Vinegar makers turn to wine

Marketing wine is never easy, especially when you’re better known for making vinegar.

That dilemma faced Susan Lewis and Claudia Nami, business partners who founded Dragonfly Farms near Mount Airy in 2002. They started with a five-acre vineyard. Two years later, they made wine from their first harvest and then re-fermented it into barrel-aged vinegar. 

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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“Our niche was to be the only vinegary in Maryland producing aged vinegar based on varietal wine,” Lewis said in a recent phone interview. Their vineyard was planted with merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah and Gewurztraminer. They planted two acres of black currants for making vinegar. Lewis used a black currant “mother” to inoculate the finished wine and re-ferment it into vinegar, a process that takes six to 18 months.

“It’s not just leaving a bottle exposed to the air and letting it go sour,” Lewis said. “The second fermentation turns the alcohol into acetic acid, and the wine becomes vinegar. It’s a much longer process to make vinegar than it is to make wine.”

Dragonfly Farms vinegars are based primarily on either black currants or various grape varieties. They have names such as Black Merlot and Black Gewurz.

As they made their vinegars, Lewis and Nami expanded the business. “We started growing and selling flowers, then vegetables. In 2009 we did our first CSA,” Lewis said, referring to community-supported agriculture, a popular method of selling produce directly from farm to consumer. They networked with other farms for fruit, honey, eggs and cheese, then with a bakery for bread, and included free-trade coffee from Zeke’s, a Baltimore roaster. Over the past few years, the CSA has been Dragonfly Farms’ primary avenue to market.

Meanwhile, they were making more vinegar than they could sell. “At $40 a [200-milliliter] bottle, it’s a special-occasion vinegar,” Lewis said. “People aren’t buying a bottle a week. They make one last six to 12 months. But people can drink a bottle of wine every month.”

So with the 2012 vintage, Lewis and Nami decided to forgo the vinegar and bottle their wine, skipping the extra time and labor to get a less expensive, more accessible product onto the market sooner. There was only one problem: Most Maryland wine is sold at the winery.

“We’re a working farm, so we aren’t set up with a tasting room to accept visitors,” Lewis said. So they decided to follow the CSA model.

Maryland has relaxed its wine distribution laws, allowing wineries to ship their product directly to consumers. So next month Dragonfly Farms will launch a wine CSA, offering wine, cheese and bread. (You need to supply the jug. And the thou.)

Subscribers who pay $295 will receive six weekly shipments beginning the week of Valentine’s Day. Each week they can choose from among three Dragonfly Farms wines: a chardonnay, a syrah and a cabernet from the 2012 vintage, bottled nouveau-style soon after fermentation. There will be 12 types of bread to choose from, made by Canela Bakery in Gaithersburg, and six cheeses from Bowling Green Farm in Howard County.

The wine CSA is a novel way to tie local wine to the local-food movement, a connection that local wine advocates have been promoting for years with mixed success. That personal connection with the farmer might suffer, however, as these deliveries will come through UPS. Maryland’s new law allows wineries to ship wine directly to consumers, but not to deliver it in person. 

So don’t expect Dragonfly Farms wines with your salad greens this summer. You’ll have to stick with the vinegar.

food@washpost.com

Dragonfly Farms vinegars are available through www.dffarms.com and at select Whole Foods Markets in the Washington area. Memberships in the Dragonfly Farms wine CSA are available through Jan. 31 on the farm’s Web site. McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.

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