Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon blend named after my father because it is his favorite wine.

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