brother over the family vineyard led to her walking out – ‘he didn’t respect me as an oenologist’ – then she and José were swindled on a project. ‘We lost almost everything.’
Owning a winery remained a pipe dream, and to stay afloat Balbo began consulting. In characteristic trendsetting style, she was the first Argentinian oenologist to be contracted abroad, working 10 European harvests before becoming a permanent fixture at Catena Zapata, overseeing construction of its pyramid bodega and as exports director; second husband Pedro Marchevsky was general manager. In 1999, she and Marchevsky founded Dominio del Plata together, but their oenological visions clashed – she plumped for quality over quantity, while he wanted to make easy-drinkers.
‘By 1999, I really wanted to start my own project so I rented an old winery. Two years later, I bought 22ha in Agrelo due to my desire to make quality wine, plus it was considered the best zone for Cabernet Sauvignon, my favourite red; it was also a hub for prestigious winemakers’ projects. I had the chance to build in El Peral, but it was too far away because I had to do the school run. Agrelo was just nine miles from home and made for a good central grape reception point,’ she says.
Leaving Catena in 2002, when Argentina was in full economic crisis, was a risky decision but, ever the entrepreneur, Balbo threw herself into producing small quantities of the fine wine she’d longed to produce, such as Signature and Nosotros (pictured, p40), with Crios launching that same year, drawing on her ingenuity to make her dream a reality. Says daughter Ana: ‘She drew up the blueprints [for the winery] on our kitchen table herself, because there wasn’t enough money to hire an architect.’
Balbo adds: ‘I bought high-quality grapes and started selling 15,000 cases a year. Little by little, I started building – and that was the best thing that could happen. When you have
‘I learned to love Torrontés and applied my creativity to make a wine with an international profile’
an entrepreneurial spirit, it’s hard to stop.’ After she and Pedro divorced, Balbo acquired the financial backing to buy him out and, by 2012, Dominio del Plata was rebranded Susana Balbo Wines (SBW).
For six years, Balbo lived and breathed every moment at the red-roofed winery. ‘The platforms were close to my bedroom, so the pumps were my lullaby,’ she recalls. It wasn’t until UC Davis graduate José joined in 2011, followed by business administrator Ana a year later, that SBW welcomed the second generation into the fold. Balbo adds: ‘I never pressured them to do so, but it was a great source of pride when my children joined the company.’ Edgardo Del Popolo arrived as general manager in 2013, and today more than 100 people are employed across the winery, vineyards and restaurants.
‘It was initially hard to separate the roles of boss and mother, so I brought in Edy as a buffer. Family businesses aren’t always easy to run – and family is the most important thing to me – but working together is fantastic. We’re a team and everyone has their own project: José heads exports and manages the La
Carrera vineyard, while Ana is head of marketing and brilliant at hospitality.’
In 2006, Balbo was elected president of Wines of Argentina for the first of three terms, and she set about helping Argentina to make a name for itself. ‘A 2004 export market study showed we were the fifth-largest producer, yet sold 95% domestically. As we didn’t exist in
foreign consumers’ minds, we could create a unique character on the world stage.
‘It was also essential to show buyers our riches and let them fall in love with our pure skies, crystal water and beautiful vineyards; and we invented Malbec World Day.’ It paid off: in 2019, exports were 26.5%, according to the Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura (INV).
Stepping aside from winemaking in 2015 to sit as a national deputy in the lower house of the Argentine National Congress for one term, Balbo also chaired Argentina’s W20 group focusing on female empowerment. ‘I got involved in politics to give something back to society and help create a better country so my grandchildren don’t feel they have to migrate for work. But I found it hard to make changes.’
A slew of honours have been bestowed upon her over the past few years, including the BRAVO Lifetime Achievement Award (honouring her work to propel Latin America onto a global stage), but gongs also embrace winery staff, she says. ‘A pat on the back is great and, though I’m the face, these achievements have a positive impact on everyone at SBW.’
After four decades making wine all over the world, Balbo’s philosophy today is simple: ‘My priority is to plant the appropriate variety in the appropriate place and make transparent, honest wines that express the place they’re from. Eighty percent of our grapes come from the Uco Valley: we have 36ha in Gualtallary, and long-standing relationships with producers in Vista Flores, Los Chacayes and Paraje Altamira, plus we’re converting all 57ha to be 100% organic.’
As for the next 20 years, the focus is sustainability and, ever the innovator, Balbo is bringing a new project to life. She says: ‘My mum is 89, so longevity is on my side. I’d certainly love to see one of my three grandchildren become involved at SBW. I hope to see Mendoza commit to organic vines and improving must quality, which means better supporting our producers. It’s also a concern that the domestic market with its [43%] inflation isn’t profitable.’ As for her latest project: ‘I’m building a boutique hotel in Chacras de Coria – it’s quite the investment, but it’s my way of moving forward.’
Above: Edgardo del Popolo, Susana Balbo Wines head viticulturist
Sorrel MoseleyWilliams is a food, wine and travel journalist and sommelier based in Buenos Aires