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Linda Murphy August 2010 column: Sweet-talking the Americans

It has been said that when it comes to wine, Americans talk dry and drink sweet. They’ve been led to believe that ‘serious’ wines have very little, if any, residual sugar, and that only amateurs consume off-dry and sweet wines. So we claim to drink dry, yet behind closed doors, sip off-dry Rieslings and Muscats, porty Zinfandels, and even some high-end California Cabernet Sauvignons that have enough residual sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth, yet are marketed as dry.

True Port, and Port-style wines, have a small but avid fan base in the US, particularly among cigar smokers. Yet with the wine-drinking masses, few embrace Sauternes, Trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings, Tokaji Aszú, or the late-harvest wines made in California, Washington, and New York’s Finger Lakes region. It’s a cultural barrier rather than a sensory one; drinking sweet wine is not ‘cool’ to most, and the wines are ‘too expensive’ for a meagre 375ml bottle.

Aline Baly is out to change all that. The Paris-born, US-educated marketing and communications manager for Château Coutet, a premier cru classé in Sauternes-Barsac, is crusading to get America not only drinking more late-harvest wines, but also enjoying them with their meals, from start to finish – not just with the foie gras appetiser and tarte tatin dessert.‘[Sauternes] is not just a sweet or dessert wine; it has minerality and brisk acidity,’ Baly says. ‘The wine goes with so many things: lobster, shrimp, chicken, turkey, curries, Asian dishes, quiche, vinaigrettes. It plays off contrasts and complements. It’s the acidity that balances the sweetness, making our wine very food-friendly.’

Many dessert wines are expensive, packaged in 375ml bottles that shout ‘I’m too special for regular consumption.’ Yet Coutet is reasonably priced, between $45 and $65 for a 750ml bottle. Baly has already placed her wines with retail shops and restaurants in the US, but says she’s only just begun.‘If only restaurants would put these wines on their lists and recommend them,’ she says with a sigh. ‘US consumers would understand how lovely and refreshing Sauternes are, if only they were introduced to them. I’m pushing for wine lists to include sections for ‘white,’ ‘red’ and ‘gold’ wines.’

It’s relatively easy to produce a sweet wine; it’s tricky to make one that is succulent, saliva-inducing and food-friendly. As good as Far Niente’s Dolce and Beringer’s Nightingale late-harvest wines are from Napa Valley, as well as the stickies from Washington State’s Chateau Ste Michelle, and the tiny-production sweet wines from New York’s Finger Lakes region, rarely do they have the acid-laced vibrancy of high-quality Sauternes.

Baly is an ambassador for this style, and as an American with French roots, is a highly persuasive saleswoman. She was born in Paris, to French parents, and at age 8, moved with her family to the US. She attended university in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, earned a masters degree from the Kellogg School of Business Management (specialising in marketing and entrepreneurship), and has lived in Hong Kong, Madrid and now Bordeaux.

Her father, Dominique, and his brother, Philippe, purchased the 42ha (hectare) Château Coutet in 1994, becoming only the fourth owners since Coutet was established as a sweet-wine producer in the 17th century. Baly had worked at various jobs, until November 2001, when she attended a Decanter Fine Wine Encounter with uncle Philippe.

‘I turned to him and said, “What am I doing working in a cube when I can work in the wine industry and travel the world?’” Baly recalls. ‘Today, my uncle and I manage the property. I’m American and young, he is French and old – no, let me say wise. It’s an exciting relationship.’

The 30-something Baly, who lived in the US for 20 years before returning to France in 2008, is out to change the perception that Sauternes is only for desserts. She makes frequent visits to the US to hand-sell her wines, typically over lunch or dinner, where she politely suggests savoury (and sweet) dishes that will resonate with her family’s wine.

Baly hosts meals with trade, press and consumers, offering suggestions on which foods will resonate with Sauternes, and emphasising that Coutet wines aren’t just sweet, but compatible with a wide range of foods. She also uses Facebook and Twitter to get the world out to a broad audience, many of them aged in their 20s or 30s seeking adventurous wine experiences.

Baly knows she can lead a horse to water, but she can’t make him drink. Yet put a feedbag on a Yankee Doodle pony, serve up a glass of Château Coutet, and that pony will know right away that the wine enhances what he eats. Now if only two-legged wine drinkers in the US could make the same connection…

Written by Linda Murphy

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