Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Alexis Bailly Vineyard Helps U of M Cultivate Wine Industry in Minnesota, "Where the Grapes Can Suffer"

The Company
Alexis Bailly Vineyard
18200 Kirby Avenue
Hastings, MN 55033
Phone: [651] 437-1413

Founded: 1973, when the late David A. Bailly, a Minneapolis attorney, bought a 20-acre field of winter rye near historic Hastings, Minn., and planted it with French grapes. In 1977, Alexis Bailly Vineyard's first wines were produced -- using 100% Minnesota-grown grapes -- and then released for sale in 1978.

Employees: Two full-time, plus several seasonal volunteers

Contact: Nan Bailly, owner/master winemaker

The Business
Thirty-three years ago, viticulturalists scoffed at the notion of wine grapes actually being able to survive Minnesota winters. Unfazed by the naysayers, David Bailly, an amateur enologist with an educated palate, aspired to make a truly excellent Minnesota wine. After all, he reasoned, French winemakers have long held that, in order to produce great wine, the grapevines must endure hardship -- e.g., wind, sleet, snow, drought. Enthusiastically, he adopted ABV's motto -- "Where the grapes can suffer" -- and proceeded to establish Minnesota's very first commercial winery.

During ABV's early years, Bailly and his six kids worked weekends in the vineyard and winery. Since his death in 1990, daughter Nan has continued to pursue her father's romantic fantasy of producing quality wines from Minnesota-grown grapes.

Today, ABV has two full-time employees: Joan, the retail manager, runs the tasting room, where customers can sample and purchase wines; and Wioletta, the vineyard manager, cultivates ABV's 13 acres of surrounding grapevines to create a rustic and bucolic setting.

During harvest time, lots of volunteers come out to help. "The wine is only made during harvest, so as soon as the grapes are picked, they are brought to the winery for crushing, fermentation and the winemaking process," Nan explained. "The harvest is a celebratory time for family and friends to help pick the grapes in the time-honored tradition of small communities toiling together."

The end products of all that toil and celebration? ABV now produces nine wines: Country White, a semi-dry white table wine; Seyval Blanc, a dry white table wine; Country Red, a dry red table wine; Frontenac, a dry red table wine; Ratafia, a red fortified sweet dessert wine, infused with other fruits, herbs and spices; Country Rosé, a semi-sweet rosé wine; Hastings Reserve, a red fortified sweet dessert wine; Ice Wine, a sweet white wine; and the just-released Voyageur, a bold red wine of blended Old World French grapes and new varieties developed to survive Minnesota winters.

ABV wines are distributed and sold exclusively in Minnesota, and are available in restaurants and retail stores from border to border. "Minnesota people drink Minnesota wine," said Nan. "Besides, Prohibition created barriers that prevent small wineries like ours from selling across state lines."

The Buzz
To date, ABV has received more than 50 awards in national competition -- primarily, for their dry table wines. Most recently, the company has already won two two silver medals for its Voyageur, which was just released in June 2006. And last month, Minnesota's leading newspaper, the Star Tribune, hailed Voyageur as "the best Minnesota wine, ever, by far."

Such attention is met with a vintage blend of great frustration and pride in having pioneered an entire industry in a state whose climate isn't ideal for growing grapes and forging ahead to make high-quality, award-winning wines. "The Voyageur represents 30 years of working with unknown, untried, obscure Minnesota grape varieties, and struggling," said Nan. "Not just to get them to grow, but to try and figure out how to make commercial-quality wines from grapes where no winemaker has gone before.

"The decision to move away from varietal wines and create a proprietary blend is based partly in the narrow selection of grapes I have to choose from, and looking for the best qualities of each to balance each other. It's also from the confidence I've gained from 25 years of winemaking to produce a superior wine that's based on my ability to taste and create a superior wine."

ABV's kudos come as no surprise to Sam S. Haislet, "owner, president, sole proprietor and shopkeeper" of Sam's Washington Avenue Wine Shop, one of the Twin Cities' premier retailers for wine enthusiasts. He's sold ABV wines in restaurants and retail stores for 15 years. Since opening his own shop in May 2006, ABV wines have consistently ranked among his top 10 bestsellers.

