For a woman who has become an iconic worldwide figure in the wine industry, I was surprised to learn that winemaking was not Susana Balbo’s first career choice. Another surprise is her favourite red wine: not Malbec which has become the national wine of Argentina, but Cabernet Sauvignon, which she believes is Argentina’s hidden treasure. Somehow, I think neither of these are the most surprising aspects of this woman, who is regularly referred to as a trailblazer, one of the most highly regarded winemakers in South America, and the undisputed Queen of Torrontes, the grape she took from table wine to an elegant, outstanding wine and Argentina’s flagship white.
As a bright young woman from -what she describes as – a humble family involved in the linen industry, not wine, she studied oenology as a third choice. The universities in which she wanted to study nuclear physics and chemistry were too far away to travel to due to the unstable political situation in her country at the time. This was one of many challenges Susana overcame during her career. She obviously threw herself fully into her studies; graduating top of her class and becoming the first woman oenologist in Argentina in 1981.
Her academic success was not of much interest to the male-dominated winemaking world of the time. She wanted to make wine, but was only offered laboratory jobs. After many rejections, a bit of economy with the truth about her hands-on experience and ability to speak English (she couldn’t) landed her a head winemaking position at a winery nearly 1600 kilometres from home. It is testament to her strength of character that she survived the open hostility of workers not used to taking orders from a woman, and stayed here for 8 years. During this time, despite financial restraints, she set about changing the style of wine the winery produced, and to be accepted by the reluctant export market.
It is hard to imagine, now that Argentinian Malbec is almost ubiquitous, that in 2006, when Susana was elected president of Wines of Argentina – again a first for a woman – only 5% of the country’s wine production was exported. The invention of World Malbec Day was among her initiatives, which saw exports grow to 26.5% by 2019.
Susana Balbo’s firsts – awards and business successes – would fill a book, but what is most impressive to me is how she navigated the challenging world of chauvinism, financial difficulties, political upheaval, marriage breakdown and motherhood with pragmatism and resilience. Her decision to buy 22 h/a in Agrelo was because it was close to home and she had to do the school run. Having faced near financial ruin in the early 1990s in the vineyard she owned with her former husband, she spent many years consulting to build up savings and learn new technologies, before starting her own vineyard again in 1999.
Now, as a successful businesswoman with her two children involved in Susana Balbo Wines, she is determined to help other women, especially from more disadvantaged areas, to gain economic autonomy. She is the chair of Women 20, an affinity group associated with G20, whose agenda is to convince world leaders that development can only happen if women are fully integrated into the workforce.
Her other mission for the future is organic agriculture, which she hopes Mendoza as a region will adopt. Typically, her vision extends beyond the boundaries of her own vineyard.
This week, Susana and her family and colleagues are celebrating yet another accolade, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Wine Challenge. It is given to people who have made an outstanding contribution to the world of wine. Susana Balbo has made an outstanding contribution to more than the world of wine. She has shown women around the world what can be done by refusing to accept the status quo and to work steadily, picking yourself up from the knocks and setbacks, to realise your dreams.