Turning good wine into really great vinegar
July/Aug. 2009 California Country magazine
By Kate Campbell
Katz and Company takes their time to create Orleans-style vinegar in Solano County.
Nestled against a hillside in the Suisun Valley, a Civil War-era carriage house faces the morning sun, its double doors shut tight. Cut from stones taken out of the ground where it sits, the two-story structure—with its square-head nails, thick walls and plank floor—was new in 1865 when California was just getting its legs as an agricultural powerhouse.
Since those days the sturdy structure has served a variety of purposes, from a fruit-packing shed, to a stable, to an equipment barn, to a forgotten relic beside the charming Rockville Cemetery. But, about a decade ago the historic structure took on a new job—one that honors its agricultural past while embracing the future.
Today it’s a vinegar house for Katz and Company, one of the few Orleans-style vinegar makers in the nation. The company’s award-winning vinegars, made from premium California wines, are the result of an unlikely partnership between a chef and a U.S. Navy veteran.
Although the men don’t have a heritage in agriculture, they do have a love for the land and the determination to learn the skills needed to succeed in the competitive businesses of farming and food processing. Both have been farming or working in the food sector all their adult lives—an interesting pairing of two disciplines.
A former restaurant owner, noted chef and founding member of the California Olive Oil Council, as well as a Napa-based specialty food company, Albert Katz said, “I’ve had a lifelong involvement with food. And that led us on an interesting path to farming.”
The farm-based business he formed with partner Jim Parr, who after 25 years in agriculture still calls himself a “dirt farmer,” is in one of the state’s emerging agritourism destinations—Suisun Valley in Solano County. An area of rolling vineyards, produce crops and orchards, it’s tucked in a sunny swale between the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento.
When Katz and Parr throw open the heavy double doors of the old carriage house, its new purpose is abundantly clear. The smell of wine vinegar fills the air, clears the sinuses and lies sweetly at the back of the throat. The tangy air is rich enough to dress lettuce.
Katz said he got interested in making vinegar in Berkeley back in 1993, when he was working as a chef in Bay Area restaurants.
“I had a friend who was an assistant winemaker at Clos du Bois (in Sonoma County) and he helped me get some premium wines to start with,” Katz said. “I started with good wine, but managed to make a lot of really awful vinegar.
“I read everything I could, talked to experts in viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, made every mistake in the book and kept trying.”
Meanwhile Parr was working in the wine world, learning about grape growing and winemaking. This made the pairing of Katz and Parr a natural collaboration.
Since then, through trial and error, the men have mastered the centuries-old Orleans method of vinegar making. They are naturally guarded about their recipes and the source of the “mother” bacteria that makes Orleans-style vinegar a “living” food. But, they’re quick to point out that microscopic acetobacters used in vinegar making are “good” bacteria that join the host of beneficial microbes necessary for human digestion. The use of these bacteria was perfected in the French town of Orleans and the process has been employed in vinegar making since about the 14th century.
Sometimes called the continuous method, the Orleans style of vinegar making relies on techniques passed down from European masters. The time-consuming process limits the supply, which is reflected in the price.
The method calls for hand blending and establishing an initial barrel supply, which can take up to two years to mature. In addition, only a small amount of finished product can be skimmed from the barrels at a time.
The wine is stored in oak barrels and the “mother” is introduced to aid acidification, which is the hallmark of the Orleans method.
Unlike wine, good vinegar depends on breathing in the barrel to achieve the distinctive flavors and delightful results. On the other hand, commercial-scale vinegar making is based on rapid, forced acidification of the already fermented fruit and flushing the wine with oxygen in stainless steel tanks before mass bottling. Thousands of gallons are made within a matter of hours.
The Orleans technique requires the vinegar to age at a steady temperature, which the old carriage house in the Suisun Valley naturally maintains.
When asked about the time and labor needed to create a food product that many consumers don’t give much thought to, Parr said, “It’s like scotch. You can get the 2-year-old scotch, which costs less, or the 18-year-old good stuff. Which one costs less? Which one is better?”
