Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Balsamico di Monticello...New Mexico

I just returned from a short vacation to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and had a most unexpected and amazing experience! What a way to start the new year.

Jane and Steve Darland are creating a world-class balsamico right in our back yard. Better than a Modena balsamic?...You scoff, but I've tasted it. And I'm here to say that this is no joke. But let me back up. I've mentioned many times in this blog how remote my town of Silver City is. However, when you look at a map of Silver you'll see other towns around it and even highways. But look at this map of Monticello:

Not much to see, so let's back the view out a bit:

Still not much, so let's go way back:

Okay, now you can see that its a half hour/forty five minutes Northwest of TorC - in the heart of ghost town territory. I can tell you that this is no gourmand heaven, although there is a nice slow foods movement happening in their town.

Let me back up even more. A few months ago, a customer who makes the two hour drive from TorC to our store to shop once a month, was looking at our silver-cap and gold-cap balsamicos. I was sampling them for him and he mentioned this little producer near TorC. I, naturally, was skeptical but always happy to make a customer feel good about their great find. The more he told me the more this sounded like it could be real, but I never dreamed the vinegar could be as good as it turned out to be.

And they've had a bit of press
EricaDemane's blog
Foodinista's blog
Oliveto Restaurant
Edible Santa Fe (great article)
oh yeah, and a couple of little rags:
LA Times
Savuer's Top 100

So they've had a bit of press, but haven't exploded on the scene since their vinegars are just now being released. And that brings us to this weekend. I had been given the lead by a customer but didn't know anything about the place. We checked the GPS and drove toward Monticello. A few backtracks and turnarounds later, we found the town that we thought must be Monticello. Not a soul to be seen. Fears of shotgun blasts and angry dogs swirled as we puttered around in our little Toyota Yaris (which wasn't big enough to fend off shotguns or pit bulls). Near the edge of town (a stone's throw from the center) we saw a human and asked if they knew where the balsamic place was. She lifted her head and said, "you're parked in front of it." And so we were.

Really, don't be rude intruders like us thinking you can just stop in and they'll stop everything and give you a tour. It turns out that Steve and Jane had just returned from a trip with 15 hours of driving, Steve was napping and it really was a bad time for us to be so presumptuous. That said, Jane, it turns out, is a customer of our store, and decided to give us an impromptu tour. They are happy to give tours, but usually give them to groups, and only with advance notice.

Steve and Jane have a fantastic pedigree to be producing such a difficult product - prior lives in the wine and food industries. Associates of Paul Bertolli of Fra'Mani (formerly of Chez Panisse) and Dimitri from Molinari Salame. Active participants in the San Fran/Napa food community. They have a bit of knowledge and experience to impart.

But, New Mexico?! It actually makes more sense than you might imagine. Steve and Jane had friends and family in the area (including Silver City), and bought their little property many years ago. They knew that Europeans had been planting Gruet grapes in the nearby Elephant Butte area and at one point decided to plant a few things. Their first grapes went in in 1997.

They pack in far more grapes than you would see in a commercial vineyard. What appeared to my untrained eye to be a very small plot yields three to three and a half tons each harvest. Out of their grapes, each ton will result in 60 gallons of juice. They do a gentle pressing which is called "free run" which gives them their starting point for production. They have planted Trebbiano Tuscano, Barolo, Sangiovese and Oli de Gati (eye of the cat). On the farm you'll also find a wide variety of other plants, herbs, and such:

And just beyond their small plot is this unassuming little building.

Magic (and science) is happening in there. Remnants of the magic are scattered all over the grounds.

They started with a mother brought over from Modena and have selected the world famous casks of Renzi - the top balsamic cask maker. Our tour was filled with wonderful balsamic traditions. My favorite was learning that in Italy, balsamico is a family tradition - often when a baby is born, the family will start a new vinegar to honor the child...and to mature around the time the child will enjoy it. Jane also shared that many older Modena men will drink their balsamic in small thimble-sized cups as a daily elixer.

We showed up on a perfect day. A transition was underway. The grapes had been fermenting and were being prepared to be transferred to the casks. We were allowed to peek in the fermentation room - the aroma is beyond description. Imagine the mustiness of your heartiest wine intermingled with freshly cut wood and slightly stale (but not unpleasant) air. I commented that if you could capture that essence, the smell could be used in so many ways. Jane let me know that I wasn't the first to think of that - many perfume makers use the essence of vinegar in their scents.