"For Minnesota wines, that's a bit high for overall bestsellers," said Haislet, who then attempted to classify ABV wine buyers. "New wine drinkers are willing to try anything as they go along in the world. People interested in Minnesota products are always interested. Real connoisseurs have a definite interest in the wines, as they are so unique. It is only the people in the middle -- i.e., the ones who think they know a lot about wine, but, in fact, are intimidated by the whole thing [drinking Minnesota wines] -- that hold up their noses at the wines."

Even with all the company's awards for what's inside their bottles, one of ABV's most gratifying accolades thus far is for its package design. "At the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition, we received a bronze medal for our Ratafia, in the package-design category," said Nan. [See bottle on far right, above photo.] "This is the event everyone in California attends, with their new, fancy bottle designs...

"What I enjoyed so much about winning, is that industry statistics indicate wineries typically spend a minimum of $200,000 to develop a wine's new package design," Nan beamed. "Well, mine was free because I designed it myself!"

The Catalyst
When trailblazer David Bailly first planted the vineyard in 1973, pure passion, faith and groundbreaking spirit led the way. He had no real road map, how-to manual, nor anything else of analytical substance to help him grow wine grapes and make wine in Minnesota -- much less, truly good wine grapes to suit his refined tastes.

"There was little, if any, research with grapes at the University of Minnesota then," said Nan. "There was, however, a young student in Horticulture who took an interest and, in fact, was the man who created the Frontenac grape [the red grape now used by most Minnesota winemakers]. There was also a rogue grape hybridizer named Elmer Swenson who was working with cold-hardy table grapes, and the University adopted his plant material to help form the foundation of their research department.

"The credit for the program at the University can be handed partly to my father for his pioneering ideas, and to then-Gov. Rudy Perpich, who spent a day harvesting grapes with us and saw the potential for a new cottage industry. He signed the first grant giving funds to the U of M to start the research into cold-climate viticulture."

The Partners
While the U of M is an ABV collaborator, of sorts, Nan counts others, too. "My No. 1 partner will always be my husband -- and my dog, Leon, too, who passed away this summer -- mostly, because this has been a long, hard road, and a winemaker needs lots of love in this climate," she related.

Then there's the Three Rivers Wine Trail, a joint-marketing venture of six wineries in the Mississippi River Valley. "It has been a great deal for us," said Nan. "We've been the only winery for a long time, and it has been a real benefit to promote ourselves with other wineries in the area."

Last, but definitely not least, there's ABV's distributor, The Wine Company, and its president, Larry Colbeck. "He's been more of a helper, supporter, advisor and friend to my winemaking than anyone else in bringing me to where I am today with the winery," Nan noted.

The Process
ABV has a two-acre experimental vineyard of University of Minnesota hybrids, and gives feedback to the U of M -- both on the cultivation of the new varieties, and on the flavors they find for winemaking. Nan has also worked closely with the U of M's Entomology Department on research re the Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle [MALB], an insect that's posed a real problem for grape growers in the region, and has played a key educational role in advancing Minnesota's wine industry.

The Upshot
Minnesota now has 19 wineries, approximately 50 commercial vineyards and more than 100 small hobby vineyards. They and the University of Minnesta can all thank ABV, the only commercial winery in Minnesota for more than a decade, for having the vision and fortitude to plow the way.

"In the mid-1980's, when I started here at the U, we set up a test pilot of unnamed selections from our grape breeding program at ABV with Nan and her father, David," recounted Peter Hemstad, University of Minnesota grape breeder. "Those vines provided us with some valuable information about their performance on very sandy soils. Since then, we've gotten feedback in a more anecdotal way about how our new cultivars have performed for Nan."

Anna Katharine Mansfield, head of the University of Minnesota's new Enology Project [she relocated here from North Carolina in 2001 for the job] also has high praise for ABV's contribution to Minnesota's growing wine industry. "Nan Bailly, like many other regional producers, has generously donated wine for various educational events we've run," she said. "She and her late father, David, have certainly succeeded in a difficult wine market, and have inspired many others to do the same."