On a recent morning, Katz and Parr surveyed their vinegar house. Barrels lined both sides of a wide aisle, some with late harvest zinfandel vinegar, others with sauvignon blanc, as well as a popular vinegar made from Sebastopol Gravenstein apples grown in neighboring Sonoma County.
The Katz champagne vinegar, blended from chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, is popular with gourmet cooks and chefs for its light flavor notes. This vinegar is aging in the barrels now and a new batch will soon be ready for the bottle.
As they walked the aisle of the vinegar house, Katz and Parr pointed out the soft stoppers in the barrels’ sides that allow the vinegar to breathe, the spigots for drawing off a few gallons of finished vinegar at a time and the testing of the barrels to ensure the mothers are productive and the wine is fermenting.
“The barrels are like the human stomach,” Parr said, thumping a barrel’s oak side.
He explains that creating a “living food” with active bacteria is both challenging and exciting. After he works in the vinegar house, he changes clothes before going into Winterhawk Winery so he doesn’t carry the fermenting mother bacteria with him.
“Making vinegar is the kind of interest that brought me here to California in the first place,” said Parr, who is vineyard manager for Winterhawk Winery in the Suisun Valley. “After I got out of the Navy, I took a buddy up on the offer to work in his family’s San Joaquin Valley vineyards, starting out as a mechanic and welder.
“I decided not to go back home to Pennsylvania—and got hooked on farming. I guess you could say I’m sort of the black sheep. Nobody in my family farms but me.”
At first, Parr said his family expected he’d eventually return home, “but I went to Pennsylvania one summer and couldn’t stand the heat and humidity. My mom asked me when I was going to move back, and I had to be honest. I told her I’d gotten used to something better.”
Parr spends his days tending winegrape vineyards and organic olive groves in the Suisun Valley. The area includes a half dozen premium wineries and a slew of farm stands selling fresh produce from local fields. Parr and Katz continue to look for farmland in the Suisun Valley to further their fruit production and grow their business.
Because food enthusiasts and cutting-edge chefs are increasingly looking for unique flavors and food products, the partners say they have to work hard to keep up with the demand.
Even as sales of the company’s vinegars grow, people continue to note that reviving an artisanal production method takes a lot of heart, Katz said. “Some have even said it’s foolhardy. They ask how we can compete when a bottle of vinegar sells for less than two bucks.
“The answer is there are people who want and appreciate the complexity of handcrafted products. And, we’re employing a centuries-old production method to create products of the highest quality and flavor. People are tired of the sameness of mass production. Jim and I don’t necessarily consider that culinary progress.”
There’s a whole lot more to vinegar than the astringent white variety found in most kitchens. These days specialty vinegars come from throughout the world in a spectrum of colors and flavors. Here are a few popular varieties:
- Herb vinegar: Made from wine or white distilled vinegars and flavored with such seasonings as garlic, basil and tarragon. A great addition to salad dressings.
- Fruit vinegar: Fruit or fruit juice is infused with wine vinegar or white vinegar. Its sweet-sour taste complements fruit salads and makes a tasty marinade for meat.
- Balsamic vinegar: Traditionally made from white, sugary Trebbiano grapes grown on the hills around Modena, Italy. Sprinkle on cooked meats or use to season strawberries, peaches and melons.
- Malt vinegar: A good example of vinegar originating from cereals. Malt has a distinctive flavor that makes it popular for pickling. Its most famous use, however, is as a companion for fish and chips.
- Rice vinegar: A delicately flavored vinegar created by the fermentation of sugars derived from rice. A mainstay of Asian cuisine, it’s excellent added to a stir-fried dish with ginger.
- White wine vinegar: Obtained from the fermentation of selected white wines. Its tart, tangy taste reduces the need for salt in dishes.
- Other vinegars of note: Coconut and cane vinegars are common in India, the Philippines and Indonesia, while date vinegar is popular in the Middle East.
The Vinegar Institute offers more information on its Web site: www.versatilevinegar.org.
For more information about Katz and Company, visit katzandco.com.
Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.