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Argentine Vintner Dr. Laura Catena Discusses Harvest During a Crisis

A former emergency room doctor, Dr. Laura Catena worked in medicine for 30 years before becoming managing director of Catena Zapata Winery in Mendoza, Argentina. The oldest family-run winery in Argentina, Catena Zapata was founded in 1902 by Laura’s great-grandfather, Nicola Catena, and revolutionized for the modern era by her father, the legendary Nicolás Catena Zapata.

Laura is an innovative winemaker and passionate advocate for the family business, Argentinean wine and quality, site-specific Malbec. She has also authored two books, Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina (Chronicle Books, 2010) and Gold in the Vineyards  (Catapulta Editores, 2020).

Laura spoke with Wine Enthusiast about how both Catena Zapeta and Argentina itself are navigating the novel coronavirus pandemic, and how the industry and entire world can best move forward.

Winemaker Laura Catena
Dr. Laura Catena at La Pirámide Agrelo / Photo courtesy Catena Zapata

What is the status of the harvest in Argentina? What sorts of obstacles does coronavirus present?
The harvest is finishing at this time, with a few Bonardas in pergola waiting to be harvested. It all needs to be done by hand.

The 2019–2020 season saw a very dry climate and some frosts in the Uco Valley, so the yields were low. Normally, we would be a bit worried about 20–30% lower yields, but this year, because of the small yields, the harvest was three to five weeks earlier than usual, which was very good because of the coronavirus situation.

The hand-harvesting is moving a lot more slowly than usual because we need to keep six feet of separation between harvesters and we are employing only our own crews, which reduces the number of people available.

Our priority is to keep our people safe. We think of them as our doctors and nurses. We can’t harvest and make wine without them and, in Argentina, wine is an essential industry. So, yes, it’s been difficult, but the harvest coming earlier was a big help, because by March 20, when the quarantine was declared, a large part of the harvest was in the winery.

How is Bodega Catena Zapata navigating those obstacles?We closed the winery to visitors in mid-March. All personnel, administrative and sales, who could be sent home to work were sent home. We have all become very good at using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype.

Nobody is allowed to say, “I am not good at technology,” and the reality is that everybody has become proficient at all modalities on their computers and phones. It’s amazing how much of what we do in person can actually be done virtually. We’ve been using Skype and WhatsApp for years, but I now particularly love Zoom because you are able to see everybody at the same time.

The personnel at the winery, vineyard and bottling line have been given personal kits to clean their work area every hour, and lunch is served with social distancing in mind. We are still serving a warm lunch to all our staff who is still at the winery.

Although ProWein [wine trade fair] was cancelled, we conducted a “virtual Prowein” with all our importers we scheduled on Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams meetings over three days. We also did a virtual toast for a very unexpected award of Number One Most Admired Wine Brand from Drinks International/Wine Intelligence in UK.

Dr. Laura Catena Tasting at La Pirámide Vineyard in Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina. / Photo courtesy Catena Zapata

The entire industry has been impacted by the “new normal” of the coronavirus, especially on-premise business, restaurants and the service industry. What do you think will be our way out of this? 
I applaud restaurants that are reinventing themselves as takeout places. Also, many restaurants are adding wine to the food deliveries.

In Argentina, we are supporting restaurants by paying for their delivery cost when they include wine. Our importer in Brazil is also doing this. We are staying in touch with all our restaurant customers to see any ways in which we can collaborate.

Instagram Live and Zoom are the new media for wine tastings. And we are finding that people around the world are gravitating to these. This week, the Malbec World Day [April 17] week will be particularly active one for me.

Last week, I was on a live Instagram in Brazil, this week with Argentina, Japan and U.S., and I am sending videos or scheduling Zoom calls with customers all over the world who want to do wine tastings, wine and food pairings, and even wine and make-up sessions—see Belinda Chang’s Sunday brunch on Zoom.

Yes, there will definitely be a way out… with gradual opening where there is adequate distancing inside and with all things back to normal because eventually there will be a vaccine and treatments.

But certainly, I have never seen anything like this before in 30 years in medicine, and I cannot imagine or try to imagine the stress and despair of people in the hotel, restaurant and airline/travel industries.

Photo courtesy Catena Zapata

Your medical expertise gives you an added perspective on the current situation in America, Argentina and the world at large. What is the way forward for wine lovers who want to attend tastings and events, visit wineries and wine regions, and travel overall? Will we ever return to the way things were, in your opinion?
Yes, I am very confident that there will be treatments and a vaccine because all the world’s scientists are working on it. We have been able to combat much more contagious and equally or more lethal viruses like measles, smallpox and polio, so I am confident that we will find treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19.

Do you have any overall advice—medically, professionally or other—for people dealing with this frightening time?
Help those in your immediate community. My son, who is a senior in high school, is tutoring a ninth grader who is having difficulty with online learning. As a family, we are ordering take-out from our local restaurants that we went to before they closed. My personal priority is to make sure that all the staff at the winery and their families are safe. As a doctor, I help my friends and family with general and Covid-19 medical questions.

Become maniacal about washing your hands and wear a mask when you go out unless you are 100% sure that you will be able to stay six feet from any other people. Make sure you are calling your parents and grandparents who are hopefully following the strictest of isolations—they need the companionship.

If you are unable to do your current job, especially if you have a high-empathy personality because of being in the service industry, think of working or volunteering in a hospital or in healthcare. I have seen many people in my neighborhood helping out elderly neighbors to buy food and supplies. I really admire people who go out of their way to help others in their local community.