Selected 2003

Susana Balbo

  • Current company Dominio del Plata
  • Location Argentina

In a country dominated by male winemakers, Susana Balbo stands out not only for her gender, but for her incredible skills and entrepreneurial boldness. She has been making wine since she earned her enology degree in 1981, and has probably produced a wider variety of wines than any other winemaker in Argentina. After twenty years of producing wines for others, Susana decided it was time to apply her education and experience to her own wines and put her name right on the bottle. In 2001, while Argentina’s economy was stumbling, Susana went to New York, withdrew most of her savings and came back with US$ 1.8MM to build her own winery. Today, the award-winning wine label Dominio del Plata exports 97% of its 424,000 bottle annual production of wine, and her top wine has been given a 90 point rating by Wine Spectator, a score beaten by only two other Argentine wines.

Astoundingly, Susana became a wine maker only by chance. Her desire was to become a nuclear physicist, but her parents were against this then unconventional career choice. She ended up studying enology, or winemaking, in her local province of Mendoza. However, Susana found her calling in the world of wines. She fell in love with the profession, graduated summa cum laude and became the first woman wine maker in Argentina. Susana got her first job at Michel Torino Winery in Cafayate, Salta, one of the biggest wineries in the country, by which she was selected from a pool of 72 candidates. As she was the first woman to ever work in the company, respect for a workingwoman was not part of the company culture, and Susana had to work hard in order to gain regard of her co-workers. Nevertheless, her talent as a wine maker was notable: her first Torrontes wine (a grape from the north of Argentina), unique for its floral and citrus notes, was bought by PanAm Airlines for its first class clients.

After almost a decade, Susana returned to Mendoza (wine capital and third largest province in Argentina) to help with the family winery and to start a small wine venture with her husband, with whom she built a boutique winery. By 1993, Susana had sold both wineries and gotten divorced. She had plans to devote time to her two children, but Tito Martins, a close friend, urged her to work in his winery. Susana started working in Bodegas Martins as a part-time consultant and ended up as General Manager. During her tenure at Bodegas Martins, Susana turned the business around, and thus in 1996 her friend Tito sold his business for US$9MM to a Spanish group. In 1998, Susana was hired by Nicolas Catena, the main producer in Argentina of premium quality wines, to design the technical facilities of his new winery. Two years later, she became the Export and Quality Control Manager of Catena Zapata Group, which includes three premium wineries. However, some of Susana’s fans in the international press, wine critics and distributors, urged her to produce her own wines. Susana was tempted. In 1999, she was on the road again, together with her current husband Pedro Marchevsky, an expert vineyard management.

Susana applied her know-how from past experiences and launched her fresh endeavor using an approach that deviated from the industry standard: first she would develop the market; after that she would invest in building a winery. Her aim was to produce non-mainstream, world class wines to compete with premium labels around the globe in the US$15-US$50 price range. Susana and Pedro began producing some blends in rented wineries and concentrated efforts on opening markets. Soon, the international press and critics were praising Susana´s blends: “1999 Ben Marco. This vintage is made by the ‘Evita’ of wine, Susana Balbo, and it is over the top”, The Boston Phoenix (March 8-15, 2001).

In 2001, British Airways selected Susana Balbo´s wine in a 170-bottle blind tasting and bought 100% of the production for its business class. In June, Susana and Pedro were ready to invest in their own facilities and began the construction of their winery. In 2002, Susana quit her job at Catena Zapata Group and devoted herself full-time to her company. Meanwhile, Pedro remained working as General Manager at Catena Zapata. In 2011, two of Dominio del Plata’s wines – its Zohar Tannat 2009 and the Zohar Malbec 2010 – won gold models at the Decanter World Wine Awards in the UK.

Susana Balbo has become a legend among Argentine wine makers. She was the first Argentine winemaker to be hired as a consultant to make wine outside of Argentina. She has made wine in Australia, California, Chile, France, Italy, South Africa, and Spain, and she spends a month each year in different wine regions of the world studying with local winemakers and growers. However, what makes Susana an incredible role model is not only her proficiency as a wine maker or business woman, but her vision. Susana has been an advocate in sponsoring the Argentine wine industry, trying to convince wine producers to export and to their wine style according to foreign tastes. She is convinced that her success goes hand in hand with the success of the whole sector. “Argentina needs a Robert Mondavi” – she argues – “in order to lead the winemaking production of the country.”
Susana has benefited from the Global eMBA and G-Lab programs, Entrepreneur Summit, and introductions to Global Board contacts. Among other local services, she has benefited from high-profile mentors, a European consultant who helped with a Europe strategy, a BID-financed project (with a consultant from DiTella) who developed a financial model, a BCG project on marketing strategy, and introductions to commercial contacts abroad.

Susana has been instrumental in organizing Endeavor events in Mendoza, including a conference.

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