He made billions developing his family’s energy company, Bridas Corporation. Now 72-year-old Argentinian oil magnate Alejandro Bulgheroni is applying his analytical nose for business and love of agriculture to building a global collection of wineries to pass on to his children and grandchildren.
Bodega Garzón—a 5,400-acre, $85 million property in Uruguay that now contains a winery, vineyards, a private club, and a restaurant overseen by Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann—was his first purchase back in 1999, when it was still undeveloped land. Since 2011 Bulgheroni has picked up additional fixer-upper properties at the pace of roughly two per year; and construction of wineries in Argentina, Italy, France, Australia, and Patagonia is well underway. In California, his Napa Valley Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate, which he calls his “flagship,” is slated to open this May.
It’s common knowledge that the wine industry is risky, but Bulgheroni has built his career on finding lucrative opportunities in adverse conditions. At age 22, he joined the oil business that his father had established in 1948; and in 1985, when his dad passed away, he took over operations in partnership with his brother Carlos, an attorney who died last September.
The brothers last ran oil exploration and production ventures successfully during Argentina’s military dictatorship and in the Soviet Union; their interests in Bolivia and Turkmenistan survived the nationalizations of both. (Carlos brokered talks with the Taliban to build an unrealized Bridas pipeline from Turkmenistan across conflict-torn Afghanistan to Pakistan in the 1990s.)
In 2010, the brothers sold 50 percent of Bridas—now Argentina’s largest privately operated energy company—to China’s government-owned CNOOC Group. In 2012, Bridas in partnership with CNOOC took over Axion Energy Argentina, acquiring ExxonMobil’s crude-oil refineries and fuel and lubricants trading assets in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Bulgheroni—who has domestic energy interests in the U.S., Mexico, Bolivia, and Argentina—has no plans to stop investing in oil and gas. On the contrary, last year, Pan American Energy, owned by Bridas and BP in a 40/60 split, announced it would pour $1.4 billion into Argentina over the following 12 months. Bulgheroni’s more recent acquisitions, however, suggest a desire to diversify his holdings. For starters, there’s his 10,000-acre Uruguayan agriculture business, Agroland S.A., which in addition to the Bodega Garzón winery includes cattle ranching and production of extra-virgin olive oil, almonds, and pecans.
While billionaires who buy vineyards often have a passion for imbibing, Bulgheroni quit drinking when he married his wife Bettina about 20 years ago. (He notes that he only recently started to taste wine again out of necessity.) He says the wine industry appealed to him partly because of the economic prospects inherent in hospitality: while creating year-round tourism jobs for local people, especially in remote, unconventional wine destinations such as Garzón and Patagonia, Bulgheroni can offer a lifestyle proposition that attracts the ultra-wealthy.
Three former presidents of Uruguay, the current vice president, a former president of Spain, and many South American celebrities attended the March 2016 launch party for Bulgheroni’s Bodega Garzón, which features a Howard Backen-designed clubhouse. Still to come: a luxury hotel and a wine club, to be capped at 300 members.
Benefits will likely include being able to store selections from private wine collections in the cellar and to “own” blocks on the property where members can make their own wines; zero tee times on the adjacent golf course; and reciprocity at clubs at soon-to-come wineries worldwide.
We met with Bulgheroni at Bodega Garzón, where he talked about his half-century career, his business plans, and his extensive use of private aviation.
What have been your career’s defining moments?
These 50 years have been very challenging. As you know, the price of oil has gone down, and relations in Argentina were always changing. Things were very difficult in 2001 and 2002. The good thing about it is that I never had a boring day.
We were always creating new projects. We went to central Asia and had very successful exploration in Afghanistan, which was confiscated. We were able to go to arbitration [in the U.S. Supreme Court], although we didn’t get 10 percent of what we had discovered. We knew the Amoco people since 1959, and we became partners in ’97. I always said that I went to sleep with Amoco and woke up with BP because we signed the agreement in ’97, and in ’98 Amoco was sold and BP took over. In 2001 we had about 8 percent of the oil investment in Argentina; today we have 18 percent, but that’s not only because of our goals, but because other investors decreased their production.
You have wind turbines here at Bodega Garzón and at your adjacent property. Are you planning to move into renewable energy?
No. I wanted to have a farming operation that was self-sufficient, which is why I started with windmills. Now we are evolving into solar, so we will combine wind and solar, not just on this property but on other properties, maybe this year.
How did you get started in the wine industry?
We started with this one [Bodega Garzón] because somebody said that the soil here was wonderful to grow in. And so I got in touch with a friend in Argentina and he said talk to [Italian oenologist and winery consultant] Alberto Antonini and whatever he says to do, you do it. So that’s what I did.
Didn’t Antonini suggest that you experiment first over several harvests with small parcels of your flagship grapes, tannat and albariño? You now have more than 7,400 acres of those two varietals, plus pinot gris, viognier, pinot noir, caladoc, and sauvignon blanc, among others.
