Laura Catena: An interview with the Luca and Catena Maven

POSTED BY Kirstin -Vin de la Table Blog

It's been a month since an interview was featured on Vin de la Table, dear readers, but I promise that this one was worth the wait. I'm happy to present to you my discussion with Laura Catena, the owner of Luca Wines, a small quantity, vineyard specific, highly esteemed winery in Mendoza, Argentina. The interview, conducted via email, provides an overview on Argentina's quiet but prominent wine history and her family's role in Argentina's emergence as a wine giant, as well as Catena's insights on the country's bright future, and the inspiration behind her own celebrated label.
I hope that you enjoy this interview as much as I did, and I encourage you to take your time with this one. We have much to learn about Laura Catena, her family, her country's wine history, and how one manages to raise three kids, run a winery, and still work full time as a doctor in the emergency room of a San Francisco hospital.
The focus of Vin de la Table is food and wine pairing, so of course we'll discuss this delicious venture later in the interview. To start, however, I like to begin interviews by introducing readers to the interviewee, their projects, their winery, and maybe even pieces of wine and wine culture particular to a region or people before delving into food and wine. Let's begin on that note.


BACKGROUND

Your family has a very long history of winemaking that stems back to at least the 1800's in Italy. Many people may not know that a large majority of Argentinean wine families have Italian roots. Could you briefly speak to the Italian influence on wine in Argentina? Is it true that your grandfather, Nicola Catena, planted the first Malbec vines in Argentina? What was his inspiration?

NICOLA CAME TO ARGENTINA IN 1898 WITH ALMOST NOTHING. HE FIRST WORKED IN VARIOUS JOBS IN SANTA FE PROVINCE WHERE HE HAD FAMILY, BUT HIS GOAL ALL ALONG WAS TO GET TO MENDOZA AND PLANT A VINEYARD. HE WAS A VINEYARD WORKER IN MARCHE, ITALY, THE YOUNGEST SON OF AN ITALIAN FAMILY. HE SAW THE NEW WORLD AS THE ONLY PLACE WHERE HE COULD OWN HIS OWN PIECE OF LAND AND DO SOMETHING IMPORTANT. IN 1902 HE HAD ENOUGH MONEY TO BUY A PIECE OF LAND AND PLANT A VINEYARD SO HE CHOSE MALBEC BECAUSE AT THAT TIME IT WAS CONSIDERED THE BEST GRAPE....IT WAS CALLED THE FRENCH GRAPE (LA UVA FRANCESA) LOCALLY, BECAUSE IT WAS THE VARIETAL THAT MOST PEOPLE THOUGHT COULD YIELD THE BEST WINE. (MANY PEOPLE IGNORED MALBEC IN FAVOR OF CHEAPER MORE PRODUCTIVE VARIETALS LIKE CRIOLLA).

THE FIRST MALBEC VINES WERE BROUGHT TO MENDOZA BY A SCIENTIST, DR POUGET, WHO WAS COMMISSIONED BY THE ARGENTINE PRESIDENT TO BRING HIGH QUALITY VINES TO ARGENTINA. THESE ORIGINAL MALBEC VINES WERE BROUGHT TO ARGENTINA IN 1856.

I REALLY LOVE THE STORY ABOUT MY GREAT GRANDFATHER. ON A SAD NOTE, HE RETURNED TO ITALY AND SAILED BACK TO ARGENTINA WITH HIS ELDERLY PARENTS...THEY WERE VERY OLD AND DIED WITHIN A FEW MONTHS OF ARRIVING TO ARGENTINA. NICOLA WAS SO PROUD OF HIS NEWFOUND LAND AND FORTUNE THAT HE WANTED HIS PARENTS TO SEE IT.

MY THIRD CHILD (THE YOUNGEST) AND ONLY DAUGHTER IS NAMED NICOLA, AND SHE IS AS FEISTY AS CAN BE. I ALSO HAVE A WINE, A 100% PURE MALBEC NAMED NICO BY LUCA. ABOUT THE ITALIAN INFLUIENCE, IT IS VERY SIMILAR TO CALIFORNIA WHERE MANY OF THE ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS CAME FROM WINE PRODUCING REGIONS IN ITALY AND HAD WINE "IN THEIR BLOOD"

NOW


Your father has been credited with cultivating Argentine winemaking to a level where it can now compete with other high-end winemaking in all countries. With the launch of your own label in 2000, what further contribution did and do you hope to make to the world of Argentinean wine?

