DIVINE X Wines of Argentina
In part one of our interview with Laura Catena, we learned what it was like for her to follow in her father’s footsteps, the importance of wine to Argentinians and the science behind winemaking. In Part 2, we will learn how being an emergency doctor prepared Catena for winemaking. We will find out who inspires her, the challenges that she faced and what being a woman in the wine industry is like.
How difficult was it to transition into your family’s business?
It was both the hardest and easiest thing. The easiest thing is that I was able to work part time initially [at the winery] so that I could try something new. How many people thinking of a career change can walk into a job like the one I walked into? A role where I could use my science background at the [Catena] Institute, work with amazing people that were already trained and learn how to make the best quality wines in Argentina. How often in life are you making a career change or just explore one and walk into a job like this one. For me, I need to work in something where I am going to be helping people. I’m not a materialistic person. I want to help people grow. A lot of doctors want to make wine.
I fell in love with wine first, which is a shared experience that I have with other people who have gone into winemaking. It’s usually not your first profession. The reason why there is so much passion behind wine and the wine business is because they fall deeply in love with it.
Tell us about the proper way to taste and appreciate your wines.
First of all, I think that you should be in a good mood. When people drink wine to de-stress, they aren’t necessarily appreciating it. That’s why I like wine with food or on its own, just for the purpose of enjoyment. I’m a big proponent of wine in moderation. I follow all of the medical literature and men should not be drinking more than two glasses a day and women not more than one glass. That is when you get the cardiovascular benefits, fewer strokes, less dementia and better diabetes control. If you increase alcohol consumption, you will be prone to heart attacks, strokes, and dementia. That’s why I like wine to be consumed the way it’s consumed in the Mediterranean lifestyle, which is what we have in Argentina from the Spaniards and Italians that came to the country. You drink wine with meals and with family, enjoying it slowly.
In terms of glassware, having fine glassware increases the aromatics and the experience. Personally, I’m not a stickler about glasses. If you have a really good glass, you will be able to smell better. Smelling wine is like smelling flowers; it’s a beautiful exercise to enjoy that hedonistic experience. If you have your wine in one of those old-fashioned water glasses, that’s fine too.
What challenges did you have to face initially being a female in the wine industry in Argentina?
Not as many in Argentina, believe it or not. My own father had two mentors, his father, who taught him the day to day in business and his mother. She was the headmaster at a local school and was his intellectual mentor. She was a fierce educator who would go to people’s houses and get kids to come to school when they were being kept at home to work. He grew up in this intellectual, knowledge-based family. My father had this standard that women could do anything. In my family, there was my sister, my brother and I, and there was never a sense that my brother was supposed to achieve more – there were high expectations for all of us. I grew up in a household where my own mother worked. She runs a software company in Argentina.
I have felt it more outside of Argentina. The world of wine is tough. Getting up there with the top wines of the world is a difficult road. I felt like there were so many men in that world and I had to prove myself. Initially, they would think that I was some Latin woman from a winery. Once I started talking, and proved myself, there wasn’t an issue. The initial impression, though, was that they had to test me, whereas, if I had been a man, it may have been easier. You might think that this is kind of sad, but in the US, the minute that I said that I went to Harvard and Stanford, boom, I had the respect. I’m not very perceptive about those things. Sometimes, I would think about it afterward, but for the most part, if there was an issue, I didn’t notice it. That is not to say that other women haven’t suffered with it. Women suffer daily. I think it has been harder for women. Times are changing, and now people want to hear from women; men want to hear from women.
You are a doctor, vintner, author in addition to being a mother of three. How are you able to hold down so many different roles?
It’s accepting the B+ model. I had this incredible realization when I had my second son and I was so stressed out because three kids are harder than two, and two are harder than one. My milk production went down. I decided that one day I wouldn’t work and I would just think. I like having days where I just think. What am I paying attention to, what’s important and what isn’t? I came up with this realization that if I try to do everything perfectly or really well, I was basically going to do everything badly.
There were some things that needed to be done at the highest level, like being a doctor. When I worked my hospital shifts, I would always go to bed really early. It didn’t matter what emergency was going on at the winery. Patient care and people’s lives are my focus and I don’t answer e-mails from the winery when I’m in the hospital.
