At any given time, I have at least ten types of vinegars—red wine, champagne, tarragon, cider, balsamic, raspberry, honey, rice, sherry, and distilled—sitting in my cupboard, waiting for action. And this is just my base complement of vinegars. I currently have five different balsamic vinegars, two different rice vinegars, and a cherry vinegar. In the past I’ve had cognac vinegar and numerous Chinese rice vinegars. I’ve also contemplated purchasing lemon vinegar and pear vinegar at various times. All my vinegars, except for the rice vinegars, the balsamic vinegars, the sherry vinegar, and the distilled vinegar come from France. I buy most of them in 750-milliliter bottles, except for the champagne vinegar which I use for pickling and buy in a five-liter jug.
When I cook, it is a given to have a variety of vinegars from which to choose. But recently I was staying with friends in the Loire Valley and was astonished to learn that I can buy a variety French vinegars easier in California than they could living in France. One of my friends told me that at the local hypermarché, he is limited to red wine, balsamic, cider, and tarragon vinegar. Those are his only choices. I guess if I had to, I could live with a reduced selection, but cooking would not be as much fun.
The English word vinegar and the French word vinaigre are both derived from the old French vyn egre, which itself came from the Latin vinum acer, which literally means sour wine. In modern French, the word for “wine” is vin and for “sour” is aigre. Vinegar has been around for a long time. It’s even mentioned in the Bible.
All of this started me thinking about vinegar: what is it, how is it made, and what differs one from another. In searching the Internet, I found that there were a number of vinegar producers within a few hours drive. So I decided to interview one of them and visit their production facility. I chose the Sonoma Vinegar Works in Calistoga, California. Located on the northern edge of the Napa Valley wine producing region, they seemed well situated to obtain a supply of raw materials. So one Friday afternoon, I sat down with Karen Fahden, the company’s president, to learn about making vinegar. I learned that they were a leading manufacturer, producing about three-quarters of a million liters of bulk specialty and certified organic vinegars each year. (In the same facility, they also produce Hans Fahden wines, which has no resemblance to vinegar at all!) Here, in part, is the conversation we had that afternoon:
Karen Fahden, the boss at Sonoma Vinegar Works
A glass of “mother”, which feels a bit like a sheet of gelatin, is used in the Orleans method
The two smaller 6,000-liter fermentation tanks
The larger 23,000-liter fermentation tank
The lab, an image of simplicity
à la carte: What is vinegar?
Ms. Fahden: Vinegar is actually a mix of many kinds of acids, all in solution. It is essentially water with mostly acetic acid, but there is malic acid and other types of acid. I can’t get specific with that because I’m not a technical person. The most measurable is acetic acid.
à la carte: Are there different types of vinegar, or is it all pretty much the same?
Ms. Fahden: No, there’re many types of vinegar. Basically, what we do in the vinegar process is another fermentation. The first fermentation turns the carbohydrate or sugar into alcohol. We then convert the alcohol into acetic acid. Anything that has alcohol in it, that includes wine, that includes distilled spirits—you can make alcohol out of anything that is carbohydrate in base—can be made into vinegar. You can take apple juice, convert it into hard cider, and then convert the hard cider into cider vinegar. Wine of course is common. We’ve done crazy stuff like agave—we’ve converted that into vinegar. We can convert brown rice syrup—it looks very much like honey when we get it—we can convert that into alcohol and then convert that into vinegar. We’ve converted orange juice and lime juice into alcohol. It’s not always very good, but we can do it. So we consider ourselves fermentation experts here, and we’re just a wholesale producer. We sell it the people who put it in a pretty bottle.
à la carte: So you’re essentially a bulk supplier?
Ms. Fahden: Yes, we make the brown rice vinegar for Spectrum, we do champagne vinegar for the “O” people. Sutter Home—you’ve probably heard of them—we did a vinegar project for them.
à la carte: Of course, some people think of Sutter Home’s wine as being close to vinegar.
