Sour is Sweet: More foodies are making and collecting vinegar

"How could I not buy The First Original Bavarian Beer Vinegar?” Jonathan Yordy asked. Since he had arrayed roughly two dozen bottles of vinegar on his granite countertop, I considered this to be a rhetorical question. Yordy is a vinegar enthusiast; he’s been collecting for years. He explained that as public relations coordinator for the University of Missouri-St. Louis, he often entertains. He came up with the idea for serious vinegar tastings instead of the usual wine and cheese before dinner or the scotch-sipping afterward when he noticed that not everyone drinks. So Yordy took out the alcohol, just like acetobacter does when it makes wine into vinegar.

Big mama

As any foodie knows, when you translate the French origins of the word vinegar you get “sour wine.” To become vinegar, wine does not go bad, it becomes acidic. When given a little time, a specific little bacterium and a little air, the alcohol in the wine is converted into acetic acid. That’s why that bacterium, acetobacter, is called “the mother of vinegar”; there would be none without her.

Acetobacter doesn’t care if it’s turning the alcohol in fermented barley or in Champagne into acetic acid; it just needs air and time. Today, commercial vinegar production is speeded along with heat or generators so that instead of years or months, the conversion is over in a matter of weeks or even days. Jeannie Milewski, executive director of the Vinegar Institute in Atlanta, described today’s process as “much more scientific.” Artisanal vinegar makers rely on more traditional methods. And as always, good things come with time.

We all improve with age

Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of famed Ann Arbor, Mich., food emporium Zingerman’s and author of “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating,” respects the old ways. “When manufacturers use the short cut of pressing wine through wood chips over and over, it really diminishes the flavor, it loses its complexity,” Weinzweig said. “It just doesn’t compare.” Weinzweig loves really great vinegar, and he helped me to understand its history.

Vinegar has been used for centuries. In ancient times, its production was primarily left to nature, but by the Middle Ages, the French developed a more controlled method for producing vinegar. Orléans, located on the Loire River, the route for southern winemakers shipping their wares north to Paris, was perfectly positioned to become the world’s vinegar capital. Casks that had been tampered with or had soured were unloaded there and allowed to mature until all the alcohol was gone and the vinegar nicely aged.

Today’s artisanal “Orléans method” involves adding a small amount of vinegar containing the mother to a three-quarters-full wine barrel that has been given air holes. After a few months of converting, the vinegar is siphoned off into another barrel for six to 24 months of aging. By starting with good wine, the Orléans method yields really good wine vinegar; the aging in French oak gives it character.

Balsamic vinegar has its roots in the Italian town of Modena, when 11th-century villagers decided to cook grape juice in a copper kettle. Unlike wine vinegar, balsamic is made from the must of Trebbiano grapes (must is the juice of freshly crushed grapes and can include pulp, skins and seeds). The must is reduced to a thick, almost syrupy consistency and poured from the copper kettle into fine wooden barrels. Then years of aging begin.

At the direction of a master vinegar maker, the cooked must destined to become the prized balsamico tradizionale is moved through different varieties of wooden barrels, starting in large barrels and finishing in small casks. When new vinegar is added to each centuries-old barrel, a small amount of the old is intentionally left behind so that the finished balsamic is a blend of batches from many years. All that tradition and limited production explains part of the high price for a small quantity, and it is definitely what creates the complex and nuanced sweet-sour flavor of authentic balsamic.

Today, much of what is sold in supermarkets as balsamic is not regulated and quality varies widely; the lowest quality versions are merely red wine vinegar sweetened with sugar and colored with caramel. What Italians call industriale balsamic is produced in mere hours and in bulk; that’s why it costs less and doesn’t taste anywhere near as mellow. Weinzweig said, “You can call anything balsamic … it doesn’t use the right grapes … it doesn’t use the aging process … other than that, it’s perfect.”

Bring home the vinegar

Trip Straub, owner of St. Louis-based Straub’s markets, said he found most of the vinegars he sells at fancy-food shows in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. His staff is trained to help customers make selections from dozens of choices. But where to start?

Straub recommended having a staple white wine and red wine vinegar to handle those recipes for potato salad and marinades. From there, he said, pick an “everyday”-quality bottle of balsamic for deglazing, and maybe a bottle of “the nice stuff” for berries and cheese. For finishing greens or grilled meats, he suggested a flavored wine vinegar that has an herb or fruit profile you prefer. Lastly, you might want to choose a sherry or Champagne vinegar because both are terrific in salad dressings. Tasting can help you make a selection; Straub’s usually has an open bottle of most types of vinegars.

At Straub’s, there is a locked cabinet of Leonardi brand balsamic vinegar. Straub said the buyers of the $149 small bottle of tradizionale 30-year-old from Modena are well-educated foodies, who will share it with friends on special occasions as a digestif. For those on a more restricted budget, there’s the Lapiana brand at $13.99 for five-year-old, $19.99 for 10-year and $29.99 for 20-year. Prices for the everyday balsamics and nearly all of the other dozen or so specialty vinegars on Straub’s shelves range from $7 to $26
a bottle.

When a recipe calls for a tiny amount of a specialty vinegar, and you succumb and buy the $145 bottle, you can do so knowing that, according to the Vinegar Institute, the shelf life of vinegar is “almost indefinite.” If you have splurged on a high-quality extra virgin olive oil, it would be a shame to mix it with an ordinary vinegar. Shake up your salad dressing this summer with something new, be it sherry, Champagne, raspberry or thyme vinegar. You will be able to taste the difference.