Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: When a winemaker’s life turns sour (in a good way)

No winemaker wants to hear that he makes great vinegar, unless he’s Bradley Alderson.

While vinegar has the unfortunate reputation of being good wine gone bad, Alderson knows there is much more to it than that.

He’s made both for more than three decades, long enough to tell the difference and to master the precise tasks of each. Within Northern California culinary circles, however, he is more recognized for his wines than his vinegar.

That is changing now that he is taking commercial his homemade vinegar. He is marketing it under the straightforward if colorless brand “Traditional Method Red Wine Vinegar.” (While the name is bland, the art of its label isn’t; it’s a detailed sketch of wine or vinegar barrels in a cellar, taken from one of the historic WPA frescoes in San Francisco’s Coit Tower.)

Darrell Corti of the Sacramento market Corti Brothers is the first grocer to stock Alderson’s vinegar. “Real wine vinegar, that product produced from the slow acetic fermentation of sound, low-alcohol wine, has become an almost endangered species. But I am pleased to offer this particular vinegar,” wrote Corti in his winter newsletter.

Alderson’s vinegar differs from most both for the patient way in which it is made and for its intensity. As with balsamic vinegar, just a little “Traditional Method Red Wine Vinegar” is all that is needed.

Alderson has been a winemaker since 1972, when just out of UC Davis with degrees in chemistry and food biochemistry he went to work for A. Perelli-Minetti Winery in Delano, where he met, courted and married Sandi Perelli-Minetti.

In 1975 they relocated to Lodi, where he was named winemaker for Montcalm Winery, which three years later was bought by Robert Mondavi and rechristened Woodbridge Winery. Alderson stayed there for the rest of his winemaking career. By the time he retired in 2007 as vice president and general manager, Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi was one of the country’s more popular brands, with Alderson overseeing the yearly production of 12 million cases of solid, everyday wine.

During that stretch, Alderson also made vinegar on the side as a hobby. He had taken it up for several reasons, including his friendship with longtime Acampo wine- and vinegar-maker Dino Barengo, who became his mentor.

Also factoring into his interest was his wife’s Italian cooking, which called for vinegar with virtually every meal. “A lot of the red-wine vinegar on the market was poorly made, so I underwent an intense school of vinegar making, and pretty much fell in love with it,” Alderson says.

Besides, making your own vinegar just seemed part of the Lodi culture. “I’m trying to make the kind of vinegar that I liked from all these old Italian guys around here,” he says.

Wine vinegar is the result of two biological processes. First, yeast converts the sugars in grape juice into alcohol, yielding wine. The second involves introducing aerobic bacteria, “acetobacter,” to the wine to partially oxidize it and to transform its alcohol into acetic acid, which gives vinegar its traditional bite.

The making of most commercial vinegar involves diluting grape wine with water to yield between 5 and 6 percent acidity. While this practice produces more vinegar per batch of wine, it also strips the vinegar of flavor, Alderson says.

Thus, he doesn’t thin his wine, seeking a vinegar with a more robust aroma and flavor and a sharper finish than commonly found. His vinegar packs a bit more than 7 percent acidity, but the long aging it endures rounds out its sharp edges. “By not diluting, you get a more concentrated vinegar,” he says.

The selection of bacteria cultures, the timing of their introduction and the control of the fermentations are all crucial steps to make vinegar, but Alderson further complicates the process in abiding by the “Orleans Method” of production, named for the city in northern France.

Alderson’s barrels are fractionally filled and replenished at intervals over several years, with the vinegar to be bottled drawn from the final barrel after it has aged for decades. The withdrawn amount, in turn, is replaced by a slightly younger portion.

Alderson, who tends 80 barrels in a Lodi warehouse, as well as a couple of barrels in the back yard of his Woodbridge residence, began making his vinegar in 1977, and a fraction of that original barrel still makes it into the final product he is releasing now. By his experience, his vinegar needs 15 years to get to the 7.5 percent acidity he prefers.

“It’s a matter of benign neglect. You put it in the barrel, do some good husbandry, and then keep your mitts off,” Alderson says.

Winemakers contact him about barrels of wine higher in volatile acidity than they would like, though not yet vinegar.

He’s found that some red wines (cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, carignane, barbera) convert well to vinegar, while others (ruby cabernet, petite sirah) haven’t. He proudly says he doesn’t use any wine that he wouldn’t drink.

Alderson wants his vinegar to be dry and supple, without the pronounced flavor of a particular wine. Whether on its own or with food, his vinegar has an intense aroma, a slightly maderized or nutty flavor, and snap in the finish.

He likes it on salads, for pickled beets, with braised red cabbage, in ratatouille and as an essential ingredient for the tomato sauce he cans each summer. He adds a dash or two when he’s finishing a stew or sauté. “Right at the end it brightens things tremendously,” he says. “And you’d be amazed what it does to a pot of chili. Just a tablespoon at the end will bring up all these flavors.”

When he gets going, Alderson sounds like a polished salesman, but he admits he’s been a reluctant promoter. For years, he gave away his vinegar to neighbors and friends, many of whom urged him to go commercial, but he resisted until about two years ago, when his wife took a couple of sample bottles to Darrell Corti.

“Good, well-aged vinegar is a real joy. ... It should be crisp, very aromatic and refreshing to taste,” writes Corti in endorsing “Traditional Method Red Wine Vinegar.”

For his part, Alderson makes clear that vinegar isn’t spoiled wine.

“You really do have to use the right wines, and tend them for the years it takes to convert them to vinegar, and then the decades it takes to age and develop complexity,” Alderson says.