Nan Bailly Guides Alexis Bailly Vineyard
It’s possible that winemaker Nan Bailly’s kin enjoyed native Minnesota wine during canoe trips through the state in the 1820’s when it was still wilderness. Bailly, owner, winegrower and winemaker at Alexis Bailly Vineyard, has a picture of her Minnesota voyageur ancestor, also named Alexis Bailly, in the tasting room of the winery.
The original intrepid Bailly explorer would be proud of his lineage. His descendants went on to start the first winery in Minnesota in 1978, continuing the family’s battle with the Minnesota climate. But last year Nan Bailly prevailed over the elements. Even in the drought and wild growing season of 2011, the grape harvest at Alexis Bailly Vineyards in Hastings was one of the most bountiful since Nan Bailly took over the winery from her father, David Bailly, who died in 1990.
‘Our Marechal Foch and Leon Millot (French hybrids) both came in at over 13% alcohol. Since we have yet to finish the wines, ratings would be premature–but so far so good. I prefer the wines from a dry year, ” Bailly notes, adding that a severe dry spell in 2009 did not cause any stress on her vines either.
The winery proves the motto coined by its founder David Bailly: ‘Where the grapes can suffer.” In the pioneering years, he and Nan and troupes of volunteers buried the vines, mostly vinifera varietals, to prevent winter kill. Nan has since moved away from the struggle to grow old world varietals, seeking more cold-hardy grapes and each year making the decision to cull some varietals. Yet she still produces a dozen or more fine wines every year, many of which sell out before their winter closing.
The number of estate wines that Nan can produce from her vineyard varies greatly from year to year. “This year about half our wines will be made from grapes from our vineyards,” she said. “That’s a lot better than ’10, when we had almost no estate wines because of the weather.”
Bailley said the greatest skill she’s developed over 30 years has proved to be blending. Frontenac, Leon Millot, Marechal Foch and others often go into ‘Voyageur”, her signature award-winning red (‘Best Wine of North America” at the Atlanta Vino Challenge) and the ‘Hastings Reserve” port style wine. Her strategy has been to gradually move away from varietal wines and move towards blends that bring out the best qualities of each specific vintage.
For example, Bailly said she struggles making a Frontenac varietal (Frontenac was developed at the University of Minnesota) but finds it useful as a blender and for making fortified sweet wines. ‘With Frontenac, you have to adjust drastically for acidity,” she said. ‘We tried the Geneva Double Curtain trellis and that helped, but then you expose the fruit to too much sun and get to a Brix of 27 which is not workable for a dry red wine.”
‘I’m not afraid of the pyrazines in Frontenac either, even though California has made that a cuss word. They’re also present in wines from the Loire and Pomerol,” she said. Nan’s early training included time living and working in wineries in France’s gentler Loire Valley.
She estimates 80% of her wine is sold at the tasting room, the other 20% through a wholesaler to almost every package store in the Twin Cities. ‘We have ten restaurants that sell a lot of our wine too. Another 25 restaurants also list us on the menu. Restaurants are great advertising. But we move the most wine when we have a good relationship with the restaurant’s staff and get them out to the winery during harvest or for tastings,” Nan said.
The winery experience is a big part of the value Bailly believes she offer customers. A trellised patio, outdoor picnic areas and bocce ball court were added to encourage people to stay for the warm weather days. ‘My father (the founder) probably wouldn’t even recognize the place now,” she said. “We worked hard to create a park and a prairie landscape in our winery.”
Drawing huge crowds during the April to December open season (20,000 visitors in 2011), Nan realized she could do more to make it a complete experience for visitors by starting a deli for local cheeses and sausages. ‘At first, we just bought a small ‘fridge for $200 with two or three cheeses and some crackers, then we upgraded to an open deli case for $2000.” Nan said that adding food is the best thing that she’s done for the business.
Food provides predictable costs and steady profits that support occasional winemaking gambles, Nan explained. Bailey likes to support local food products such as Northern Lights Blue Cheese from St. Paul and Shepherd’s Way Sheep Milk Cheese from Nerstrand. Because cooking and food production is not done on site, the winery has not fallen under more complex health department strictures for restaurants or caterers. Bailey said the food component also did not require significant expansion of staff or square footage.
‘The tasting room staff loves to sell local food and the customers love it too. We also have glasses and other locally made accoutrements for sale in the gift shop, but we can loan picnickers plates, silverware, blankets, glasses–and we have water everywhere for free; nobody should ever have to buy water,” she said.
Bailly said that it’s important for wineries to help consumers embrace wine by helping to select imaginative food pairings. For example, a type of pumpkin seed oil produced by a family in Wisconsin, which Bailly said was once only imported from Italy, is paired with Seyval Blanc. For the spring opener on April 21 , the winery will be offering suggestions for pairing their wines with fine chocolates. Although Bailly Vineyards is not specifically meant for children’s outings, it is family-friendly and dogs are welcome. While there are no weddings, the Harvest Table area can be reserved for large parties of up to thirty. Bailly offers live jazz and other music free on the weekends.
‘We keep the big front doors open for visitors even in the hot summer afternoons,” Nan said. This “open door” policy is made possible by a geothermal heating and cooling system. Nan said the geothermal system is on target to pay for itself off in seven years as a result of energy savings. The geothermal system also regulates her wine making and wine storage areas which she believes has improved the quality of her wines, especially the reds. “Red wines taste better when they are not allowed to get too cold,” she said. “Now we don’t allow our reds to go below sixty degrees.”
Scott Bartell has worked in the food and wine industries in California , Europe and Minnesota and was the first food and wine critic for the City Pages in the Twin Cities.