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Laura Catena on the Storytelling Power of Wine Labels

The renowned winemaker casts a light on wines from other producers

Vicki Denig By June 30, 2021July 28th, 2021
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

Dr. Laura Catena’s skills go far beyond viticulture and vinification. As well as working as a biologist and physician, Catena has spent the last few decades working tirelessly to put Argentina and its wines on the industry’s radar. Her family’s winery, Bodega Catena Zapata, was first established in 1902, of which she now represents the fourth generation. Since taking over at the estate, she’s founded the Catena Institute of Wine, as well as Luca Wines and Domaine Nico. Under Catena’s oversight, Catena Zapata has received countless awards and 100-point scores. 

“The world of wine is very particular in that it is dominated by families, and the diversity of wines that one can make — from different parcels, varieties, and winemaking methods  — is infinite,” she says. Because of this, she notes that it is not uncommon for a wine to carry the dreams of a family on its label.

“As a family winemaker myself, I never get tired of hearing the story behind a label from the family that created it,” she says. Catena says that after hearing a wine’s story, she starts to think of it as a friend. Such was the inspiration for Catena’s own Malbec Argentino, whose label features an interactive play of the history of Malbec as told through four points of view: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Laura’s great-grandmother Ana Mosceta de Catena, phylloxera, and the new generation of Catena women. Upon the label’s launch, the play was performed at various wine tastings and gatherings throughout Europe, Latin America, and the United States. 

Dr. Laura Catena with dog and sheep

Dr. Laura Catena with dog and sheep. Photo courtesy of Dr. Laura Catena.

Today, Catena splits her time between Mendoza, Argentina and San Francisco, California, where she continues to volunteer as a street physician with the Department of Public Health. In addition to all of the projects listed above, Catena is also the author of Argentina’s definitive wine guide Vino Argentino (2010), as well as Gold in the Vineyards (2020).  

Although Catena has been touched by many wines and their stories in her lifetime, here are three that have stuck with her throughout the years. 

bottle of 2017 Trefethen Family Vineyards Dragon's Tooth

Trefethen Dragon’s Tooth Red Blend 2017 ($43)

Catena explains that this particular wine gets its name from the symbol of Wales’ “Y Ddraig Goch,” the Welsh Dragon, the country of winemaker Janet Trefethen’s late mother-in-law. The wine is produced from a Malbec-dominant, approximately 50%, blend that changes every year, though is generally rounded out with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and/or Petit Verdot. “Janet is the person who always thinks big and doesn’t shy away from controversial topics,” Catena says, noting that Trefethen revealed to her that she’d not originally planned to make this wine. 

“We had phylloxera in our vineyard in the ‘90s and knew we had to replant,” Trefethen told Catena. “Being experimental and having recently been in Argentina, where we were impressed by the Malbec, we decided to plant some. If we had it along with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, we would then have all five Bordeaux varieties in our vineyard. We would be able to select from them to make the best Cabernet Sauvignon that we could. That was in 2000.”

However, upon tasting the fruits of the experimental plantings a few years later, Trefethen found the Malbec to be outstanding and decided that it merited its own wine rather than simply playing second fiddle to Cabernet. “It was jammy and delicious on the entry, but a little light in the middle. It needed a little more core, so we added some Cabernet Sauvignon, some Petit Verdot, and voila!” she told Catena, explaining that the wine’s label was a way to honor her mother-in-law, Katie, who’d recently passed away. “She was Welsh, so I took the red dragon, Y Ddraig Goch, off the Welsh flag and put it in the middle of our vineyard for our label.”

bottle of 2018 Lingua Franca Pinot Noir Mimi's Mind

Lingua Franca Mimi’s Mind Oregon Pinot Noir 2018 ($90)

“Larry Stone might be the most famous sommelier alive, not only because he has tasted over a million wines and was the first American to win the Best International Sommelier in French Wine in Paris, but also, because he has fulfilled the dream of many a sommelier,” Catena says, explaining that Stone first planted his very own Pinot Noir vineyard in Oregon a handful of years back. She notes that the term “lingua franca refers to a language that can be spoken by all, which to Stone, is wine, which “connects people all over the world; people who have different cultures and speak different languages, through tactile and sensory language,” says Catena.

Catena reveals that few people know that Stone speaks fluent German, as well as a handful of other languages, and that his mother, an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, spoke 11, including Esperanto. “Esperanto is the only existing lingua franca, and this was the main inspiration for the winery’s name,” she explains. The label for Mimi’s Mind was designed by artist Dale Chihuly and also ties back to Larry’s mother. “She loved glassware and glass china, and when Larry saw Dale’s paintings inspired in Japanese glass floats, he found the perfect art for his labels. The label of this Pinot Noir, red and black, speaks of the energy in the wine.” Mimi’s Mind is produced entirely from Pinot Noir, approximately half  of which is vinified whole cluster. The wine ages in oak barriques, 26% of which is new, and only 430 cases are produced annually.

bottle of Mullineux Family Wines Schist Syrah 2017

Mullineux Family Wines Swartland Schist Syrah 2017 ($120)

Catena says that winemaker Andrea Mullineux is a “dear friend, and I love the way that she features the soil on the label, as it is the strongest aspect of the terroir.”  After making wine all over the world, American native Mullineux and her husband decided to settle in South Africa’s Swartland region. “It’s a very old winemaking region with a fairly hot climate, and that is why Syrah does particularly well here,” says Catena, describing the wine as dense, super sharp, and delicious. 

“I love the way the label tells the story of Andrea and Chris, two explorers in love, who find Syrah growing on schist soils in the remote Swartland region and decide to settle and make a life there,” she says. Mullineux Schist Syrah comes from a single parcel of sustainably-farmed vines rooted in stony shale and schist soils. Whole bunches are placed into open-top French oak barrels and  foot stomped, where they are left to spontaneously ferment with native yeasts. The wine is aged for 12 months in 500L French oak barrels, 25% new, then for an additional nine months in foudres, and 10 months in bottle.