When Life Gives You Leftover Wine, Make Vinegar

Making your own custom vinegar is as easy as opening a bottle of wine—and not drinking all of it.
A mason jar of homemade wine vinegar covered by cheesecloth surrounded by a bottle of finished vinegar and three bottles...
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Susan Kim

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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.”

Homebrewed Vinegar

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.

Should it be bottled at that stage, the sulfur dioxide that occurs naturally during fermentation will protect it from oxidation and bacteria (winemakers may add additional sulfites in the winemaking process to assert further control over how the wine develops). But a wine without a shield from the open air will over time succumb to bacteria, which takes in the surrounding oxygen and converts the ethanol into acetic acid, the basis of vinegar’s unique pucker.

“You don't have direct control,” says David Zilber, former head of fermentation at Noma and coauthor of The Noma Guide to Fermentation. “We get behind the wheel of a car, we drive to work, we turn the wheel left, the car goes left—that’s like the human understanding of control. Working with microbes is like building the road for the car that goes downhill, having no engine and having no wheel, but trusting that you’ll end up where you want to at the end of the day.”

Though Noma is renowned for its precision and intrepid exploration of flavor, “some of my early experiments, just trying to make orange vinegar, were just god awful,” Zilber recalled. He remembers gathering partially drunk bottles of orange and white wine and dumping the contents into a bucket, covering it with cloth, and leaving it in the restaurant’s temperature-controlled vinegar room to oxidize. Three weeks later he and his crew gave it a test and were appalled. “We were like, this tastes like dog piss,” he said. But after being abandoned for another three months, the vinegar did a 180: The musty notes had dissipated and it had become tart in a pleasing way.

The process of turning wine into vinegar presents a gateway into the world of fermentation, much like caring for a sourdough mother, that at worst leads to discarding some failed experiments; but at best can broaden the perception of one’s place within an environment. For Zilber, the thesis of fermentation as equipment for living finally clicked during a conversation with flavor scientist Arielle Johnson, cofounder of the Noma fermentation lab, wherein she rattled off the names of numerous enzymes, each with their own specific proclivities. “It all kind of felt like all these little microbes had these fine-tuned superpowers that science had named,” Zilber said. “It’s this very complicated kind of video game in a way. The same way Pokemon have water powers and fire powers, there are microbes with the capacity to break down fats or sugars.”

For Shockey, vinegar offered a new vantage on the circle of life. “I think for me when I was really starting to work at this, the real aha moment was actually how it is a natural progression of sugar,” she said. “It's where sugar wants to go. I learned that, eventually, when the acetic acid bacteria run out of ethanol to consume, they'll start consuming the acid. And eventually it's part of this huge beautiful cycle that is all our cycles on this planet, right? It turns back to water.”

Combine the dregs of multiple bottles for your own custom blend.

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Anna Stockwell

Once you’re equipped with that cosmic perspective, the process of turning wine into vinegar is easy, as you can see in Shockey’s Universal Wine Vinegar recipe seen below. After all, it’s nature that’s doing all of the work; you’re just lending a helping hand. Any wine, whether it’s loaded with sulfites or organically made with minimal intervention, will eventually become vinegar, so you can use any wine that you enjoy drinking. Just make sure you have roughly the volume of a full bottle (750 ml) to start.

Time is technically all you need, but there are certainly ways to get from wine to vinegar more efficiently. One way is to introduce the wine to a mother of vinegar, a cellulose raft of acetic acid bacteria, which can be procured through a fellow vinegar-making buddy’s generosity or produced by adding one half cup of raw, unfiltered vinegar to the wine mixture. (Speaking from personal experience, using a SCOBY from a batch of kombucha will also work as a mother of vinegar.) For conventional wines with added sulfites, Shockey recommends adding a small amount of hydrogen peroxide to neutralize the wine of its extra antioxidants, thus allowing the wine the acetic acid bacteria to get right to work. In that sense, natural wines do lend themselves to the process; a lack of intervention in the winemaking process means less intervention on your part in the vinegar-making stage. From there, cover the top of the jar or crock with fine-woven cheesecloth and secure it with a rubber band, and set it on the kitchen counter, or another relatively warm area of your home. Then wait, and embrace the element of surprise.

Vinegars don’t always turn out how you expect them to, but that’s not always a bad thing. Tribouilloy once made a rosé vinegar that she still thinks about to this day; a sultry dark orange in color, it drank like, well, a drink. It didn’t belong in a salad dressing. It was an instant cocktail: Just add water. Whether one’s vinegar-making journey leads to unique vinaigrettes, a complex nonalcoholic summer beverage, or more existential queries, it’s all worth an experiment—part of vinegar’s wonder is in not knowing what will come.

“Put it in the back of your cabinet and really forget about it, truly,” Shockey says. “You'll have a really fun surprise later or no surprise at all—oh well! It all turns back into water and microbes will keep doing what they do.”