Ms. Fahden: Yes, but they are very technical—they produce millions of gallons of the same product and it is very consistent. They are real sticklers about quality control. The vinegar we produced for them about five years ago has held up very well. They have a nice product for making vinegar.
à la carte: Could you please take me through the process in detail? For instance, is the second fermentation really a fermentation or is it an oxidation?
Ms. Fahden: I guess it’s an oxidation. It is referred to as a subaqueous fermentation. There are two basic ways of making vinegar. There’s the traditional old style [Orleans Method] that the ancients used. People have been making beer and wine forever. You expose wine to air and this little microorganism called acetobacter is going to find a resting place in the wine and then slowly convert it to vinegar.
à la carte: So it’s an airborne bacteria?
Ms. Fahden: Yes. It’s everywhere. Basically acetobacter converts alcohol to vinegar. When they make cheese, it’s the same concept. You create the optimal environment for the bacteria to reproduce and do their work.
à la carte: So the alcohol is consumed in the process?
Ms. Fahden: The acetic acid is the byproduct of their life cycle. So in the Orleans Method, they discovered that if they put the wine in barrels and left them open and exposed to air, slowly over the course of time, wine will turn into vinegar. That’s the old-world way. The problem with it—I mean it certainly makes nice vinegars—is that if you want to do it on an industrial scale, it takes way too long.
à la carte: How long does the Orleans Method normally take?
Ms. Fahden: Even in a controlled situation, it will probably take about three to four months to convert a barrel of wine into vinegar.
à la carte: Are there people who produce an artisan type vinegar with this method?
Ms. Fahden: There’s a place in Modesto called Classic Wine Vinegars. They have a huge warehouse and they do it on a pretty large scale.
à la carte: Are they actual wooden barrels or do they use open stainless steel vats?
Ms. Fahden: Barrels. So when they are trying to produce vinegar on a scale like that they obviously pay more attention. They recirculate the contents. They give it nutrients. Just like in alcohol fermentation, you feed the yeast—there are foods out there that the yeast like—that are carbohydrate and provide extra nitrogen so they can really reproduce and do a nice clean fermentation. So, we have nutrients in our process that you feed the acetobacter to give them just a little oomph. Anyway, that’s the Orleans Method. When you get into that kind of vinegar you’re going to have something that stylistically people will call more European. You don’t have as much biological control doing it that way so you can get other spoilage yeasts growing in it, and a big byproduct of that fermentation is ethyl acetate, which makes that vinegar a little rounder and smoother. If too much of it is prevalent, it has a real nail polish or banana quality. Some people really like that, and other people can’t stand it. Europeans like it more than they do in the United States. So that takes us to our process where we’re producing vinegar a lot quicker. We have a more controlled environment. We have these large stainless steel tanks that have a motor in the bottom—that’s all the noise you hear because we’re making vinegar—and these motors can keep up to six thousand gallons spinning. And we’re feeding it air. These tanks have heating and cooling, so we’re making sure it’s not too hot or too cold. We give them nutrients. And were dosing in the wine, or whatever alcohol we’re using.
à la carte: So is that an exothermic or endothermic type of reaction you have to control?
Ms. Fahden: Endothermic. Yes, we do control it. There are optimal temperatures. The acetobacter like it in Miami! They like to reproduce at 90 to 95 degrees [Fahrenheit]. They have to have oxygen. If the oxygen is cut off—and part of the oxygen comes from just circulating the liquid, plus we have an air flow—but if that is cut off for 20 seconds, then the fermentation is done. They have to have oxygen.
à la carte: So if you have a power failure the whole batch is ruined?
Ms. Fahden: It’s not ruined. The acetobacter kind of go into a state of suspended animation, but we can bring them back. We turn the tank contents and get it warmed up and introduce the air supply again, and they’ll come back.
à la carte: So is this a self-limiting process? How do you determine the endpoint?
