Ever wonder whether you’ve purchased high-quality vinegar or a substandard brand? Take a sip.
“On the back part of your palate, you will taste a subtle chemically, metallic flavor” common to mass-produced vinegars, Craig Clark said. “That’s how you tell.”
Clark and his wife, Cari Bourquin-Clark, ought to know. They own Chaparral Gardens Artisan Vinegars in Atascadero, celebrated throughout the Central Coast for its line of gourmet balsamic and fruit vinegars.
Whereas many producers rely on commercially made concentrates to flavor their vinegars, Chaparral Gardens’ handcrafted creations feature fruits, vegetables and herbs harvested from its 2-acre organic farm off Highway 41.
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“We’re just crazy enough to grow everything (ourselves),” Bourquin-Clark said.
According to Jacky Eshelby, fair programs coordinator at the California Mid-State Fair, companies such as Chaparral Gardens are part of a growing trend toward top-notch vinegar that enhances everything from soups and sauces to marinades and salad dressings.
“Ten years ago, we didn’t think about what vinegar we used or what olive oil we used,” said Eshelby, who oversees the Central Coast Wine Competition. That attitude, she added, is “changing with the way we experience food in our daily lives.”
Virginia Wax, a former Arroyo Grande resident who now lives in Palm Desert, concurred.
“People are really tired of being sold something that is so mass produced, so advertised and doesn’t have the best content,” said Wax, owner of Auntie Si Lemon Grass Vinegar.
Wax started making Asian-style, lemongrass-infused rice vinegar about 10 years ago, inspired by her time in the Bay Area. She started selling Auntie Si vinegar commercially in 2010; the label produces about 200 gallons a year.
The light, crisp vinegar is flavored with lemongrass grown in the Central Valley and produced at the Santa Barbara Olive Co. in Goleta.
Fruit of their labor
Clark and his wife, a former respiratory therapist and high-fashion hat designer who hail from the Central Valley, never set out to transform the local specialty-food industry.
Instead, the two purchased their 20-acre Atascadero property in 2001 with the intention of farming.
“When we first moved here, we were going to make a million bucks selling organic produce,” Clark recalled with a chuckle.
“It got a little sketchy when we realized we weren’t going to be able to pay the mortgage,” his wife added.
Then, in 2005, they purchased a couple hundred pounds of raspberries from a neighbor with an overburdened U-pick stand.
“There’s only so much jam and jelly you can make,” Clark said, so berry-infused vinegar was the next step. After the vinegar proved popular as Christmas presents, they started selling it at local farmers markets in 2007.
Starting with just two flavors — blackberry and raspberry — Chaparral Gardens has expanded to offer more than a dozen varieties. Winter Ambrosia features pear, apple, cinnamon and clove flavors perfect for a spinach salad, while Head Ancho boasts a heady habañero kick guaranteed to heat up barbecue sauces.
“We realized that to stay ahead of the competition, we have to focus on flavors,” Bourquin-Clark explained, which means several months of taste-testing. New varieties they’re experimenting with include kaffir lime and smoked cassis with onions.
Chaparral Gardens uses a double-fermentation process to craft its products.
Clark and his wife start with a base vinegar made by a Lodi winery, which is mixed with mashed-up produce and the “mother,” the fermenting bacteria culture that converts alcohol into acetic acid. (They won’t disclose the winery’s name for fear of imitators.) For every 1,000 liters of vinegar, they use 300 to 400 pounds of fruit — either grown on the property or at nearby farms.
The mixture sits in 1,000-gallon stainless-steel tanks for up to six months before it can be racked and bottled, which takes an additional two to three weeks. (Again, part of that process is proprietary.)
In addition to vinegar, Chaparral Gardens sells four varieties of flavored olive oils, locally grown and produced: basil, cilantro-jalapeño, garlic and mandarin orange.
Chaparral Gardens produces about 1,000 cases of vinegar for the public per year. (It does a healthy private-label and bulk sales business, as well, Bourquin-Clark said, although she declined to disclose details.)
Local customers include New Frontiers Natural Marketplace, We Olive stores and eateries including Off the Hook Seafood Grill & Sushi Bar in Morro Bay, Steamers of Pismo in Pismo Beach, and Estrella Restaurant and Robert’s Restaurant and Wine Bar in Paso Robles, as well as about 20 wineries.
Chaparral Gardens products have been a hit with trade professionals, too.
At the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade’s annual Sofi Awards — “the Academy Awards of the food industry,” Clark said — the company’s Champagne Mimosa vinegar took home the gold for shelf-stable food service product in 2012.
Chaparral Gardens’ Blackberry Balsamic vinegar and Pacific Spice vinegar earned gold and silver medals, respectively, in 2011.
Vinegar comes of age
Although the artisan vinegar market is still in its infancy, Clark and his wife anticipate growth along the lines of the California olive oil industry.
After all, olive oil and vinegar — the two key ingredients in a vinaigrette — go together “like peanut butter and jelly,” Bourquin-Clark said.
That’s why the Central Coast Wine Competition, which launched the Central Coast Olive Oil Competition in 2010, is holding its inaugural vinegar competition this spring. Like the olive oil competition, the new contest will be open to producers across California.
“It’s going to be an exciting endeavor,” Eshelby said. “With any of our competitions, ultimately our goal is not only to showcase the producers and promote what they’re doing, but also to educate our fairgoers.”
Producers are asked to submit two 7-ounce bottles of vinegar in categories including balsamic, barrel-aged, flavored, fruit vinegar (such as apple and grape), and white vinegar. Registration is due by May 23; entries must be mailed or dropped off by June 6, with judging occurring the following week.
Competition guidelines will likely evolve over time, chief judge Bob Foster said.
“There are folks who like vinegar and want to explore the parameters of how far you can push the envelope,” said the Carlsbad resident, a retired prosecutor turned wine judge. “It’s a story that’s still being written, and we want to learn.”
“Unlike wine vinegar is a new world for us,” Foster added. “We’re in uncharted territory.”
At this point, Eshelby isn’t sure who will participate in the vinegar competition or how many entries the fair will receive. “If we get 30 to 50 entries, it will be fabulous,” she said.
According to Bourquin-Clark, the key to increasing artisan vinegar awareness is consumer education. She suspects that some people’s dislike of the sour stuff “goes back to their thinking of it as distilled white Heinz vinegar,” only suitable for cleaning countertops or mopping floors.
“If we can get them to taste it, they’ll buy it,” she said.
For more information about Chaparral Gardens Artisan Vinegar, or to arrange a private tasting, call 703-0829 or visit www.chaparralgardens.com.