Decanter - - THE IN­TER­VIEW -

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.

Go­ing solo

‘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.’

Global stage

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.’

D

Above: Edgardo del Popolo, Susana Balbo Wines head viti­cul­tur­ist

Sor­rel Mose­leyWil­liams is a food, wine and travel jour­nal­ist and som­me­lier based in Buenos Aires

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