Among an extensive and impressive list of achievements, 4th generation vintner Dr. Laura Catena is a Biologist, has graduated from Harvard University with honours, obtained her PhD., has three children, and is the leader of the most beloved winery in the world. She is an icon to industry women at all corners of the globe.
I had the opportunity to sit down and interview Laura in honour of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.
Leah Spooner: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2022 Drinks Business Woman of the Year Award! What does that mean to you personally and for Catena?
Laura Catena: When I started in wine, I was just so happy to tell my father’s story. He really put Argentine wine on the map…I was perfectly comfortable just continuing his legacy. My name Catena in Italian means chain, and I think of myself as one link in the chain, because that is all we are, one link in time. The Drinks Business award is important for our winery, for wine in Argentina, and for the women in our winery because it means as a woman you can get recognition. It was important for me, and for our winery, and our region to see that we have Nicolas Catena who has won all these awards and here’s a woman that can do just as great of a job and be a leader.
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Leah Spooner: How has equality in the Argentine wine world attributed to your success with your winery?
Laura Catena: I think about this a lot. I did come from medicine to wine, and in medicine, by the time I graduated from school it was a pretty equal number of women and men… so I came from a fairly egalitarian world, to wine, where there weren’t many women period. Certainly not in the leadership position…My theory is that the key is for women to see other women in leadership positions. So, with my job, any time I would see a woman with potential I would coach them, mentor them, (which I do with any great man or woman), but let them know they had the opportunity to advance. You have to attract women and mentor women towards top level positions. If they see no women at the top, that sends a message.
Although when I started, The Argentine wine industry had such few women, but has moved very quickly, perhaps out of necessity, surpassing other wine countries to get to where we are with equality.
Leah Spooner: Being a female that wears so many important hats (or berets as Catena’s Canada Export Manager Marina Castillo points out), you really are a leader that women in this industry look up to. What do you think are important factors for women in wine to remember going forward in this industry?
Laura Catena: One of my philosophies is to be hard on issues, soft of people. This philosophy came from a friend who was a professional Canadian hockey player that became an emergency doctor that I worked with. You should never be hard on people. It’s hard to be human. We are all dealing with so many different things that we don’t need an extra person being mean to us. I know I can sometimes be mean because I am unfiltered, but I am always thinking Did I just say something that offended that person? Can I take it back, or say something nice? But if you’re conscious about the philosophy being hard on issues soft on people, that’s important. But I give this advice to men and women. You should also not be soft on issues, because if you don’t tell somebody that something they’ve done is wrong, you are not helping that person.
Leah: How can we continue to break down walls of sexism within the industry?
Laura: Viticulture is one of the hardest areas to attract women for jobs in Mendoza. And a lot of it has to do with when people have kids, the vineyards are too far away from schools and families…what we still need to do is allow men to take on traditional female jobs and positions. Also, when it comes to feminism, let a man make a faux pas, let a women make a faux pas, don’t be too preachy, but give men and women the same opportunities without stereotyping.
Leah: Wines of Argentina is the first “Wines of…” in the world to adhere to the Women’s Empowerment Principles established by UN Women and the UN Global Impact Office. How did this come to fruition, and how much impact did you have directly or indirectly on this decision?
Laura: Wines of Argentina is made up of mostly women, and really powerful women. They did let me know that they were doing this and I work with them as their US advisor, but no, I did not tell them specifically that they should do this. Magdalena Pesce (WOA Central Manager) told me because I was speaker at a women in wine seminar and that would have been when it was first announced. To me, this was very classic Argentine – where you want to do something, and you don’t ask anyone for permission, you just do it. I think Wines of Argentina saw an opportunity to be part of something and just decided to do it, and I was really proud. I thought this is so awesome to be part of this country.
Leah: Catena Zapata has a strong “Family is Everything” focus. What do you hope the future of Catena holds for your children and the next generation?
Laura: The newest generation where we are now is my brother, my sister, and me and we have 8 children between us. My generation was mostly female but the next generation is mostly male with 5 boys and 3 girls. But, even all the boys are such feminists! My 21-year-old, the one who has already made his own wine at the winery, is showing a little interest, but he’s currently off taking accounting.
It’s wonderful that my dad, siblings and I share this theory that it’s important to not have the nepotism phenomenon where someone in the family gets a job just because they have the last name. So, the key is let’s get the people in the family to join in on this only if they want to. My dad was told by his grandfather (who was Italian, and the founder of Catena that came over in 1902), you shouldn’t push your children or your grandchildren into this business, you should wait for them to come. And so, my father did this (although he had his ways of tempting me by taking me to Bordeaux and having me taste their Grand Cru).
One thing we make sure of is that if someone in the family gets a job at the winery, they are getting the same pay as everyone else. It sounds obvious, but that has to be deliberate that that is the deal. I also think it is important to know how to be a good boss. If you are stepping right in to a top level position at a family winery because of your last name, you are probably not going to be a very good employee. I want the next generation to go and do something else, learn what it takes first.
Leah: Catena has three revolutions it’s claimed to achieve to date. What is the next revolution for the winery?
Laura: It would have to be preserving biogenetic diversity in vines. We have 135 specifically identified cuttings of Malbec, the largest in the world. A lot of the diversity in vines has been lost. Climate change is a huge challenge. It’s not just heat, it’s biodiversity and ecology and how we are encroaching on nature. We all need to play a role with increasing biodiversity and preserving biodiversity. The vision of the Catena Institute is to use science to preserve nature and culture. You need to preserve both to have a wine culture. 39% percent of our vineyards are unplanted and have native fauna and flora in it. So, the next revolution is doing all the work to protect this biodiversity and culture.
Leah: How are you celebrating International Women’s Day?
Laura: I am doing an event at a restaurant in San Francisco called Lolinda for a wine dinner. But I love being a woman and I love working with women and having so many women working at our winery, so for me, I’m celebrating always…and for me, Women’s Day is every day!