Ms. Fahden: The endpoint is a calculation based on the level of alcohol that you start with that will convert into a certain level of acidity. So we’re watching alcohol go down and acidity go up. We’re monitoring that in our lab with an alcohol meter, and we’re doing titration to measure the acidity. And that’s another thing about the Orleans method versus our method. Because we have such tight biological controls, we can watch that the alcohol is completely converted. If it’s not, there’s a point where it can kind of “stick” and you don’t get a complete fermentation. You’re left with a little residual alcohol and acetobacter can continue grow in that. As a consequence, they might start growing in a bottle. While there are no health issues surrounding that, people do not like to see stuff floating [in their vinegar]. It almost looks like it’s a little piece of tissue, but there’s some mothering going on in that bottle. It’s innocuous—it’s just a cosmetic thing that most people don’t want to see. Some people want it. When they’re eating the raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, they think that is the panacea to good health—eating the mother—the live bacteria. So we have a complete fermentation of alcohol into acetic acid, whereas the Orleans Method can’t guarantee that, or it’s more difficult to do it that way.
à la carte: So is the acidity level at the end of the process a function of how much alcohol you start off with?
Ms. Fahden: Correct. Typically, your standard wine, which may be twelve percent alcohol, will convert into a product that with about a 10 percent acidity. But when you buy it in a store it will be much lower. We send it out full, or kind of a double strength, and then the bottler—because essentially we’re shipping water—will dilute it. They’ll take a double strength product and then dilute it to the acidity that they want before bottling.
à la carte: Are all your vinegars done just in the vat, or are any barrel aged after they are made?
Ms. Fahden: We have made vinegar and put it in the barrel to kind of age and round out, but we don’t see any particular benefit to it. Because of our situation here in the Napa Valley, we are very lucky to get some really good wine. A lot of this is Napa Valley wine that has already seen an oak barrel. It is wine that the producer didn’t want to use in their hundred-dollar bottles of wine—maybe their volatile acidity got up too high—and they’ll sell it to us for peanuts, or even give it to us. Or they just want it out of their facility. We take it, convert it, and make pretty nice vinegar. And even in our stainless-steel tanks, the longer it just sits, especially in the summertime, it warms and kind of rounds out. So we sort of have the best of both worlds. But we have from time to time put the wine in open vats, and we’ll take that vinegar and use it for blending if we something we’ve made is too sharp.
à la carte: Do you determine sharpness with your tongue or do you use instruments?
Ms. Fahden: Yes, there’s nothing worse than tasting vinegar at eight o’clock in the morning, but sometimes I have to do it. We do a certain amount of blending, and we can replicate some that have a European style by blending our inventory of vinegars. Our business has a couple of different layers to it. We make our own inventory. We make balsamic, golden balsamic, cabernet, and champagne vinegar—we maintain a consistent inventory. Sometimes wineries will send us some wine to be converted for them—it’s their wine made into their vinegar—and they can do whatever they want to it.
à la carte: You mentioned balsamic and golden balsamic vinegar. I am curious as to how this is made?
Ms. Fahden: In Italy they call it white balsamic, but there was a lawsuit and we can’t call it white. So we call ours golden. You probably know how traditional balsamic is made where the must is cooked and then aged in different kinds of woods. Some of the finest balsamic vinegars are a hundred years old and have been passed down from generation to generation. So you can make it that way and charge $125 for a little bottle, or make our down-and-dirty industrial balsamic that you can see at Trader Joe’s for $2.99. Obviously, this can’t be a hundred years old—this is a blended product where we take our base red wine vinegar and add sweeteners to it—that’s why everybody loves balsamic because it’s sweet. The traditional balsamic is the model, but by blending different sweeteners we can come close to it in flavor. We use all grape products, so the sweeteners we use are grape concentrates. We don’t use corn syrup like some people do. So our product is a little more expensive, but it’s still in that industrial market.
à la carte: So it’s a matter of whether you put coloring in it as to whether it’s regular or golden balsamic?