Finally we were brought upstairs and into the attic.

What a treat! Jane had no idea how special this was to me. Everyone has their heroes and for me, many of mine are foods. How can foods be heroes? Amazing things, not just a good dinner, but amazing things happen because of food. Memories are built. Traditions are created. Peace is achieved. Food does all of this...but not just any foods. 99.9% of the world has some crappy balsamic in their cupboard. It probably cost $5 or less, runs like water, and has a bite that would stave off your attempts to drink it. But having sampled our 25-year balsamico countless times, I can attest that the real deal can change you forever. This is a day I will remember for quite some time.

As I mentioned, they use only Renzi casks, and their blend includes cherry, acacia, mulberry, oak, chestnut, juniper and ash. The head may differ from the sides in terms of which wood is used, but this is part of the artistry of Renzi. Renzi has been so impressed by Jane and Steve's balsamico that he's sampled their wares at the big balsamico festivals in Modena, and is wanting to work on a special project with them.

So why New Mexico? Apparently it's about aridity. In Modena the aridity is around 40%. In our area its only 20%. For a product that improves by evaporating and absorbing, you can see how that might make a difference. Even Jane and Steve aren't sure exactly why exactly this makes such a huge difference, but their success demonstrates the opportunities of our climate.

Now here's a bit about the process. There are better authorities than me so check out some of the links I included earlier in the post. However, two aspects were unique and interesting to me. First, many balsamico producers boil their grapes at the start of the process. Steve and Jane do a 72-hour very gentle simmer at 140-160ºF which moves the color from greenish to dark honey. This gentler process they consider key to their flavor. The other aspect which is not necessarily unique or unknown (except to me) is a process is called the Porto method. In this method a balsamico is named for the year it is started. Their balsamico will always be called a '98 because whenever they bottle, a good portion is always left in the cask to season the next batch. This creates a continuity of flavor and chemistry.

When we walked into the attic Jane showed us a good problem. Some of their casks were leaking.

This is still a problem but its good because leaking rarely occurs before 25 years of aging. The thicker the vinegar becomes, the less it hydrates the casks, causing the casks to lose their swelling and allow for leaking. Their vinegar is ahead of its time.

All of this info is well and good, but then Jane grabbed a wine thief and gave us the highlight of our day! She started dipping into each of her casks. I could have fainted! We sampled a half dozen different casks.

One more process - I used to think that a 12 year balsamico meant that each year the vinegar was poured from one cask to the next, each time resulting in less vinegar, and each time into a new cask of a different wood. I always marveled at the planning needed to create a final taste based on the aging and cask wood variety. Close, but not quite. All vinegars of a certain vintage are aged in all of the different casks - and when it comes time to bottle, Jane's masterful tongue and food memory compile a combination that becomes their current-vintage balsamico. We saw how each cask made its own contribution. She sampled the mulberry, acacia, oak and finally the cherry. Ohhhh...the cherry. I could have died happy at that moment!

Jane and Steve only bottle 50 at a time so their small-run production truly is special. As we left I wondered if the big producers in Modena had the same connection that these two do to their vinegars. Jane and Steve had connections and stories associated with each harvest, each barrel. A true connection that surely makes their balsamico great.


Tri2Cook said...

That's awesome Rob. Of course the obvious question is coming next... will it be in your store and do you ship to Canada?

Steve said...


It was a terrifically pleasant surprise to rise from siesta yesterday and meet you and your traveling squad as you were being regaled by Jane on our organic balsamic and other things we do at Old Monticello Organic Farms, NM (OM OF NM).

Look forward to our next Curious visit in Silver City to see what else you've found in your travels.

--Steve Darland

Gfron1 said...

Welcome Steve! And thank you again. Larry - you'll have to buy through their site although we would love to carry their vinegar. But, who knows, you may do something worthy of a gift.

Tri2Cook said...

I somehow missed that link in the initial read... cool stuff.

artist said...

Dear Jane and Steve - I was thinking of you so I looked you up. I was astounded by your balsamic review and thought the way you live is so romantic.
I'm so glad you're doing well! BTW - this is Beth Turner (Keeley) from JWT many years ago. (Jane, I still have a lovely little doll tea set and other beautiful things from a gift basket you two gave me). Again, congratulations and I hope your family is well :) T or C!!!!!!!