Texan Erin Nixon arrived in Barcelona with no Spanish, no contacts and no hospitality experience, but one ambitious wine-filled vision. These days, you’ll find Erin inside her El Born wine bar, La Catalista, chatting to locals as they unwind amongst fairy-lights and hanging plants. The 36-year-old owner’s worldly past includes hot-shot business careers in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam. But, all the wines at her bar are local – served by the glass with palate-matched ‘platillos’ by another great local institution, chef Laila Bazahm of Asian flavor-typhoon, Hawker45. Grilled octopus with fizzy unfiltered natural wine, root veg with black hummus and garnatxa blanca, plus BBQ smoked ribs with a jammy red can all found at a cozy corner on Carrer dels Carders that was previously a short-lived cocktail bar.
“People say that the venue’s cursed,” laughs Erin, infectiously. “It was a very successful pet food store at one point, you know, but I guess we’ll find out if I’m doomed!”
Birth of a Wine Bar
Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with vineyard life or drowned their sorrows with sauvignon after a bad day at work has likely fantasized about ditching the rat race for something more cork-based than corporate. “I’ve been wanting to do this wine bar for 10 years, but it was always my secret dream job, a role so far off my career path,” Erin agrees. Her actual work-life was a fast ascent within the business and tech worlds: an early career in management consulting for BCG led to an MBA from Stanford and then five years at LinkedIn in San Francisco. “These tech companies feel like the center of the universe, so it’s hard to know how you’d even go about starting over.”
For Erin, a knife-twist of fate – of the most disruptive, life-destabilizing variety – intervened in a way that she could never have predicted. In 2015, during her fourth year at LinkedIn, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was 32, no family history, it was just a totally random life event,” she explains. However, if there’s any positive to come from it, it’s that during the eleven months she took off work to undergo chemotherapy, Erin was able to step back from her life and evaluate what was making her happy. The answer? Not what she thought.
Everything I presumed that I needed – my looks, my ability to travel, my job, my fitness (I used to be a runner and ran a bunch of marathons) – all these things that I thought were my identity were no longer in my life and I was completely OK without them.
And so, while sick – and on her doctor’s wisdom that nothing she drank could really be any worse than the chemo she was going through – Erin began to learn more about something that really made her tick: wine. “I would put on my fabulous wig and my make-up and I’d study my wine,” she says with a wide smile. “Though it was hilarious because chemo changes your ability to taste, so I actually couldn’t taste anything at all. But I sipped, I studied the grapes and the regions, and it was my first formal exposure into that wonderful world.”
Erin returned to LinkedIn but quit six months later, unable to play the corporate game like she had before. “We have this one life and instead of me thinking about the wine bar forever, do it,” she describes, defiantly. She initially thought the ‘doing’ would happen in London, but when her husband landed his own dream job working in the airline sector in Barcelona, it was Spain, not London, calling. And in August 2017 the Barna chapter began.
Slowly at first. Knowing a grand total of zero people and having a Spanish vocabulary best described as non-existent, Erin felt overwhelmed. Worse, the corporate manner in which she’d always interacted professionally just didn’t cut it here. “I remember trying to reach out to someone in wine and, I cringe now, but I sent an email that was just so formal and business-like that I don’t blame her for not wanting to talk with me,” she blushes. So she threw herself back into school: studying oenology at Outlook Wine and spending six months intensively learning Spanish – four hours a day, five days a week – at different language schools, including International House.
Ironically, though, it was a chance encounter in her old tech world that spawned what would become the soul of La Catalista. “I attended a Startup Grind, which is not at all useful if you’re trying to open a wine bar because it’s tech-based, but it felt familiar,” Erin explains. While there, she chatted to a local connector who suggested putting her in touch with the owners of a restaurant he knew. That restaurant was Hawker45. In August 2018, Erin and Hawker45’s co-owner, Laila, met up for a wine, and they continued to do so over the following months until a lightbulb moment happened in January 2019: “I was starting to look at spaces, and Laila was looking for a space to do a new project with Hawker, and suddenly we just looked at each other and said, ‘Wait, should we work together?’”