Ms. Fahden: Yes. We call our product California balsamic and we tell people that it matches traditional balsamic vinegars very well. Do we age it? Well, how about three months in stainless steel! We have to laugh. We think our product is very comparable to any product coming from Italy, but it’s not “Modena balsamic vinegar.” So people will buy the same product from Italy—pay more for it because it has the name—yet I truly believe that ours is a better product. Some people will say that theirs is aged for four years. Well, they had stuff that had been aged four months in stainless steel, just like us, and then they added a barrel that was aged four years. It’s a farce.
à la carte: So do you do any of the flavored vinegars, like raspberry or cherry?
Ms. Fahden: Yes. You can take any vinegar—champagne vinegar is a good base for that—and infuse it with raspberry concentrate or raspberry juice. You wouldn’t make a vinegar out of straight raspberry. It would be incredibly expensive. So you just infuse a clear vinegar. Some people don’t use anything as nice as a champagne—they use just white, distilled vinegar and add a concentrate to it.
à la carte: I’ve purchased cognac vinegar from France. Do you make anything similar to that?
Ms. Fahden: Cognac vinegar? I’ve never seen that. We’ve made some from port once. [The manufacturer] sent us their product. We converted it to vinegar and sent it back. I think they put it in barrels, aged it some more, and bottled it.
à la carte: That’s interesting. You start off with such a sweet product. Does the vinegar take on some of that sweetness?
Ms. Fahden: I don’t think so—not very much. In my mind, you have to add the sweetness back to it. With port, when they make it they do leave some residual sugar in it, but by the time we get it through a vinegar fermentation, all that sugar that was left in it is used up. It has that port aroma, but to me it is vinegar. You can tell a varietal characteristic in a lot of vinegars, but to me it is really a variation of acidity. I’m not a big fan of vinegar, personally! I like a good salad dressing, but some people love vinegars. They like that sour flavor. Not me.
à la carte: But you do use it?
Ms. Fahden: Yes, all the time. And it’s amazing that when you can get into the habit of using so much—my mother had a bottle of Heinz apple cider vinegar and it sat there for years—but I use a lot of it in marinades, and of course salad dressings.
à la carte: Vinegars seem to have become very popular as gifts in the last ten years.
Ms. Fahden: Yes. It’s a funny business. We kind of got into it serendipitously when someone approached us—we had the winery here and we actually had problems with a batch of wine one year—we’re not chemists—and I was calling around trying to get some information on what might be wrong with this wine. I got hold of this gentleman who was a professor at Fresno State in the wine department. We started to talk about vinegar. He never forgot about our conversation and I got a call from him one day—I had mentioned that we were making a little vinegar in barrels, and that we have a little shed, and that my husband loves vinegar. He said he had a friend that he wanted to bring up. He brought a man who had been the Vice President of Operations for Fleischmann Foods. He was getting ready to retire and wanted to do a little boutique, up-scale, premium type of vinegar. So he approached us—we had warehouse space—and we just partnered up. The last thing in the world I thought we’d ever be doing was making vinegar. He discovered after we started doing this that it really was a lot of work. His wife was a little upset. She wanted to be retired and to travel, and this is a business that when you are in production, it’s like a dairy farm, someone has to be here 24/7. So he wanted out. We bought the business from him, and we’ve had it ever since.
à la carte: So do you have a different location where your make the wine?
Ms. Fahden: Well that was the other side that we were in. We make the wine—much to everyone’s horror—side-by-side with the vinegar. And we tell people, if you know how difficult it is to make vinegar, you wouldn’t worry—as long as you take good care of your wine. We don’t have the prettiest winery, but we do have biological stability. We have taken extra measures to make sure that our wine doesn’t have any problems.
à la carte: So is the wine you make aged in barrels?
Ms. Fahden: Yes, the wine is made using traditional methods.
à la carte: Well, thank you for sharing your knowledge with me, today.
Ms. Fahden: You’re welcome.
©2007 Peter Hertzmann, Inc. All rights reserved.