Life Lessons with… Laura Catena

The Argentinian winemaker – and California-based doctor – needs to talk less and listen more, but she does have a preternatural ability to make any child or baby smile

Words by Club Oenologique Editors

Laura Catena

Laura Catena is the managing director of Mendoza’s Catena Zapata, the winery founded in 1902 by her great-grandfather Nicola Catena, who had emigrated to Argentina from Italy. She is also owner of old-vine specialist Luca Wines, La Posta Wines, and Domaine Nico, which sources grapes from some of the highest Pinot Noir vineyards in the world.

 A doctor by training, she served as an emergency physician at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center until last November, before moving to work as a volunteer doctor at a local clinic for the homeless, which has since closed due to Covid. “I am hoping that it will soon reopen, because I do miss taking care of patients,” she told Club Oenologique.

I’m concerned about leaving my teenage children without a sure way to get back

Used to dividing her time between Argentina and California, for the last six months she has been stuck in San Francisco. “There are very rare flights to Argentina and obligatory quarantine for two weeks. I’m concerned about leaving my teenage children without a sure way to get back, but the minute there are more flights and the quarantine is lifted I am planning to go to Argentina. I talk to the winery every day, but this doesn’t replace being in the vineyards, and with harvest approaching, I am getting very anxious about not being there.”

Catena is the author of two books on Argentinian wine, was included in Oprah Magazine’s list of the World’s Top Women Vintners, and says she misses travelling the world in the service of Argentinian wine: “One can replace some of the experience through online platforms, but fortunately not all.”

What was your childhood ambition?

My childhood passions were reading, schoolwork and dogs. I developed a love for science, and had a need to work at something that would help people.

What do you wish you’d known when you were 21?

I’ve always been a “Yes” person.  I wish I had understood back then that saying no to some options or opportunities is just as important as saying yes.

What exercise do you do?

I walk our family dog Nala twice a day for a total of one and a half hours.  During the walk I do push-ups, a short yoga routine on the grass, and 100 abdominal pilates exercises. 

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

Talk less, listen more.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

Three bottles of 1939 Château Latour for my father’s (Nicolás Catena) 70th birthday, and for birthdays to come.

Catena with her dog Nala, and with her father Nicolás: "He just turned 80, but he still thinks and acts like a young person."

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I like living in two places – Mendoza, in Argentina and San Francisco, in California. I love Mendoza for the vineyards, and San Francisco (I live next to Golden Gate Park) for the abundance of open-minded people, Victorian houses and open spaces. I can’t imagine living in only one place.

If you could do any other job what would it be?

I would be a teacher. Although I would have to improve my listening skills and patience.  

What’s your favourite restaurant?

1884, Francis Mallmann’s restaurant in Mendoza. The patio is surrounded by plants and climbing vines and you can see the asado (grill) and the brick oven where the food is being prepared while you eat.  The meat and vegetables come with little fanfare, just fresh on the plate or on the grill.  The smell of the food, the freshly-cooked bread, the scents of flowers and mountain air make the experience all so delicious.

Catena's favourite restaurant, the renowned Francis Mallman's 1884 in Godoy Cruz, Mendoza, uses the chef's "siete fuegos" (seven fires) method of cooking

What luxury item (except wine or spirits) would you take with you to a desert island?

A case of smelly cheese. 

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

A bottle of Argentinian wine in every collector’s cellar in the world.

Island treasure: a supply of "smelly cheese"

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact? 

Acceptable free housing for the homeless.

Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Jorge Luis Borges because he saw the world as a blend of the real and the imaginary. Such a viewpoint makes the world, and life, more textured and allows us to solve our problems in our imagination and live experiences inside our minds.  This is something that has become even more important during quarantine. It would be fun to have Eleanor of Aquitaine as well.  She not only made Malbec famous [she and Henry II of England drank it at their wedding in 1152] but she presided over the Courts of Love, where knights would come to settle their romantic disputes.  It would be interesting to hear from a woman who was so powerful and dedicated to her people and her children at a time when women had practically no rights.

Dinner guest: Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian short-story writer, essayist and poet, a giant of post-modernism and considered one of the 20th century's most important writers

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Chocolate-flavoured vitamins for children (I have two every night)

What’s your secret talent?

I’m a child whisperer. I learned this as a pediatric emergency physician – I can make almost any child or baby smile.

When were you happiest?

During family vacations in Italy with my husband and three children.

Whom do you most admire?

My father. He just turned 80, but he still thinks and acts like a young person.  He never shoots down an idea without thinking about it, and is able to completely change his mind on something if presented with the right data or arguments.  His mental flexibility and enthusiasm for new solutions for old problems are what I admire the most about him. And that is why so many great people want to work with him, because he is fun to work with.

Stranger things: Korean police procedural Stranger is Catena's current box-set of choice

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Hard on issues, soft on people”

What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?

Stranger, a Korean police series.  The lead character has had part of his brain removed and is unable to feel any emotion. This makes him incorruptible, despite the fact that he is surrounded by corruption

What’s your most treasured possession?

My computer, because it has all my photos and memories.

What time do you go to bed?

Between 11:30pm and midnight