A dutiful wife who followed her husband to his various professional postings around France, social worker Brigitte Subra fell in love with Mendoza when they moved there for his Argentine contract from the very first night she saw some folk musicians. Despite that professional cycle concluding a decade ago, the couple bought two small fincas and and an old winery, obtaining their first Syrah harvest for CarinaE bodega a year later.
Brigitte says: “It was raining the first time we went to Mendoza, and it never rains there! It was April 3 in 1998, and my husband Philippe had been chosen to come to Argentina on a contract. Basically his company wanted to see if I could deal with being here! So I spent a week in Mendoza – with the rain – but I was convinced that I would like living here – it’s the dream after all, to have an adventure! And so we moved there that August, and as Philippe is an electrical engineer, he then started his contract – nothing to do with wine! The wine came later!
“We lived there until 2003, in the city and close to Plaza San Martín. I remember we arrived on a bank holiday, and the person Philippe was replacing took us around the city – that night we went to Independence Theatre to see some folk music and dancers. To see these people all dressed up like in olden times made an impact, as did the audience as everyone got up and was singing and dancing too; in France everyone would have been very passive, so it’s really my first memory.”
Given that Philippe’s work meant that the couple and their three children had upped roots on a regular basis in France, this time round meant another new start but in a different hemisphere.
Brigitte says: “I had already learnt to deal with change and new places but in France. And I didn’t work for around 10 years as it’s hard to raise a family and work when you are also moving around. But as soon as I was in one place for more than three years, I always returned to work.
“Of course, setting up a new life here wasn’t a complete breeze and the first two months were a bit difficult – but in my experience, it’s always like that. I didn’t speak the language, I had always worked helping problematic teenagers in France and suddenly I wasn’t working in Mendoza. I had left France with plenty of activities going on as the children had already grown up and had suddenly had a lot of spare time.
“Then a few months in, Philippe’s company organized a weekend away in Puerto Madryn for us – and that’s when I knew I would like Argentina. At that time, in 1998, it was a big adventure to be here and I was fascinated by it. South America was the complete opposite to France, so big, with so much that needed to be done – especially in 1998.”
One aspect of her new life that did come easily to Brigitte was making friends. “One thing I have learnt from all my years moving around is that if you don’t approach people, they won’t approach you. And even though I couldn’t speak very good Spanish in the beginning, I’d always try to express myself somehow whenever I went to the supermarket. But what really helped me was the Foreigners’ Club in Mendoza, a group that included Argentines who had lived abroad as well as a lot of native English speakers. I’m very sociable so I started to get involved with them very early on, helping out with a children’s soup kitchen where we’d take lunch to school kids, something that I had also done in France as I have never been able to sit around and do nothing. I also put together a painting workshop – I’ve never been bored!”
Of course, at some point her husband’s contract was bound to reach its conclusion and in 2002 the conversation about moving back to Paris opened up. However, that return wasn’t meant to be.
She says: “In our minds, returning to France was what we were going to do. But one of our dreams was to find our own paradise that we could retire to and divide our time between Argentina and France. And in the search for that spot, we ended up finding a finca in Maipú, which had 15 hectares with 10 already planted with grapes. And Philippe said, this is for us! And as we both love wine, that’s how it started, in November 2002.
“Given that Philippe had always worked for the same large company for 30 years, he was eligible for retirement, so we flew back to France to take that decision and make that happen quickly before the December deadline. Then we returned, not too worried that anybody else was going to snap up the finca as no-one was buying at that time. And in February 2003 we bought it and Philippe carried on working before retiring in the June. But then we had to decide what to do next, as we didn’t know anything about making wine! We only knew how to drink it! We didn’t have a clue.”
First things first in this new professional terroir, and the couple sought out an enologist. “We wanted an Argentine winemaker as we wanted to make an Argentine wine and in the end, we hired one who would work with (consultant winemaker) Michel Rolland so it would have a little French accent. And so we started to make wine but once we had done that, then we had to sell it, which was quite something else!”
Running a winery is a seven-day-a-week job and although CarinaE produces a relatively small 100,00 bottles in comparison with larger, more commercial wineries in Mendoza, it requires plenty of dedication.
Brigitte says: “It’s been 10 years of hard work and sacrifice, 10 years without any holidays, but of course it’s a pleasure because we’re doing something that we love. We are involved in everything as it’s a personal winery, it’s very small, and we have a young team, which is very interesting to work with. Philippe had always dreamt about having a winery of his own, but he’d never found the right product – and we’d never had the budget either – until now. You only have an opportunity like this once in your life, so we took it.
“We had a fabulous start in 2004, because that was when people started talking about Argentine wines, and our growth carried on until 2010. But since then, because of inflation, it has been harder but we have been able to resist it as we offer tourism at the winery. If we only had the domestic market and exports, we probably wouldn’t be able to meet all our costs. And we don’t have the budget to pay someone for what we do, but that’s just how it is in Argentina!
“Ever since we started, we’ve lived at the finca – in fact, we don’t leave it that much! The bodega is 50 metres from our house and is surrounded by olive trees. And there really isn’t any free time, although I try to do some exercise when I can. But it isn’t really work either! We love the product so much, that it doesn’t feel like work.
“But now I am a grandma I am going back to France for longer periods as I want my grandson to know who I am, but that is a new thing. I love living here – the people are very warm – but in an ideal world, Argentina would be located where the Canary Islands are!”
Buenos Aires Herald, 7 June, 2014