Marie Tribouilloy can trace her vinegar obsession back to her childhood in France, when she would drink vinegars straight from the bottle, a habit she picked up from her mother. “We didn't grow up in a place where there were a lot of lemons, so if you needed acidity, you needed to find another way,” she tells me. At Ops, a Brooklyn pizzeria and wine bar that Tribouilloy co-owns, vinegar is something of an inevitability, in more ways than one. It’s in the antipasti, in the salad that has earned a cult following. It breathes life into dishes best enjoyed with a glass of natural wine, maybe because it was once natural wine itself.
Unfinished bottles of wine at the end of service are collected, separated by color (red, white, orange/rosé), and added into a corresponding crock full of wines from yesterday and the days before that, ready for a redemptive second life. “It would be sad to throw away a product that is so valuable,” Tribouilloy says. “I've always made vinegar at home like my mom used to make it. So I know it’s pretty easy. Really, you just mix it up and you wait.”
Such is the cheap thrill of making vinegar at home, which asks nothing of you but the half-empty bottles of wine, cider, or beer at the end of a party, a glass jar or ceramic container, and a forgotten corner of your home where it can be left to slowly transform. “It’s great because you don’t have to feel so bad about not finishing bottles of wine,” Tribouilloy says. “Depending on how you live and how much you drink, it’s nice to have a backup plan for it so you don’t have to force yourself to finish the bottle.”
After a few months, what emerges is a bespoke vinegar, carrying vestiges of flavor that were appreciated in its previous form. Making a small batch of vinegar is, in a way, making history. Has anyone ever made a vinegar from half-empty bottles of Gamay and Malbec, or Riesling and Gewurztraminer? Perhaps, but with the same quantities, producers, and vintage? Almost assuredly not. A house vinegar is a reflection of one’s personality and a reaffirmation of one’s palate: There are flavors and characteristics inherent to the wines you love, and through vinegar, they carry on, recontextualized as motifs in the kitchen. It’s a personal touch, a secret weapon.
“For whatever reason, we all have leftover beverages,” says Kirsten Shockey, a fermentation educator and author of Homebrewed Vinegar. This is a way then to “make it into something absolutely delicious with more nuance and more complexity than what you would buy, for the most part, at the store.”
To understand the process of making vinegar, consider the grape. As it fruits, the sun and water and the nutrients present in the soil create the sugar held within its cell walls; resting on the surface of its skin are naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria waiting for their time to feed. When the grape’s cell walls are compromised (or stomped on), the yeasts get first dibs, gorging on the sugar and creating ethanol in its place. A wine is born.