With Caruso on the stereo and beef on the grill, the winemaking Catena family toasts Argentina and the surprise success of the Malbec grape

I am told that anyone in Argentina over the age of 30 remembers the following commercial from the seventies. Opening shot: a dining room in Buenos Aires. A man enters and looks at the table. He sees two baby booties. Next to them is a bottle of Crespi wine. He smiles as he realizes what it means: a baby is due.

"We wanted to get across the idea that you drink wine with your family," recalls Nicolás Catena, whose family used to make wine under the Crespi label. Nicolás is the maverick winemaker (and an economics professor) behind Bodegas Esmeralda, considered by many to be Argentina's best winery, with such labels as Catena Alta, Catena and Alamos Ridge. "That commercial had such a strong message of family values that the Catholic Church awarded us the prize of Santa Clara de Assisi!"

While it may be unusual for a winery to receive such recognition from the church, Nicolás Catena has always been a bit of a trailblazer in Argentina. With its Spanish, French and Italian heritage, Argentina is one of the world's top wine consumers. It was once known for drinkable but otherwise unexceptional table wine, but that all began to change in 1982 when Nicolás walked into Robert Mondavi's Napa Valley winery and experienced one of those moments that can change the course of a life. In this case it also changed the course of Argentine winemaking. "The moment I saw what Mondavi was doing, I thought, 'My God! We can do this,'" Nicolás says. "I felt we could compete in quality with any wine in the world. But no one in Argentina had tried--yet."

Like the Mondavi family, the Catenas' roots were in the Italian winegrowing region of Marches. Both families were carried westward on the same turn-of-the-century tide of immigration that brought some people from that region to the United States and almost as many to Argentina. Both the Mondavis and the Catenas eventually went into the wine business. The Mondavis first settled in the Midwest, where they ran a boarding house and sold grapes. They moved to Lodi, California in 1921, and later to Napa. Nicola Catena, Nicolás's grandfather, planted his first vines in the plains of Argentina's Mendoza region in 1902. Nicola prospered, greatly aided by his son Domingo, who joined his father and soon became the driving force behind the family business.

Domingo Catena, like other Argentine winemakers at that time, irrigated the arid, high-altitude Mendoza soil with runoff from the Andes Mountains. He made wine with one goal in mind: maximum production. The company grew rapidly, producing some 20 million bottles a month by the mid-Sixties. In pure financial terms, the winery was a big success. But Domingo's son, Nicolás, wanted more. Although he too sought to increase production, he was also determined to raise quality. Nicolás realized that by controlling and restricting the amount of water released into the vineyards, he could also control sugar and tannin levels in his fruit. This meant that grapes could develop more fully on the vine, resulting in a richer, more complex wine.

Of course, you can't make great wine without a great grape. And in Argentina, that grape has turned out to be Malbec. Though first planted in Argentina in 1853 by the French-born educator Miguel Aimé Puget, who founded Argentina's Agricultural School (La Quinta Normal), Malbec has until recently been taken for granted, regarded as a terrific jug-wine grape but lacking the finesse to make a great wine. (While Malbec is prized in the south of France, where it is vinified into the "black wine" of Cahors, it hasn't done well in France overall. In Bordeaux, it was eclipsed as far back as the mid-19th century by Cabernet Sauvignon and relegated to the role of bit player, used primarily in blending to beef up a wine's color, body and tannins.)

What few Argentines noticed was that while Malbec was being used for mass-production jug wines, the grape itself had changed character in the Argentine soil. Growers, when selecting grapes for flavor and fruit, had created a strain of Malbec that had true velvety depth. This fact, coupled with the fateful encounter at the Mondavi winery in 1982, inspired Nicolás Catena to attempt to make a world-class wine from Malbec. On his return from Napa, Nicolás threw himself into perfecting his Malbec, as well as planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, barreling all three of his wines in new French oak.

The initial wines were good, very good. But the perfectionist Nicolás was still not satisfied. Like Robert Mondavi, who aimed high with his Mondavi Reserve, Catena wanted a wine that could be compared to the Premier Cru or even Grand Cru bottles of France. Catena Alta is the result of that effort. "We took grapes from those sections of the vineyards and those vines that consistently produced the best wine," he explains. "They were the foundation of the Catena Alta line."

His strategy worked magnificently. In The Wine Advocate in 1997, influential critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., rhapsodized, "The Catena Alta line establishes new reference points for quality in Argentina." Parker was especially taken with the Catena Alta Malbec, describing the wine as "elegant, with no sense of heaviness."

The Catenas celebrate their success especially when they gather at their hacienda set in the vineyards, approached through a cathedral-like avenue of trees planted by Domingo more than a half-century ago. Although the family is now scattered around the world, they are, like their vines, rooted in the sun-parched soil of the altiplano, or high plains. Nicolás's wife, Elena, recalls a history of family weekends filled with great food and wine. "The family cook, Matilde, and her mother would make empanadas and gnocchi while my father-in-law, Domingo, would prepare the asado, or barbecue, with tomato salsa. Everything always had tomatoes with it. We would put them up for the winter in sealed jars and eat tomato sauce all year long." According to Elena, there was invariably opera music playing in the background: "The Catenas have always been true Italian opera lovers. It wasn't a family gathering unless we listened to some Caruso 78s. And we always invited musicians over to play Domingo's favorite song, 'Angélica, Cuando Te Nombro Me Vuelve la Memoria'--which, loosely translated, means, 'Angélica, when I call your name, the memory of you washes over me.'" Angélica was the name of Domingo's wife and Nicolás's mother; it is for her that Nicolás named the first vineyard that he planted in his quest to make world-class wine in Argentina.

Nicolás and Elena only bring out their best wines at reunions like these. After spending the day horseback riding up and down a dry riverbed nearby, working up hearty appetites, the family--including daughter Laura and daughter-in-law Joanna--might sit down for some butternut-squash gnocchi, followed by a traditional Argentine barbecue and grilled polenta with mushrooms and roasted garlic.Pablo Massey, a close family friend who is the chef-owner of two restaurants in Buenos Aires, both called Massey, prepares the meal; the Catenas pour the wine. "We don't drink much of the Alta unless it is a special occasion," Nicolás observes. "We know better than anyone how rare and good it is. So we treasure it."

Story by Peter Kaminksy, a frequent contributor to FOOD & WINE, who visits Argentina as often as he can.