“You make WHAT?!” The question always comes with an incredulous tone.
“I make vinegar…made from fresh fruit” I answer. I always have to tell people twice.
“Are you bad at making wine?” or something similar is the follow-up.
“No, I the idea was always vinegar.” I explain.
“So, how did you get into making vinegar?” the questioning usually continues.
“Well,” I say, “It started with a Super Bowl party and a few beers.”
Super Bowl XLIV
February 7, 2010
New Orleans Saints - 31
Indianapolis Colts – 17
Our friend Chris was invited to the party. When he arrived, he handed Diane a bottle. “Vinegar” he says. “We just got some Orange Muscat at the winery and I drew a bottle for you.” Chris had been growing a vinegar culture for about 20 years in a three-gallon, chestnut cask. Each time he had access to juice from Orange Muscat grapes, he would draw a bottle or two of vinegar and feed his “mother”. Now that the niceties were out of the way, it was time to open a few beers, char some bratwurst and wait for the Super Bowl COMMERCIALS. As the game was on, we turned our attention to the array of foods that had been put out and decided to open Chris’s bottle of vinegar. We poured the vinegar onto a plate and “sopped” it up with some crusty Italian bread. To our expectations, it was fantastic! While only stopping to watch the commercials (which weren’t very good that year), we sopped vinegar, ate bread and drank beer…and drank beer…and by half-time, we had convinced ourselves that we were going to be millionaire’s in the vinegar business.
After a series of phone calls, dinner’s and other discussions, Diane and I purchased some used wine barrels and some grape juice. Using the Orlean’s method, we developed a liquid that vaguely resembled the taste of vinegar. A few more attempts and we started to develop vinegar that was palatable. Then in June of 2012, unexpectedly, we lost Chris.
Vinegar wise, Diane and I figured that we were done. So, as gatherings, holidays and other events came, we would draw a bottle or two of our “not bad” vinegar and present it as a gift. Repeatedly, we were pleased to find positive responses from our efforts, and repeatedly, we were encouraged to continue our efforts.
As our vinegar adventure continued, I came across an opportunity to gather some grapes. “They’re just gonna rot on the vine. If you want ‘em, you can have ‘em” the farmer told me. So, I started picking grapes: Flame Tokay’s, outside of Lodi, CA. These 20 or so vines were the last of an old vineyard and the farmer was keeping them for the sake of nostalgia. I picked for most of the day and ended up with a pick-up truck filled with grapes. Now I had to process the grapes for juice, but didn’t have ANY equipment. That meant that if I didn’t want to lose the grapes, I’d have to get thinking about making some sort of a press.
The first press started with half of a wine barrel, a piece of shade cloth, a water heater overflow tray, a tractor disk, a welding table and a hydraulic jack. Di and I put the grapes into a plastic tub and did the ol’ Lucy and Ethel grape stomp. We put the half barrel in the water heater tray, and then the grapes were loaded into the shade cloth lined barrel and topped with the original oak barrel top. A tractor disk was put on top of the old barrel top and the whole contraption was put into the old welding table frame. The bottle jack was then placed between the table frame and the tractor disk and the grapes were pressed. We got juice! Not much, but enough to experiment with.
The juice was immediately inoculated with “live” vinegar culture and the barrels were left to ferment and age. After a few weeks, Di and I were ready to taste our first attempt at vinegar made from “scratch.” It was TERRIBLE! Personally, I was devastated, but Di, ever the optimist, urged me to be patient. The batch of “stuff” was put aside and life went on as usual.
About nine months had passed since the perceived failure and the “scratch” vinegar had been all but forgotten. While working on some other project in the shop, Di asked about the vinegar and, having concluded that we wouldn’t live forever, we tasted the vinegar. To our surprise, the vinegar was beginning to taste like vinegar. Maybe, we thought, we were on to something, but it just needed more time. So, we waited. Another four or five months, another weekend shop project, and Di asked about the vinegar…again. So, we tasted…again, and…again, we were pleasantly surprised that the grape juice had changed into a clear, semi-sweet vinegar. Gifts to friends and family supported our findings and convinced us that we needed to try again.
“The Lost Summer of 2013” was spent on an involved construction project. With people and materials coming and going, pounded fingers, collapsed ditches and an aching back, the vinegar efforts were put on the back burner. That is, until we were presented with the opportunity to harvest a small vineyard, in Lodi. The vineyard consisted of just over ½ acre of Flame Tokay grapes. This variety of grapes were once the backbone of the Lodi wine and brandy industry. Now the vineyard is being farmed by the grandson of the original farmer, who planted the vines in the early 1920’s.
The actual harvesting of the grapes was “educational”. Man, is that HARD work. It was hot, the ground had been disked and was soft and uneven, and there were bugs and spiders all over the place, but we got them in.
Then it was time for processing. By now, I’d gathered some basic equipment: a de-stemmer, a crusher and a small press, along with a collection of used wine barrels. Our first “big” crush yielded just less than 250 gallons. Our “vast knowledge,” gained from the previous years, was going to be put to the test. The sweet grape juice was inoculated with the vinegar culture and the days on the calendar started to tick away. After a few weeks, the vinegar was tasted, and again, it was terrible. So, again, we waited. At the eight or nine month mark, the juice, again, had become a clear, semi-sweet vinegar.
At this point, the work began in earnest, which brings us to the present. Please take some time to look some of the recipes we’ve developed and enjoy the “fruits” or our labors.
Copyright © Diane A Alley. All rights reserved.