1st Female Winemaker In Argentina Survived Major Scam And Husband’s Depression To Build Successful Winery

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It was a mountain of difficulties that would break many people – a mother with a 2-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy struggling daily to place food on the table during a time of hyperinflation in Argentina, witnessing her husband’s clinical depression spiraling out of control. She had moved her family from her husband’s hometown of Salta, in Argentina, to her family’s hometown of Mendoza as she hadn’t been paid for almost a year at the Salta winery where she was employed. Since she was the only one able to work, she reached out to her father for a loan and moved back home to work for her parents. Depression was not understood back in the 1980s and even though she knew her husband was paralyzed by his mental illness, her family only saw him as lazy and not living up to his responsibilities. It was already like “climbing Mount Everest” to be upheaved from the only home he had ever known but further humiliation by his illness not being recognized threw him into the darkest mental hole his wife had ever witnessed.

She decided that the only way to protect her husband while also providing for her family was to stop working for her parents and to open her own winery, so out of desperation, they sold everything: apartment, car, tractor, cows and with the addition of a loan from her brother-in-law, she was able to gather $40,000 to buy an old winery. And because of her Italian heritage, she secured a loan from the Italian government that assisted small businesses which allowed her to purchase the newest technology. She was very aware that Argentina was behind the times when it came to modern winery equipment as she had worked several harvests in California early in her career, during Argentina’s off-season.

This woman, Susana Balbo, ended up starting her own winery, twice, helping to bring better practices and treatments into Argentina’s wine world, assisting other smaller wineries to establish export markets and revolutionizing the white wine Torrontés by unlocking its elegance and making stellar Malbec red wines. All of this would be extremely impressive on its own but considering that Susana had to come back from having nothing twice, while taking care of her husband and children, as well as accomplishing all of these milestones, makes her journey that much more extraordinary.

Wiped Out By Scam

Once Susana started her first winery, around 1990, her family found some breathing room by selling 5,000 cases domestically. It was not a lot of money but enough to get by, so they didn’t have to worry about ending up on the street and it was worth it to create a mentally healthier environment for her husband. Since insurance was always needed regarding covering payments to suppliers, Susana got a type of business insurance that covered money lost if she didn’t get paid by a customer. And so, when a business organization came along and said that they would need 25,000 cases during summer months because all the restaurants and supermarkets they own on the coast would sell a lot during that time, she knew she could take the gamble of laying out a tremendous amount of money to significantly gear up her production as she had the insurance to protect herself.

The company agreed to pay her in installments of eight checks after each delivery yet after not receiving both the first and second checks, she contacted her agent at the insurance company and he said that she could not claim the money to cover her loss of revenue until after the eighth check wasn’t received. After she delivered all eight shipments and did not receive any of the eight payments, she called the insurance company and to her dismay, was told that no such insurance exists in Argentina (even though it did in other countries), so the policy was non-existent. Her agent no longer worked there and had only been employed at the company for four months. She ended up selling her winery to pay back her suppliers and swore she would never have her own business again.

“It was one of the most difficult times in my life,” said Susana, as her husband eventually passed away and she didn’t even have time to take care of her grief as she had to worry about her children’s education and future. So she started working for other wineries as a consultant and she was the first enologist from Argentina to be hired as a consultant in Europe. But every time she met wine buyers from the UK or US, they would always ask why she wasn’t making her own wines, and although she initially resisted following her own path again, she eventually succumbed, knowing if she could establish stable export market sales, that having her own winery might work.

Susana Balbo Wines

In 1999, she started her company in the heart of Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, which today is called Susana Balbo Wines. And she noted that she has only had one unpaid invoice in over 23 years. She has been able to “double business” every few years to build an incredibly successful business that focuses on quality.

She says that “security” was the main reason she decided to give it another go at her own winery; as long as she had reliable customers in stable countries, it would build a better future for her kids and grandkids. She knew it was essential to build capital in Argentina as the economy was unpredictable. Also, she wanted that freedom back, the freedom to spend the money to make high-quality wine and the freedom to take risks, as that is how one “achieves something special” in a wine, according to Susana.

But even though she has established something extraordinary independently, she has done so much for Argentina. When working for California wineries early in her career, she realized that they were using fining agents to help with the balance of the wine that no one was using in Argentina. So when she was a young woman working as a winemaker at her first winery, she asked one of her suppliers to bring a particular fining agent into Argentina so all wineries could take advantage. Yet, when the supplier asked if Susana wanted a share of the profits, since she brought it to his attention, she thought that was silly as she intended to increase the quality of her wines and the wines of Argentina as a whole.

In 2006, Susana became the first female president of the promotional organization Wines of Argentina, staying three terms until 2016, helping small and medium size companies break into export markets by establishing offices of promotion all over the world as well as increasing Wines of Argentina worldwide events from seven a year to over 250 a year. She also helped many wineries understand pricing structures in key markets such as the UK and the US so they would know how to price their wines. “I realized we didn’t exist as a category,” noted Susana when she talked about seeing Argentina wines placed on the bottom shelf under the ‘Other Countries’ category in the 1990s. She also brought wine producers together to agree on a harmonious standard style for Malbec that displayed the ideal balance of fruit, structure and elegance. If Argentina was ever going to get its own category on a retail shelf, there would need to be many wineries making high-quality wines in the marketplace. Susana said that only around 10 to 15 wineries were exported in the late 1990s but today, over 300 are exported.