MY FATHER IS A TRULLY AMAZING PERSON. HE HAS ALWAYS ENCOURAGED ME TO DO WHAT I AM MOST PASSIONATE ABOUT. I HAVE ASKED HIM WHY HE DIDN'T PUT MORE PRESSURE ON ME TO GO INTO THE WINE BUSINESS WHEN I WAS IN SCHOOL. HE ANSWERED: YOU WOULDN'T BE WORKING WITH ME TODAY IF I HAD DONE THAT. 
IN THE LATE NINETIES I WAS WORKING FOR CATENA A BIT, MOSTLY IN SALES AND WINEMAKING RESEARCH. I WAS LIVING IN CALIFORNIA AND WATCHING ALL THESE LITTLE WINE PROJECTS COME OUT WHICH WERE BUYING EXTREMELY HIGH QUALITY GRAPES FROM GROWERS. I ALSO SPENT SOME TIME IN FRANCE (I HAVE LIVED IN FRANCE AND AM FLUENT IN FRENCH) WITH OUR WINE PARTNERS AT CHATEAU LAFITE (WE HAVE A PARTNERSHIP THAT STARTED IN 1999 AND THE WINERY IS NAMED CARO) AND BECAME SORT OF "OBSESSED" WITH THE CONCEPT OF OLD VINES. BACK HOME IN MENDOZA, EVERY TIME I TASTED A WINE MADE FROM OLD VINES IT SEEMED TO HAVE SO MUCH MORE DEPTH AND CHARACTER. I BEGAN TO LOOK INTO OLD VINE VINEYARDS IN MENDOZA AND FOUND OUT THAT MOST WERE OWNED BY SMALL FAMILY GROWERS WHO WERE SELLING THEIR GRAPES IN BULK. MOST SERIOUS VITICULTURALISTS AND WINEMAKERS FELT THAT GROWERS COULD NOT BE PERSUADED TO DECREASE YIELDS AND IRRIGATION AND TO FARM FOR QUALITY. THAT DIDN'T MAKE SENSE TO ME, AND THAT IS HOW LUCA STARTED.

I PRESENTED THE IDEA TO MY FATHER AND HE WAS VERY ENCOURAGING...HE EVEN LENT ME HIS TOP PERSON, ALEJANDRO SEJANOVICH AS WINEMAKER. WHAT IS REALLY SWEET ABOUT MY FATHER IS THAT HE IS SO PROUD WHEN HE GOES TO A TOP RESTAURANT AND HE SEES LUCA OR TIKAL (MY BROTHER'S WINE) ON THE LIST AND NOT CATENA....I THINK HE WOULD ALMOST RATHER HAVE OUR WINES DO WELL THAN HIS OWN.

MY ROLE AT CATENA ZAPATA HAS ALSO GROWN OVER THE YEARS. I MAKE AND APPROVE ALL BLENDS FOR THE TOP WINES (CATENA, CATENA ALTA, NICOLAS CATENA ZAPATA) AND SPEND A GREAT DEAL OF TIME MANAGING OUR RESEARCH DEPARTMENT. MY GOAL IS TO DISCOVER NEW AREAS AND MAKE THE MOST OUT OF THE CATENA ZAPATA MALBEC CLONAL SELECTION. I DID A LOT OF RESEARCH IN COLLEGE AND MED SCHOOL AND I ENJOY DISCOVERING NEW THINGS. I ALSO FEEL SOME SORT OF PATRIOTISM, AS IF I HAVE A DUTY TO MY COUNTRY AND MY FAMILY TO DO THIS. ARGENTINA HAS GONE THROUGH SO MUCH ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL TURMOIL THAT WATCHING THE SUCCESS OF ARGENTINE WINE, PARTICULARLY MALBEC, MAKES ME REALLY PROUD OF BEING ARGENTINE AND DOING WHAT I AM DOING.



Most involved in wine worry about their vines getting hit by phylloxera- insects that attack grape vines and leave the roots vulnerable to fungus infections that often kill the plant. Scared of the havoc these insects wreak after the disastrous 1800's phylloxera epidemic that devastated French viticulture for years, the majority of people in the wine industry choose to graft their vines with phylloxera resistent clones instead of transporting vines directly from Europe, which could essentially be more inviting to these insects. Please tell me about the unusual selection process for your "Laborde Double Select" wine, and how thoughts of cloning, phylloxera, and old-vine plantings were involved the choice to make this unique wine. I'd also love to hear some about the vineyard specifics that led to some of the flavor profiles in this wine.