Wine and Tapas Pairings
The result is a symbiosis that delights everyone irrespective of whether they’re primarily a foodie or a wine-lover. Erin and her sommelier, Sergi Franquesa, choose the wines; the menu is Laila’s vision, who spends around 10 to 15 hours a week with the La Catalista kitchen team. Laila’s ceviche of tuna akami, with a spicy pop of kimchi sauce and horseradish cream, is tablemates with an organic and biodynamic cava from Castell D’Age, a Penedès-based vineyard run by three generations of women. The grandmother planted the grapes, the mother-in-law began producing wines in 1988, and now Olivia, the granddaughter, is the businesswoman running the show. Or there’s the popular seasonal mushrooms, bobbing in a rich Italian tonnato sauce of anchovies, tuna, and capers, that’s washed down with Foresta’s 100% Sumoll. A difficult-to-grow native grape, Sumoll almost died out 10 years ago and has a flavor unlike any other wine you’ll try: wild raspberry, forest undergrowth, and…cherry cola.
For Erin, this partnership with Laila has given her a restaurant pro’s experience and the comfort of companionship – even if Laila’s name has thrust the project into a torch-bright limelight. “I always thought my bar would be my little anonymous secret, a very slow build. But because Laila has such a great reputation it’s been trial-by-fire. If I knew that I would start with such attention then I would probably have doubted my ability a lot more.”
The scariest part was calling the real estate agency to find a location,” she admits. “I just could not bring myself to pick up the phone because I knew it would have to be in Spanish, and I was terrified. I put it off for over a year, until November 2018, when I realized there was no other way: pick up the phone and sound like an idiot.
If Erin still has self-doubt, she’s skilled at putting a lid – or, rather, a cork – on it. Her razor-sharp business brain is wrapped in a caramel-warm exterior that exudes sunny enthusiasm and a sincerity that makes you feel like you’re friends from way back. Though while she’s slowly getting used to being talked about, the fear of communicating in Spanish derailed the project for a while.
“The scariest part was calling the real estate agency to find a location,” she admits. “I just could not bring myself to pick up the phone because I knew it would have to be in Spanish, and I was terrified. I put it off for over a year, until November 2018, when I realized there was no other way: pick up the phone and sound like an idiot. As a recovering perfectionist, I just had to accept where I was at. So, speaking with a bodega and sounding like a three-year-old? Well, I’ll just have to sound like a three-year-old. Now, hopefully, I sound more like a seven-year old,” she jokes, humbly. Impressively, she went on to attend training sessions on business ownership in Catalan at Barcelona Activa. “Very daunting linguistically, but I understood enough to make it so helpful for navigating bureaucracy,” she recommends.
Today, far from Silicon Valley, Erin is creating her own new familiar. “Friends from that past life in tech all expected me to do a wine app or an online store, you know. To them, a physical space is so small. But I wanted in-person interaction. I’m such a dork, but at the end of the night when I sweep the floors, I need that sense of tangible belonging,” she smiles. And you sense that she is home, among the bottles and the family-run bodegas and the buzz of the wine bar. Take the name, La Catalista. ‘Cata’ from ‘catar’, to taste, and ‘lista’, a menu. “But ‘lista’ also means ready, and it means intelligent or a little bit nerdy,” she grins, lighting up. “And nerdy wine tastings are 100% what I’m about.”
La Catalista’s Quick-fire Barcelona Guide
Best local wine for a can’t-go-wrong glass?
The entry-level Recaredo cava is less than €20 a bottle and it’s outstanding.
Imagine it’s your last night in Barcelona. Where do you eat?
Disfrutar, because I still haven’t been.
Where do you find peace in the city?
I live in Poble Sec and love that I can walk for 10 minutes and be in Montjüic. Also, to get there, you’re legit on a hiking trail in the middle of the city – how is that possible?!
What’s the most underrated tourist attraction?
Hospital de Sant Pau. It’s so cool that such a beautiful space was built for the city’s poor.
What part of Catalan life are you still getting used to?
When the attitude is mañana mañana, I have a hard time knowing when to push and when to step back.
And your favorite thing about Barcelona?
It’s more communal than any city I’ve lived in: I know my neighbors, I know the shop owners downstairs.
Tell us the best bodega or vineyard outside Barcelona
Cal Feru wine shop in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia. The owner, Xavi Roig, knows all the local growers – I went home with 18(!) different bottles.