Meet Miss Ratafia
18200 Kirby Ave., Hastings; (651) 437-1413
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, June through November
Léon the dog is visibly annoyed. From the minute I show up at Alexis Bailly Vineyard, in the flat, flat lands between Hastings and Red Wing, Léon keeps rushing from the winery out into the wrecked winter fields, where he perks his ears and twitches his tail in full-body exasperation.
It's probably not the dismal state of the fields that is irritating Léon, though they do look barren. The gray earth is wounded and tractor-gouged; the trellises look like nothing but fences; and most of the grapevines have been laid down on the ground, out of the way of the icy winds being forecast.
No, chances are Léon is only taking in the fact that a yellow half-moon has risen well in advance of suppertime. How many days till his kingdom is reduced to the close area at the end of a lead? Not very many days at all. Meanwhile, Alexis Bailly owner Nan Bailly and her husband Sam Haislet are preparing wine for bottling, intent on the very thing that makes Léon unhappy; the disappearance of grapes from the fields, the vanishing of a summer's worth of activity into casks.
Of course, the very thing that darkens Léon's day is occasion for joy for everyone that Léon encounters--not least me, not least Bailly and Haislet. I'm down at the vineyard on one of the first truly wintry days of the year to get a firsthand look at a wine I'm thoroughly intrigued with, Alexis Bailly's ratafia. Ratafia (ra-ta-FEE-a), is, at Alexis Bailly, a fortified wine made by combining red wine with a long-steeped combination of spirits, oranges, and top-secret spices. Imagine something halfway between a ruby port and a mulled wine, and you'll begin to get the idea. As you pour a glass of the dark purple stuff, you smell oranges, raisins, vanilla, cloves--maybe cinnamon? And this isn't some wine taster's "I say vanilla/You say figs." It's vanilla, it's oranges. Writing this article, I've got a small glass of the stuff near the keyboard, and a finger of the beautiful liquid has perfumed the entire room. It's like a memory of Christmas on the tongue: hot, heavy, and sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, not cloying.
Once you taste Alexis Bailly's ratafia, you never forget it. Once you start experimenting with it, it begins to seem like a miracle potion. It's good right out of the bottle, either as an apéritif or as a dessert wine. With ice and soda it's spicy and summery. Put in a brandy snifter and warmed in the hands, this ratafia releases fumes like an aromatherapy cloud. You can cook with it, like Marcus Samuellson is doing at Aquavit, or Alexander Dixon is doing at the Zander Café (where Haislet is the wine buyer). Reduce it to use in a salad dressing. With garlic it makes a great marinade for chicken or lamb. At Table of Contents they've made a martini of it.
I'm truly embarrassed about my enthusiasm. What next? Does it heal the sick? Enrich the luckless? Fix cranky carburetors? Whether it does or not, this much seems certain: Ratafia is an ancient Old World beverage, and Nan Bailly might well be the only person making it in the New World. "I learned to make this when I was pruning grape vines in the Côtes du Rhône, 20 years ago," says Bailly, a tiny, gray-eyed redhead who can provide quotes while she wrestles oak casks across a room. "A family had befriended me, and in France it's traditional for everyone in the countryside to share an apéritif before the big noon meal. What happens is, everyone gathers in the living room, and has a glass of ratafia as an appetizer--a true appetizer, something to stimulate the appetite, something to warm the mouth for food."
Bailly suspects the tradition evolved from thrift. "I think it just came from that basic impulse not to waste anything," she says. "If you didn't finish a bottle of wine, dump it in the ratafia. If you had orange peels, put them in the ratafia. Add brandy to keep bacteria from growing, and, eventually, there you are. Then it's: The baby has a sore throat. Ratafia! The kids are sick. Ratafia! Time for lunch. Ratafia!"
I did some research on ratafia, and it turns out that there are different versions of it all over France and Spain, and it tends to reflect local agriculture, or enthusiasms. In the Champagne region, it's made exclusively with chardonnay grapes. Where quince grow, it's made with quince. Elsewhere, with almonds, cherries, or cardamom. The name is generally agreed to come from the same root as "to ratify," and it refers to the custom of toasting when treaties were signed or deals concluded. In her recent book From My Chateau Kitchen, Anne Willan says one of ratafia's many virtues was that it could be made safely at home, and was thus immune from taxes.
