From Vinegar to Wine
Yes, I know, it usually goes the other way. Whether on purpose or by unfortunate accident, wine may become vinegar through the action of aerobic bacteria. In today’s blog it isn’t the vinegar that turned to wine. Rather, it’s that some vinegar helped me get a turn with some good wine!
A year or so ago, a very nice lady named Anne Vercelli came into The Beverage People, the home fermentation store where I am a co-owner (and daily worker). She was interested in making vinegar. Although making wine, beer, and cheese occupy most of our business, we carry supplies and provide information for lots of other DIY hobbies, too. Along with such things as homemade sodas and liqueurs, we have mothers, books, and kits for making vinegar at home. I have made a variety of vinegars over the past several years and was very pleased to share with Anne my suggestions and recommendations for her entry into the hobby.
Besides making vinegars and talking to customers about them, I was invited a couple of years ago to make a presentation on vinegar making in the Wine Garden at the Sonoma Marin Fair. Even with that experience, it was a pleasant surprise when Anne called me a few months ago and asked if I would like to be a vinegar judge. She is the Professional Food Judging Coordinator for the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, our local celebration of all things wine and food. In that role, she recruits and oversees judges for a wide variety of comestibles including appetizers, cakes, olive oils, vinegars, and so forth. I had never judged vinegars, but I am a certified beer judge and I have done some wine judging. Knowing there would be experienced judges on the panel to provide guidance, I was happy to sign up.
Anne runs a judging program that operates over several days at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, with different judges for different categories scheduled at several different times each day. At my appointed time, I arrived at the Showcase Café building at the fair and joined a table with fellow vinegar judges Debra Del Fiorentino and Bill Traverso. Debra is the Director of Wine Competitions for Vineyard and Winery Management Magazine and Bill is a former owner of long-time Sonoma County icon Traverso’s Delicatessen. Both of them have extensive judging experience, including vinegars, and they were happy to give me some guidance on the process.
When judging wine, one swirls, sniffs, sips, and spits. The large number of wines often presented in a competition dictates spitting out most of the product or a judge would never get through the day! By contrast, in beer judging, the judge observes the beer, smells it, sips, and swallows. The alcohol levels are (generally) much lower and beer judges are assigned fewer entries in a day than many wine judges. I went into the professional vinegar judging very curious; swirl? Sniff? Spit?
We had seven vinegars presented to us, each in a wine glass. We were told the category, such as Champagne vinegar, but otherwise the judging was blind. We did not know the producers and had no other background information on the entries. The first part of the judging is a lot like wine: Observe color and clarity, swirl, and sniff. However, for vinegar tasting, steps need to be taken to protect the judge’s palate from the acidity, or it would take an excessive amount of time to recover between tastes. For that purpose, each of us had a spoon and a pile of sugar cubes. To judge the flavor of a vinegar, you place a sugar cube on the spoon. Then partly dip the cube in the vinegar glass. Not enough to dissolve the cube, but enough to get it wet. You then slurp the little bit of vinegar through the cube and judge its quality. We looked for fruitiness matching the origin of the vinegar, a clean fermentation with no off flavors or mustiness, and varietal character where appropriate. As it happened, we had a very good set of vinegars. We awarded two double golds, one gold, one silver, and three bronzes. One of the double golds, a raspberry champagne vinegar, was also designated Best of Show. We later learned that it was made by B.R. Cohn Winery of Glen Ellen here in Sonoma County. It is a delightful representative of the vinegar maker’s art. It has vibrant fresh-raspberry fruity aromas and distinct raspberry flavors, supported by a backbone of bright, clean champagne vinegar character. Well integrated and yet still distinctive, it shows wonderful balance and could be used not only in salads and marinades, but also for finishing meat dishes or brightening up a dessert.
Our judging panel found it easy to reach consensus on our awards and the whole process only took about an hour. I came away from it with new respect for the subtleties of good vinegar and with new knowledge of how to taste them without killing my palate for twenty minutes or so! After the judging, we reached the part of the cycle that took me back to wine. My reward for volunteering my time came in the form of two complementary tickets to the Grand Tasting at the Harvest Fair that was presented in early October.
On each of the three days of the fair, professional food winners present their winning entries during a three-hour Grand Tasting. Some present their foods all three days, some on only one or two days. The tastes are provided at the producers’ tables all around the rim of the large tasting hall. Meanwhile, in three long double rows of tables down the middle of the room, over 100 winning wineries are pouring over 500 wines for tasting! A Grand Tasting ticket includes all the food tastes and wine samples as you can get to in a three-hour period; it is a real treat for any wine and food lover. It also represents very much a local influence, with all of the wines made from Sonoma County grapes and many of the foods featuring Sonoma County agricultural products.
Marty and I started with a visit to the table of a long-time favorite, Selby Winery. When we have out-of-town guests who want to go wine tasting, the charming Selby tasting room in downtown Healdsburg is a frequent destination. At the fair on Sunday, October 4, we found some familiar and delightful wines on offer at their table. More than once over the years we have bought a case of Susie Selby’s Sauvignon Blanc to have in our cellar at home. At the fair, we tasted the current silver medal-winning version, a 2014 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc entered in the under $20 category. Delicious! We also got samples of another Selby favorite, Dry Creek Valley Syrah. This example, the 2011, also took home a silver medal. It paired very nicely with a taste of pulled pork served over soft polenta from Casual Catering of Santa Rosa (pictured below serving as a paperweight for the program that just happens to be open to my name!).
Perhaps the most distinctive wine we tasted that day was the Best of Class Sparkling Wine, a 2004 (!) Carneros Cuvee from Gloria Ferrer. It was rich and creamy with the notes of buttered brioche that only well-aged sparkling wine can exhibit. Even at 11 years old, it also still had bright fruity character and, of course, refreshing effervescence. I was thinking about that wine when these subjects all came together for me again today as I tended my homemade vinegars (pictured at top). I used a turkey baster to pull out and bottle 375 mL of my Estate Pinot Noir vinegar, then poured back in a bottle of my wine to continue the fermentation. I also bottled 375 mL of homemade Champagne vinegar and took another half-pint of that to start a new malt vinegar using homebrewed Märzen beer. The Champagne vinegar is one of the best I have ever tasted (and I know how to taste it now!). It was started by my former Beverage People associate Kimi Anderson in 2013 using Korbel Brut champagne. In July of this year, I fed it a bottle of Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut sparkling wine. After bottling some vinegar today, I poured in a bottle of Kenwood Vineyards Yulupa Brut. Not at the level of Carneros Cuvee perhaps, but good wine makes good vinegar!