Yes. There were no wines being produced in the area, and at the beginning he was very, very cautious. He wanted to take a few years but I said I think we should do it faster. I told him I don’t have that much time. Even though there was a risk, we started. In 2010, when he said, “I believe it’s a wonderful terroir, a wonderful climate, and we could produce good wines here,” we started building the winery, the restaurant, the club. The wine cellar is getting better every year.
How did you select your winery projects in other markets?
We have two main advisors. In most of our wineries, it’s Antonini. In France and in Napa [California], it’s [Bordeaux-based oenologist] Michel Rolland. They are the ones telling me how to manage things. So far we’ve been buying wineries or vineyards for the terroir. If it’s a good terroir, we can produce good wine.
In Italy it was different. We are growing a lot of olive trees here [in Uruguay] and the olive oil that we’re producing is very good, but nobody knows Uruguay, nobody understands the quality of what we have. So I thought having some olive oil in Italy would create some synergies so that when we have a big production here, we’d also have the market to take [the brand]. That’s how we got into Italy.
Now you have 12 wineries, most of which you’ve bought in the last five years. What is it about this business that appeals to you?
It’s a way of life. It’s all about experiences, so we’re combining it with tourism.
Do you think there’s a strong business proposition in having people come to the property, dining here, and staying overnight?
Definitely. Putting together dining and wine is really interesting. We also have a golf course. With the six golf courses in Uruguay, that makes it a destination to come and play golf. There are also polo fields and we have the olive oil plant—that’s also a great experience—so I believe that all of that together creates a very interesting proposal for visitors.
What is your plan for opening the clubhouse we’re sitting in to members?
We’ve been looking into clubs around the world and we want to set it up right. Since we have properties in the north and the south [hemispheres], we can bring people south and north during different times of the year. Mainly the club is about wine and the wine cellar and producing your own wine—maybe you could have your own acre and produce your wine for 20 or 30 years.
Do you have a grand vision for tying all of the wineries together in one club?
Maybe not one club; maybe different clubs. We have a very nice property in Argentina in Mendoza where we’re thinking of making a wine club similar to this one. We have some connections for people coming here and to Mendoza in our summer; and then maybe in the summer in the north, people can go to Tuscany or Bordeaux or the U.S. So this is the idea that we’re trying to put together; the benefits of this club will be related to the others.
What’s your vision for the oil and winery sides of the business?
They are two different visions, two different worlds. The oil side of the business—which is the Bridas Corporation—is also owned by my brother’s family. But the wine business is owned by me, my wife, and my children only. Of course that would mean different approaches.
I don’t think I want to grow the wine business more than where we are now. Maybe one or two wineries in specific places, but that will be all. I’m not seeing a very big business; I’m seeing a reasonably sized business, which hopefully in a few more years will be profitable.
Your properties are far flung, and I understand you reach them via private jet.
The company owns the jets and we fly them. We have a Global 5000 and a Hawker 800. And two helicopters.
How often do you fly?
Maybe two or three times a month, in a short range: Argentina, Uruguay, and so on. Long range—New York, Miami, Washington—maybe once or twice a month. We have to make two stops and we can go to China or various other places. We have a small winery near Adelaide in the Barossa [in southern Australia], and I’ve flown there twice.
How does traveling by private jet enhance your life and your capability to do business?
In my personal life, I can fly with my family, which is a lot better [than traveling commercially]. Sometimes we fly six people, long range. My wife has a lot of occupations, and flying this way makes it possible.
The important thing is the technology. When you’re talking about a 15-year-old plane and a new plane, the technologies are completely different. When you have long flights, [comfortable onboard amenities] are important. If we are going to work the next day, we want to sleep. Sometimes we take our long conversations but usually we sleep.
How do you think the current political climate will affect your businesses?
I don’t know. We’re still waiting to see how Brexit or the election of Mr. Trump is going to impact things. There are big question marks. The vote in Italy is different, but we will see. We will adapt. Doing business in Argentina for 50 years, we had to adapt a lot, every year. It’s been very, very challenging, and I believe we’re more prepared than many other people for those types of challenges.
NAME: Alejandro Pedro Bulgheroni
BORN: 1944 in Rufino, Santa Fe Province, Argentina
EDUCATION: University of Buenos Aires; University of Texas
BUSINESSES: Oil and gas (Bridas Corporation) plus wineries in such countries as U.S., Argentina, Uruguay, France, and Italy
NET WORTH: $5.2 billion between him and the estate of his brother Carlos, who died last September, according to Forbes estimate. In 2016, Forbes listed Alejandro and Carlos as No. 324 on a list of the world’s billionaires.
TRANSPORTATION: Global 5000 and Hawker 800 business jets, two helicopters, all owned by Bulgheroni’s company
PERSONAL: Lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Married in 1996 to Bettina Bulgheroni. Seven children.