When Life Gives You Wine Leftovers… Make Vinegar!
It kills me to pour wine down the sink, especially when I know that some winemaker sweated bullets to get the grapes to the glass. As a writer who tastes wine frequently, I am often left with multiple half-and-nearly-full bottles of wine that I will never get to in time to really enjoy them at their fullest potential.
In my kitchen, these stalwart bottles are lined up like soldiers, waiting to learn their fate—will they become part of a sauce, a marinade, or the ultimate humiliation, poured down the kitchen sink? If they fail the nose test, down the drain they go. And, that makes me feel that I have somehow wasted the efforts of the wine’s maker.
As I recently went through bottles stacked on the counter—some resting since Christmas, I kept smelling vinegar. Suddenly it was like warm tropical air smacked into the Northwest chilly winds and lightening bolts crackled and lit up the sky. I could make vinegar from these wines and assuage my guilt of contributing to good wines gone bad.
There is nothing better than a very good wine vinegar. Most of the anemic wine vinegar purchased in grocery stores is really flavorless and diluted, performing the simplest task of providing a little acidity to foods and sauces. Homemade vinegars are generally so much more flavorful. Some of my favorite gifts have been homemade vinegars made by friends generous enough to share.
Keep in mind that wine vinegar is not balsamic vinegar, a more flavorful (and more expensive) vinegar made from grape pressings that have never been fermented into wine. These are glorious aged vinegars that originated from Italy and quite difficult to make at home.
You can go online and find hundreds of recipes for wine and other flavored vinegars, but honestly, making simple wine vinegar is almost done by accident, when your partial bottles of wine are left on the counter too long. After all, vinegar can be made from almost anything that contains sugar or starch, although it is best made by first converting sugar into alcohol and then turning the alcohol into vinegar. You are already ahead with wine. However, the results of allowing wine to sit on the counter for a long time provides sporadic results and there are far better methods.
The first time I made vinegar many years ago, I used a sun tea jar with a spout. You can use a glass jar or ceramic container, but find something with a wide mouth since you want an easy airflow. Avoid plastic containers since there could be a reaction with vinegar and plastic. You will also need cheesecloth, kitchen twine or rubber bands, the magical leftover wine, a funnel and a vinegar starter.
The Mother Lode
A vinegar starter, known as “Mother of Vinegar,” is a bacteria that encourages fermentation. Although you can leave the wine on the counter without a mother, you will definitely get far better results with the help of starter bacteria. These mothers also propagate (thus the nickname mother) and you can store them for future use in other vinegars. People who make vinegar on a regular basis have multiple generations of vinegar starters that you can actually manipulate, like breeding for certain characteristics. This bacteria can be purchased at wine and beer supply stores for around $10. You can also pick up vinegars recipes when you buy the starter bacteria.
Check out vinegar recipes on YouTube or your favorite search engine. I recently followed an online recipe from Food and Wine Magazine.
Now, I have to be patient and wait about two to three months. I’ve sterilized and recycled my leftover wine bottles to use when my vinegar is ready, so it was a triumph all the way around. My kitchen no longer has half-empty bottles of some tasty beverage slowly wasting away. However, I have now spilled the beans on what my friends will be receiving for Christmas this year!