Bigger Picture

There is a long list of achievements that Susana has accomplished throughout her career and if one were to look at her resume, it would seem she lived a charmed life during her journey in the wine world. Yet there are moments and aspects of her personal life that were a hell on earth that many could never imagine and back then, there was no help, no support of any kind and so she was on her own to handle a tremendous amount of challenges while always being there for her kids.

Although, she still uses the word “lucky” in some instances, as when she went to university, the first female to graduate in enology in Argentina, she had a teacher who was “amazing,” and he challenged her to expand her mind and creativity by thinking of various ways to handle all sorts of winemaking tasks and issues. Even her first boss, the owner of the winery where she worked after university in Salta, helped her to navigate some of her finances when that scam wiped out her first winery.

Susana does not come from money or privilege yet she has a strong work ethic, a sharp mind complemented by an abundance of creativity and a courageous spirit. But she knows what it feels like to have everything taken away, to be unsure about tomorrow and that desperate feeling that her kids only have her to look out for them and provide a better future; it is an awful feeling and she would not wish such a situation on anyone else. So when she speaks about her life and winery, she mainly focuses on Argentina as a whole, saying that it was important for small and medium-sized wineries to be given knowledge and access to technology to help increase the quality of wines and overall sales. Early on, it was only the wineries with lots of money that could afford expensive consultants to improve quality or to bring in business-savvy professionals to sell wines worldwide.

Either it was her early experiences that made her want to fight for the little wine owner or she was naturally born with a profound amount of compassion, or perhaps it was both. Ultimately, Argentina is much better for Susana’s ability to take tragic circumstances from her life to inspire her to create a more fair playing field for everyone in Argentina.

Today, Susana’s kids have joined the family business with her son, José, becoming an enologist and leader of the research and development department of the winery and her daughter, Ana, has become marketing manager and founder of Osadía de Crear – a restaurant at the Susana Balbo Wines estate. Also, Ana has teamed up with her mother to create Susana Balbo Unique Stays, luxury boutique hotels in uniquely stunning places in Argentina. It is impressive to see how far this family has come.

Susana Balbo makes many beautiful wines but carved a name for herself with Argentina’s white wine Torrontés. The wines of Torrontés have always had a lovely perfumed nose but there were issues with too much bitterness on the palate. So Susana was the first to use the fining agent casein (a milk-derived protein) on Torrontés, which reduces astringency while at the same time softens a white wine’s tannic structure helping to release aromas and flavors without the wine having to rely too much on extended skin contact. She was able to develop better innovative ways to work with Torrontés at the first winery she worked at that was located in Cafayate, Salta, as 75% of their production was Torrontés and the owner allowed her to experiment.

2022 Susana Balbo ‘Crios’ Torrontés, Argentina: 100% Torrontés grapes are sourced from Uco Valley in Mendoza and Cafayate in Salta in vineyards that average around 5,500 feet in altitude. The Crios line of wines focuses on the beautiful expression of the grape varieties grown in ideal areas of Argentina. Also, the Crios wines support local communities with various charity events. A delicious example of Torrontés with a floral nose and juicy mango and pineapple flavors on the palate with bright acidity and a round, fruit-driven finish.

2022 Susana Balbo ‘Signature’ Barrel Fermented Torrontés, Paraje Altamira, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina: 100% Torrontés grapes located at an average of 3,770 feet altitude in the famed wine area of Paraje Altamira. The ‘Signature’ line is focused on mastering classic varieties and taking on some of Susana’s most revolutionary projects of pushing the boundaries of winemaking. Enticing aromas of citrus blossom and a stony minerality with lychee flavors intermixed with delicate notes of flowers – perfectly balanced; a good amount of weight on the textured body that has a lovely silky quality across the long, expressive finish.

2020 Susana Balbo ‘Signature’ White Blend from La Delfina Estate in Paraje Altamira, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina: 42% Sémillon, 33% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Torrontés from an elevation of around 3,770 on the La Delfina Estate. Multi-layered aromatics include honeysuckle, fresh herbs, orange peel with blanched almonds and subtle spice notes on the palate with white peach flavors and a long, flavorful finish.

2020 Susana Balbo ‘Signature’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Gualtallary, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina: 94% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Malbec from an altitude of around 4,265 feet above sea level. There is broken earth, blackberry and tobacco leaf on the nose with a touch of cracked black pepper with hints of dried flowers and finely etched tannins.

2020 Susana Balbo ‘Signature’ Malbec, Paraje Altamira, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina: 96% Malbec and 4% Cabernet Franc. Pretty aromas of lilacs and blueberry tart with a touch of star anise with complex layers of blackcurrant leaves and fresh tree bark with a linear drive on the finish.

2020 Susana Balbo ‘Signature’ Malbec Single Vineyard Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina: 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Malbec, 19% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petit Verdot. Multi-layered nose with black cherries, violets and pressed rose petals with turmeric spice and smoldering incense with a slightly firm structure, good weight on mid-palate that gives a touch of plush quality perfectly balanced by the exquisitely carved tannins with a tension that gives a fierce vitality to this wine; overall a wine that has a pedigree of greatness and longevity.

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