IN MENDOZA MOST VINES ARE OWN ROOTED, EXCEPT FOR CHARDONNAY AND A FEW OTHERS THAT ARE GRAFTED MOSTLY TO RESIST OTHER DISEASES SUCH AS NEMATODES. BECAUSE THE MENDOZA AIR IS VERY DRY AND THE SOILS ARE VERY SANDY, THE PHYLLOXERA LOUSE DOES NOT THRIVE, EXPECIALLY NOT IN THE FLYING FORM (THERE IS A LITTLE BIT OF PHYLOXERA AND THERE HAS BEEN FOR AT LEAST 2 DECADES). IT IS THE SOIL AND CLIMATE IN EUROPE AND CALIFORNIA THAT IS MORE INVITING. LET'S CROSS OUR FINGERS THAT WE NEVER HAVE A PROBLEM. 
THE LABORDE DOUBLE SELECTION IS AN EXAMPLE OF A REALLY VISIONARY PERSON AHEAD OF HIS TIME. LUIS LABORDE WAS A RESEARCHER AT THE MENDOZA WINE INSTITUTE AND HE LOVED RHONE WINES. HE THOUGHT THAT SYRAH WOULD BE WELL SUITED TO MENDOZA AND HE WAS RIGHT. HE WENT TO FRANCE AND BROUGHT BACK SYRAH CLONES, THEN GREW THEM AND STUDIED THEM BETTER IN MENDOZA AND CREATED A UNIQUE SELECTION OF VINES. TO THIS DAY, I HAVE NOT BEEN ABLE TO FIND A BETTER VINE SELECTION OF SYRAH IN MENDOZA. HIS SON IS A LOVELY PERSON AND CLOSE FRIEND AND VERY PROUD TO CONTINUE HIS FATHER'S TRADITION AND PASSION FOR HIGH QUALITY SYRAH. I HAVE SOME NICE VIDEO AND PHOTO FOOTAGE OF LUIS LABORDE, HIS WIFE AND THEIR DOGS. HIS WIFE JUST HAD THEIR FIRST CHILD A FEW DAYS AGO.

The Laborde son, in the vineyard with Laura.

What wine direction are you looking in new future, and if you had one overwhelming goal in wine, what would you say it is? 
I WANT TO GET A LOT OLDER QUICKLY SO THAT THERE ARE MORE OLD VINES AROUND!...I AM SERIOUS. BESIDES THAT, I WANT TO CONTINUE TO MAKE PROFOUND WINES OUT OF MENDOZA AND REALLY SHOW THAT OUR WINES ARE ON PAR WITH THE BEST IN THE WORLD AT EVERY PRICE POINT.
Who inspires you in wine? In Argentina? Europe? The United States?

IN ARGENTINA MY FATHER AND ALL THE STAFF AT CATENA ZAPATA AND LUCA. WE REALLY ARE LIKE A FAMILY. IN EUROPE, GUIGAL, OUR PARTNERS AT CHATEAU LAFITE, THE BURGUNDIAN WINE CULTURE OF SMALL PARCELS AND EXTREMELY LOW YIELDS. IN THE US, PAUL HOBBS, AN OLD FRIEND AND SOMEONE THAT IS MAKING AN IMPACT ON WINE WORLD-WIDE WITH ALL HIS CONSULTING JOBS, PEOPLE LIKE BILL HARLAN, WHO HAVE A VISION AND ACCOMPLISH IT. PEOPLE WHO MAKE WINE TEND TO BE CHARISMATIC AND PASSIONATE, I LOVE THE CULTURE OF OUR INDUSTRY.


From the research I've done on you, I discovered that you are a wine consultant to your family's winery, an owner of your own winery, a mother of three, an ER doctor at UCSF, a graduate of both Harvard and Stanford, a really nice person, and perhaps I shouldn't mention this but I'm going to anyhow because photos have revealed thus, have an excellent fashion sense. I'm looking forward to coffee with you! What have I missed? What else are you doing?