With children, I have very important advice which is feeling loved is very important. Being helped is not very important. Most kids would benefit from not being helped so much. Kids don’t need you very much. They need you to put a helmet on and make sure that they don’t do anything too risky, but a little risk is protective because kids who have been exposed to more uncertainty know how to deal with harder things. You don’t have to control everything.
Wine quality – no sacrifices. The wine has to be twice the value at half the price – that has to be A+ every time. If you aren’t going to be able to achieve that, then don’t release the wine. What I realized was a clean house, is not very important. Food on the table is important, but really good food? Not always. As long as you can have A+ food once in a while, order from a restaurant, you’ll be fine. Divide the things that you do into what is really important and what is not and then forgive yourself. You have to love yourself to be able to love others. You have to be comfortable with who you are and what you can do well.
The one thing that all of your roles have in common is a degree of uncertainty. As an ER doctor, your day is filled with unsure situations. Winemaking is dependent on everything from weather to pests. Authors can be rejected by publishers. What draws you to these uncertain professions?
My real goal in the end is to change lives and to help people. I think that a lot of these things are hard. I don’t have fear of difficult things. I do get stressed out, but I think I’ve adapted. What I’m trying to do happens to be in these fields with high uncertainty. Being an emergency doctor helped in being a wine maker because I had a mental way of dealing with uncertainty. Uncertainty is not that attractive to me. I think it’s more that I’ve been thrown into situations. That’s why, when I was writing a book, and it got hard, I didn’t get discouraged. I was already mentally prepared for difficult things.
They say emergency medicine attracts the high-risk takers. Often, they are the mountain climbers or motor cyclists. That is not me. I’m actually very conservative when it comes to risk. I think it really comes down to the fact that I am not afraid of difficult things. If you meet a doctor that doesn’t get stressed out, that’s also bad. You want them to be cool and collected, but you also want them to care.
If you were to give advice to a woman just starting out in either of your professions, what would that be?
If you are interested in wine, really learn about it. Take a course. Right now, on Zoom, there is a wine class every hour of the day. You can learn about wine for free. I would start tasting wine, learning about wine and visit wineries as they start re-opening. Fall in love with wine. The world is filled with tiny wineries and that is part of the beauty of the world of wine, but it’s hard to make it economically. You have to work really hard whether you are in a small or big winery. You are going to have bad vintages. For us, there are exchange rate fluctuations and economic instability.
It’s not an easy business to be in because you are a farmer and there is so much competition. When I first was working with my father, I was traveling between San Francisco and Argentina. When I was in San Francisco, I had a friend who was a sommelier. Every Tuesday, he would taste wine for hours. All of the sales people would come and present their wines. This was my wine university. It was sitting next to a wine buyer, tasting wine, watching people present their products and hearing their stories. I learned more in those sessions than I could have in any wine class. I was seeing why the buyer was buying the wines and learning about regions all over the world. If you can, find a job working at a wine store taking care of customers and hearing their questions. If you can understand why people buy wine, it will make you a better wine maker or sommelier.
Medicine is similar in the sense that if you really want to be a doctor, you have to be obsessed with helping people. As an emergency physician, you are going to work a lot of nights and a lot of weekends. You should feel comfortable changing somebody’s diaper that is not your family. If that seems like something that you wouldn’t be able to do, then you shouldn’t be a doctor, a nurse or anybody in health care. When people say that they get queasy when they see blood and they couldn’t be a doctor, that’s actually not true. If you get queasy because somebody is bleeding or hurt, you should be a doctor. If you do not get queasy, there is something wrong with you. A doctor or nurse should be distressed by watching somebody hurt or bleeding – you will get over it though. It’s a sign that you care.
You have been an inspiration to many. Who inspires you?
I’m inspired daily. I find inspiration in little interactions. Of course, when I was growing up, I had an obsession with Mother Theresa. I’ve been inspired by Ghandi, Mandela – these great figures that spend their lives helping others. But my real inspiration happens daily. If I go to the dog park and I meet an owner that is adorable with my dog, then I’m inspired. I’m inspired by people that I meet at wine tastings. My heart is touched by them. My heart is also touched by my patients. I’m inspired daily by how great people are.
Catena Zapata wines are regularly available in Ontario at LCBO Vintages and the winery’s flagship Catena Malbec is on limited time offer for $17.95 beginning July 19 to August 15.