Of course, everyone who has experienced only one kind of ratafia thinks there is only one true kind, and there seems to be ample room for a ratafia historian to enter the breach. Last spring Nan Bailly got a letter from the mayor of the Catalonian city Santa Coloma de Farners, where they host a ratafia festival each autumn--a weeklong celebration culminating in a contest. Never mind that Catalonians have been bottling ratafia for generations, while Bailly sold her first bottle last year, the mayor wanted to know if Bailly could provide them with the drink's history! Bailly is simultaneously baffled and tickled by her sudden international prominence. "That's when I decided," she cries, "it is incumbent upon me to decide all ratafia-related questions for the world, and I will henceforth be known as Miss Ratafia!" This decree is very exciting to Léon, and sets him to running in and out the doors.
Miss Ratafia started making ratafia 18 years ago, as Christmas gifts for her nearest and dearest. She only decided to bottle it for commercial production last year, but it seemed like as soon as she did, fortune smiled down on her little winery with a surprise national award for, of all things, the bottle's label. Bailly won a bronze medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition 2000. That might mean little to you or me, but wine labels are major investments for the big-money vineyards, and Bailly was up against everyone from Domaine Chandon to Gallo. Bailly picked tall, cobalt-blue bottles just because she knew her ratafia had to stand out on the shelf, since no one in America might have heard of it. Local artist and friend Léon Hushscha painted the portrait used in exchange for wine. Local firm Yamamoto-Moss designed a roughly trapezoidal label to fit the bottle and also agreed to a payment made in wine and friendship.
Bailly herself puts the ratafia in the bottles, pokes in the corks, dips the tops in black wax, and glues on the labels, with Léon at her side. "This is such a big deal," says Bailly, referring to her newest medal. "In San Francisco, label design is this super-expensive, prestigious, expensive proposition, with fancy cuts to the paper, enamel, gold-leaf, the works. And it's like, a $100,000 label versus a free label. And we got the bronze. Incredible."
Incredible too is the fact that we metro-area Minnesotans are really the only people in the world with access to this ratafia. Alexis Bailly Vineyard doesn't have a license to ship out of state, and since Nan Bailly is still only making the stuff in really small batches, it's available in just a handful of local wine shops. Generally it sells for $18 for a 500-milliliter bottle, though I've seen it for less.
Personally, I made sure to secure my half-case for holiday gifts before this hit the stands. It's got everything I want in a gift: It's pretty; it's rare; it tastes good; it lasts (Bailly and Haislet report keeping a bottle in a window for months, to mimic the kind of abuse typical once-a-week drinkers would mete out. They say it gets sweeter and more caramelized with time). Moreover it fits in with my critical philosophy for food. (Ten seconds are allotted here for eye-rolling...la la la. Done yet? Good.) Which is to say, it's locally made and represents local ingenuity, being a great use of the grape that Alexis Bailly grows most easily, Maréchal Foch. Because the final blend of flavors is more explicitly controlled by the winemaker than the weather, it's more forgiving of our Minnesota prairie winds. For the ratafia Bailly combines her wine with her "formula," a long-brewed combination of spirits and other ingredients.
(Bailly let me taste a bit of the formula she was brewing for the next batch, namely the spirit-and-secret-ingredient blend that was steeping in a steel tank. I can't tell you too much about it, except that it was golden, tasted like vanilla, sticks, and yellow raisins, and was so blindingly strong that when I went to write a note about its yellow-brown residue, I quickly found I could no longer spell residue. Then I realized I could no longer spell spell.)
Most important, the Alexis Bailly ratafia is a locally made wine that says something about the location it comes from. Not only can you taste the hearty local grapes, you can taste the will to survive the winter in style. It's so warming it cries out "fireside, après-sledding, quilt-and-book, pre-turkey, post-tree-decorating." It's using the weather as an excuse to read books, or spending an hour sending the dog bounding out across the frozen lake in pursuit of a stick. When you see that dog pursuing that stick this winter, consider that it might be Léon, and he might be soon returning to a house where a few fingers of ratafia will perfume the air and warm the belly.
Alexis Bailly ratafia can currently be found by the glass at the following restaurants: Dixie's (2730 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612-920-5000); Table of Contents (1310 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612-339-1133); Lucia's (1432 W. 31st St., Minneapolis, 612-825-1572); Porterhouse Steak & Seafood (235 Little Canada Rd. E., St. Paul, 651-483-9248); and the St. James Hotel (406 Main St., Red Wing, 651-388-2846). And by the bottle in the following liquor stores: Four Seasons, in St. Paul; Byerly's Wine & Spirits in St. Louis Park; McDonald Liquor Store, Hennepin-Lake Liquors, and Surdyk's, in Minneapolis; the New Brighton Liquor Barrel; Apple Valley Municipal Liquor stores One and Two; D&R Liquors; Wink's Liquor in Forest Lake; and West End Liquor, in Red Wing.
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