I AM WORKING ON A BOOK FOR WINE LOVERS THAT VISIT MENDOZA. IT WILL INCLUDE MANY OF THE WINERIES MAKING TOP QUALITY WINES...ABOUT THE FASHION SENSE...THANKS BUT, I'VE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF MYSELF AS MORE OF A GEEK, SO I AM REALLY FLATTERED. MY BROTHER IS THE FASHION KING IN THE FAMILY. I DO ALSO LOVE TO EXERCISE AND GO TO THE DAILEY METHOD IN SF REGULARLY AND JOG SEVERAL TIMES A WEEK. I ALSO LIKE TO PLAY SPORTS, SOCCER, TENNIS, PING PONG, GOLF AND JUST ABOUT ANYTHING WITH MY HUSBAND AND KIDS, AND I DON'T EVER WORRY IF I AM BAD AT THEM.

FOOD AND WINE PAIRING

Some winemakers focus on making great wines that pair well with food. Others focus entirely on making great wines, period. Would you say your winemaker's focus is with Luca wines?

FOOD IS VERY IMPORTANT, SO I TRY TO MAKE MY WINES FOOD FRIENDLY. BUT I ALSO LIKE A BIT OF "FLASHINESS" IN A WINE, AND SOMETIMES A FLASHY WINE IS NOT AS GOOD WITH FOOD. BUT MY GOAL IS TO MAKE WINES THAT GO WELL WITH ALL KINDS OF FOODS. I AM PARTICULARLY PROUD OF MY SPICY (THAI OR INDIAN) FOOD PAIRINGS WITH LUCA MALBEC AND SYRAH.

I was able to try your "Laborde Double Select" and it had a very pretty bacon, dark berry and flinty taste that immediately made be want to eat it with foods grilled over charcol or wood and maybe even some aged sheep's cheeses. What would you pair with this wine?

I WOULD PAIR IT WITH PORK, WITH THAI OR INDIAN CURRIES, WITH VEGETABLES AND TOFU IN A SWEET AND SOUR KIND OF SAUCE, LAMB, ANYTHING WITH A BURNT FRUIT OR NUTTY SAUCE.

What do you eat with your wines at home? Do you think that this is similar to what people pair them with at restaurants? 
I DRINK WINE EVERY NIGHT WITH DINNER, UNLESS I AM GOING TO WORK AT THE HOSPITAL. I DRINK A LOT OF WHITE WINE AT HOME AND MORE RED WHEN I GO OUT....I AM NOT SURE WHY. WE EAT A VERY DIVERSE DIET AT HOME, SOME REAL SIMPLE STUFF, BROCCOLY AND CHICKEN, LOTS OF RICE....I USUALLY EAT STEAK ONLY WHEN I AM IN ARGENTINA BECAUSE I AM VERY PARTICULAR ABOUT THE TASTE OF BEEF.

What are some of your favorite food and wine pairings, and some of your favorite wines with food?

MALBEC IS DEFINITELY A FAVORITE BECAUSE IT GOES WITH JUST ABOUT ANYTHING BECAUSE OF ITS SOFT SWEET TANNINS, MY FAVORITE MALBEC PAIRING IS PROBABLY MY HUSBAND'S PORK WITH APPLE SAUCE. CAB SAUV WITH STEAK IN BERENAISE SAUCE, GERMAN AND ALSACIAN WHITES WITH VIETNAMESE OR THAI FOOD, SYRAH WITH COQ AU VIN....I AM SURE I CAN COME UP WITH MORE, BUT IT'S MAKING ME HUNGRY!

In Europe, there is a strong sense of pairing wines with regional foods. Do people practice this in Argentina too? Any examples?

NOT THAT MUCH, BUT I DO HAVE A FEW FAVORITES. CHARDONNAY WITH HUMITA (CORN BAKED IN A CLAY OVEN WRAPPED IN THE CORN TUSK), CHORIZO (SAUSAGE) WITH MALBEC, TORRONTES WITH APPETIZERS.


Lastly, when you are in a restaurant in North America, what foods and wines are you most likely to order?


I AM VERY PARTIAL TO ITALIAN FOOD (MY SF FAVORITES ARE DELFINA AND A16) BECAUSE I GREW UP WITH IT IN ARGENTINA AND ASIAN FOOD WITH LOTS OF VEGETABLES (I LIVE RIGHT NEXT TO EOS AND ALSO LOVE THE SLANTED DOOR).


Thank you very much for your time Laura!