In 1979, Catena Zapata was Argentina's largest winery, producing 25 million cases a year of cheap value brands only Argentinians drank. Nicolás Catena, whose grandfather had founded the company, wasn't interested. He sold the company and accepted a visiting position in economics at the University of California, Berkeley. But the buyer of the winery defaulted. And while in California, Catena visited Robert Mondavi Winery and other producers. He concluded that if California could compete with France, Argentina could too, and he was determined to try.
Catena returned home to Mendoza with the goal of producing first-class Cabernet Sauvignon. He looked abroad for know-how, hiring some of the world's best consultants, who taught his team better farming and winemaking. They also convinced Catena that he had his own great grape—Malbec, largely forgotten in France and unvalued in Argentina, could produce distinctive wines. The high-altitude vineyards of Mendoza proved ideal for it. And in 1999, his Malbec Mendoza Catena Alta Lunlunta 1996 scored 92 points, the first Argentine wine to earn an outstanding rating from Wine Spectator. Argentina's wine exports to the U.S. have risen dramatically ever since, and Catena Zapata, now headed by Nicolás' daughter Laura, continues to excel. Catena earned Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award in 2012.