Vineyard manager and owner Aline Baly ’02 follows practices set forward centuries ago.
By Brett Tomlinson ’99
Château Coutet sits at the center of a 95-acre plot in the countryside southeast of Bordeaux, not far from the point where Ciron River meets the Garonne, an artery that flows from the heart of France’s wine country to the Bay of Biscay. For centuries, wine connoisseurs have treasured the region’s vines, including the ones that surround this 13th-century stone house. They bear the Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes that supply a livelihood for Aline Baly ’02, her winemaking family and about two dozen year-round employees.
Baly, who joined the family business fulltime after earning her MBA at Northwestern University in 2008, walks the two-mile perimeter of the property each day she is on site. Sometimes she slips out in the morning, when the fog settles so thick and low that it makes the local roads nearly unnavigable by car. On other days, she takes her break after sharing a family-style lunch with the workers who tend the vines. Occasionally, she saves the walk for dusk, when the sun casts a golden glow over the estate — a light that reminds her of watching sunsets from the top of Freas Hall.
“Every day looks different,” Baly says of the vineyard. “It’s growing, and it’s beautiful. I feel very, very lucky every day that I walk through it.”
While relishing the natural splendor, Baly also feels the stress of a winemaker. She’s attuned to all the things that must go right to make a memorable vintage — particularly for a Barsac, the sweet, golden appellation that Coutet produces. To grow grapes with the right sweetness and composition, vintners in the Sauternes region rely on Botrytis cinerea, a naturally occurring fungus nicknamed the “noble rot,” to attack the vines and drain some moisture to sweeten the grapes before they are harvested.
Baly serves as the face of Château Coutet’s brand for much of the year, traveling to tastings in Asia, North America and Europe to share her wine’s virtues with restaurateurs, journalists and wine enthusiasts. But listening to her explain the Botrytis, it is clear Baly is more than just a marketer.
While the vines need moisture to get the fungus started, she says, too much rain can wash it away. And Botrytis is “a bit of an anarchist,” she adds, growing with little regard for consistency. Pickers have to pass through each row of vines several times, selecting grapes by hand. The process stretches from late August, when the fog and fungus first settle in, to mid-November, when the last grapes are picked. For parts of that time, Baly dons a green jumpsuit to help manage the harvest teams.
“People say, ‘Wow, you’re in the wine business — there’s so much luxury,’ and there are certain sides of my job that are fantastic,” Baly says. “I get to go to fantastic restaurants and meet individuals who love wine and have traveled so much and seen so much. But the other part of it is that I’m in agriculture. If I have bad weather conditions, I don’t have wine. And I often feel like my job is really to link agriculture to this wine, this luxury good.”
To those who knew Baly at Bucknell, a life in the wine industry might seem like a curious path. On campus, she studied economics and international relations and lived in the Global College. She also was active in CALVIN & HOBBES, the University’s substance-free activities group. While she now drinks wine regularly, Baly notes that like everyone in the industry, she does her share of tasting and spitting as well.
Born in France to French parents, Baly spent nearly all of her childhood in the United States, after her father’s job had been transferred to Massachusetts. But at home, Baly’s mother aimed to maintain a sense of tradition and heritage. The family spoke French around the house and dined on a mostly French diet. There were a few exceptions, like American-style turkey dinners on Thanksgiving, accompanied by a bottle of Château Coutet.
Baly spent summers in France visiting relatives, including her uncle and paternal grandfather, who ran the Château Coutet vineyard. Her grandfather had come to the wine business relatively late in life, purchasing Château Coutet as a retirement venture a few years before Aline was born. But the vineyard itself has a deep heritage, with wine production on the estate dating back to the 1640s. Thomas Jefferson wrote a glowing review of Coutet in his wine journal, calling it the best Sauternes from the Barsac region. In 1855, the vineyard was designated “first growth” in an influential classification of French wines that still holds sway today.
Baly knew about Château Coutet’s heritage and enjoyed her trips to the vineyard, but she hadn’t given much thought to joining the family business. Her parents wanted her to follow her own path, and she did, working for a life-sciences company after Bucknell and then returning to business studies at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management to expand her marketing and operations skills.
At Kellogg, Baly began to think seriously about working for Château Coutet, believing that she could add a new perspective to the internationally distributed brand. So she arranged to spend a summer in France, learning the ropes alongside her uncle Philippe to find out whether their management styles were compatible. (Baly’s father, Dominique, also helps run the business but continues to live in the United States.) After that trial run, Aline went back to Northwestern for her second year and made plans for a more permanent return to France.
Just a few days after finishing business school, Baly arrived at Château Coutet wearing sneakers and a backpack, looking very much like an American college student on a semester abroad. “I unpacked my suitcase, repacked my suitcase and was off to Russia for my first tasting mission,” she says. With help from a few new friends, she was able to find her way in the wine industry relatively quickly.
Today, Baly’s work blends Old World tradition with a modern business sense. At French vineyards, workers care for the vines by hand and rely on dry farming (no irrigation). Save for a few conveniences like stainless-steel tanks and mechanized wine presses, the winemaking process at Château Coutet is much the same as it was three centuries ago. In other aspects, though, Baly and her family take advantage of 21st century perks like a worldwide distribution network and “just in time” labeling. (Each importing country has its own standards for what information must appear on the label).
In her marketing efforts, Baly has used online social networking to spread the word about her wine. She invites touring wine enthusiasts to Château Coutet via Twitter and sets up face-to-face meetings through Facebook during her travels. Through more formal channels, she’s helped Château Coutet earn praise from mainstream magazines and news organization. In the last year alone, the brand has been spotlighted by Food & Wine, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg.com and the Associated Press.
In interviews and in casual conversation, Baly frequently is called upon to recommend food pairings for Coutet, and though she’s only been in the business for two years, she delivers with the confidence of a seasoned professional. Traditions vary, she explains. In France, Château Coutet is often served with foie gras; in the United Kingdom, it’s paired with Christmas pudding. But today’s wine lovers are moving away from these conventions, Baly says, exploring dinner options that work well with a Sauternes, such as poultry or sweet crustaceans, like lobster.
Roasted turkey is a personal favorite for Baly, who encourages people to look past the boundaries of tradition and experiment with different combinations. “It could be something you enjoy, just because of your own individual tastes,” she says. “Tasting is very much an individual sport.”
Brett Tomlinson ’99 is an assistant editor at the Princeton Alumni Weekly and a frequent contributor to Bucknell Magazine.