Almost from the beginning, Jed and I have joked that if our grapes turned out to be lousy we would just make vinegar. Somewhere along the way the idea morphed from a joke into taking a serious look at actually making vinegar. My guess is that it probably happened some night when we were pouring a nice balsamic over some strawberries and that the conversation went something like this:
Jed: These berries are really good.
Me: They are. And the balsamic really makes the taste pop.
Jed: Who have thought vinegar would be good with something sweet like strawberries?
Me: And this is the same one we’ve been using without anything else on salads.
Jed: Yep. It’s really good. Does it cost a lot?
Me: Well, yeah. But we’ve been growing our own strawberries and lettuce. So we haven’t paid anything for those.
Jed: Always good. So, how much was the vinegar?
Me: I don’t remember for sure, but about $12 or $13 I think.
Jed: So less than for a decent bottle of wine, right?
Me: No, that would be for a little bottle of vinegar; half the size of a bottle of wine..
Jed: (after thinking on this for a while) So good vinegar costs more than a bottle of wine?
Me: Well, more than some of the wine we buy, yes.
Jed’s look said “We should look into this.”
The Wine Adventure Takes A New Turn.
For the next several months, we looked into making vinegar. We learned that supermarket vinegar is usually aged for about 24 hours while good vinegars are aged for months and sometimes years. That balsamic vinegar doesn’t have any balsam in it. That ‘red wine vinegar’ usually has more than one kind of red wine in it.
We tasted a lot of vinegar: wine vinegars from the supermarket; balsamic vinegars from fancy food stores; apple cider vinegars from farmers markets; flavored artisan vinegars from websites, gift vinegars from friends. Some were good; some were boring; some were over-priced, and some were amazing.
We researched the various ways to make vinegars: the chemical method and the Orleans method. We learned about ‘mother’ and ‘starter’ in vinegar and fermenting in steel vs oak. (Did you know balsamic is aged in more than one kind of wood?)
We began to understand that making a really good vinegar is just as complicated as making a really good wine – because you need to start out by making a really good wine.
Jed, of course, worked on spreadsheets of how many grapes to make how many bottles of vinegar. He determined that if the vinegar is really good, you can charge more per liter than you’d get for wine.
Most importantly we learned that the idea of making a good artisan vinegar sounded like a lot of fun to us.
So last spring Jed gave me a small oak barrel for making vinegar along with some starter. I headed to the store for some locally made merlot. I read the “easy as 1-2-3″ directions, poured in the wine, added the mother, and replaced the lid. “Leave alone in cool dark area undisturbed for three months.” I marked the date on the side of the barrel.
May passed: Jed: “Is the vinegar ready yet?” Me: “Not for another couple of months.”
June passed: Jed: “Is the vinegar ready yet?” Me: “Not for another month.”
July passed: Jed: “Is the vinegar ready yet?” Me: “Not for another couple of weeks.”
The ready date in August passed. Jed decided to turn the spigot and taste the vinegar.
Jed: You should come and taste this vinegar.
Me: That’s right! It should be ready by now. I’ll be right there.
Jed: I don’t like it. It smells funny.
Me: (sadly) I don’t like it. It smells funny.
Jed: How did you make it?
Me: I bought two bottles of local merlot and followed the instructions on the jar of mother. They said it was as easy as 1-2-3.
Jed. Well, I want to get rid of it. It smells funny.
Me: Yeah, I guess so.
So I held my nose, turned on the spigot, and waited while all the beautiful red liquid went down the drain in the kitchen sink. Gradually the liquid turned browner with weird specs. Finally it was empty. There was no mother to be seen at all. I took the top off the barrel and peered in. Something else was in there. I reached in gingerly and pulled out part of a piece of plastic wrap and some wine-colored paper with the remains of what looked like instructions on them. I could just make out a bit about soaking the barrel for 24 hours before using it.
I opened a bottle of wine and reported on my findings to Jed. After a bit, we both started to laugh. What other possible outcome could there be in Pam and Jed’s Wonderful Wine Adventure? This would just get added to the list: deer, beetles, wasps, powdery mildew, clay plan, winter die back, and now: instead of wine that tastes like vinegar we ended up with vinegar that doesn’t taste like vinegar!
We took turns scrubbing out the little barrel. Jed poured in some white vinegar and let it soak. Soon I’ll buy two more bottles of merlot and try again, maybe this time with a different starter.
So, back to an important question: if you make wine in a winery, do you make vinegar in a vinegary?