As for ABV's most recent release, the well-traveled Mansfield praised, "Voyageur is certainly a well-made wine, and would be recognized anywhere as such."

The Financials
ABV is at the hub of Minnesota's wine industry, which accounted for 293,000 bottles sold retail in 2005. The total value of U.S. wine shipments in 2005 was an estimated $10 billion.

The Takeaway
Aside from the occasionally fruitful and mutually rewarding synergies, small-business owners, as a whole, are a very determined, independent and, sometimes, lonely lot. In order to succeed in our chosen, uh, fields, we have to be in order to stay true to our vision of the possible.

Nan Bailly is no exception. In trial-by-fire style, she's toiled and experimented and politicked, and now has a seemingly secure hold on what works and doesn't work -- at least for ABV's high-quality products -- and she's courageous enough to speak her mind in the land of Minnesota Nice.

Case in point: ABV's relationship with the U of M. "Developing cold-hardy plant material is a long process, and we realize the length of time it takes to sort through all the variables to find the one vine that will do it all," Nan noted. "Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

"The Frontenac [grape] was supposed to be our panacea, but has proven to be a difficult grape to make wine from. There is a new variety, Marquette, which was just released, but the plant material is in great demand, and there is little available for us to plant. Given the years it takes to bring a new grapevine into production, I am reluctant to commit to any new vines at this time. Although the University is funded with our state tax dollars, it seems they are making a lot of money selling plant material to growers in other states, and we in Minnesota do not get priority."

Then there's Nan's seasoned, real-world take versus the U of M's academic approach to winemaking. "I am critical of the advice they are giving to winemakers in the region to promote the 'acid-style' of wines being made with primarily the Frontenac grapes," Nan continued. "I contend that consumers reject that style, and further reject the notion that Minnesota wines need to be approached as unique and different from wines produced elsewhere.

"I have also been at odds with the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, which works closely with the University -- both of the wines produced and promoted by them, and in their legislative pursuits, which have inflated the price of grapes sold in Minnesota and, in my opinion, have contributed to the degradation of the quality of wines made."

What does Nan view as the most valuable components of the U of M's Enology Project? "The hiring of our state enologist, Anna Katharine Mansfield, is, perhaps, the most profound aspect of the program at the University," she replied. "As both an advisor and consultant who understands the unique qualities of the grape varieties we are working with, she provides us with a great advantage in promoting the success of our winemaking, and replaces the expensive and elusive wine consultants the industry would otherwise provide."

Looking forward, where does Nan see ABV's relationship with the U of M headed? "I will continue to support the program, take advantage of the opportunities to have excellent consultation from their enologist, and look forward to any new varieties developed for winegrowing," she responded.

So, what lessons has Nan learned, and what nuggets of seasoned wisdom would she share with other would-be Minnesota winemakers? "I've learned that I am alone in this world and need to figure out what I am doing all by myself, and when I succeed, to trust my instincts and never look back," she candidly replied. "To others, I'd simply suggest that they move somewhere south or wait for global warming to arrive in the Midwest."

On a more serious note, Nan expressed genuine gratitude for her father, and imparted a lesson to anyone embarking on a dream: "I was given a gift from my father, thankfully recognized it at a young age, and thank him for providing me with the template for my life. I have needed to remind myself of my father's tenacity to never give up -- but, maybe more, for the love he had in working with his hands and pursuing a dream without trepidation."

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Anonymous said...

Maybe it would have been a good idea to mention that Sam Haislet, the wine shop proprietor with so many complimentary things to say about Nan and her wines, is actually Nan's husband! Leaving out that little detail gives a misleading impression of the overall situation and is questionable journalism.

Kari Larson, Editor & Publisher said...

Full disclosure: "Anonymous" is right: Sam Haislet *is* Nan Bailly's husband. Oh, and I graduated from Minneapolis West High School with Nan [Class of '76]...