By Micah Cheek
“May third, we had a serious freeze. We lost about a quarter of the grapes,” says Steve Darland of The Darland Company. “One year we had a family of bears.” Darland’s farm is located in Monticello, New Mexico, a former ghost town just north of Truth Or Consequences. This arid environment, though sometimes unforgiving, is an ideal place to age balsamic vinegar. Darland personally inspects and prunes his grapevines throughout the growing season. Every grape counts; it will take 200 pounds of fruit and at least 12 years to make each bottle of Traditional Organic Balsamic of Monticello.
Grapes that make it to harvest are crushed and heated over a wood fire. After being reduced and fermented, the grape must is poured off into handmade barrels. These casks are crafted by Francesco Renzi, whose family has been making them in the same building for 500 years, long before balsamic vinegar was considered a viable mass market product. The grape will spend 12 years circulating through casks made of oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, acacia and ash, drawing volatile compounds from each to develop its snappy, resinous flavor. Darland says, “Periods of intense work are followed by long periods of time where grapes are growing or vinegar is aging in its casks.”
Monticello is a hub for organic farmers, despite the spring frosts and animals. They all meet in Truth Or Consequences for a farmer’s market, which the Darlands helped start after their first grape harvest. The revenue for their first batch of balsamic was over a decade away, so other sources of income came from the farm. “A great way to fill the time is to grow unique, but potentially popular, healthy, delicious organic crops which thrive in this environment,” says Darland. The farm produced shishito peppers, pomegranates, and other organic products. “My wife, Jane, became the Johnny Appleseed of Sierra County by helping other growers choose, then order and plant the right fruit trees to survive and thrive in our climate – thousands of trees,” he adds.
The more you learn about Darland’s process, the farther removed it is from the balsamic vinegars readily available on shelves. These products, known as industrial vinegars, are generally aged for as little as hours or days before being thickened with sugar, molasses or mosto cotto, a sweet grape syrup. This thick and sweet vinegar is made to mimic the traditional balsamic flavor, because demand for the product has long ago outstripped supply. This demand has fueled a massive market for the sweetened balsamic. “It may be a polite fake, but with an estimated quarter billion dollars of annual US sales, it is a much, much better business than it is a gourmet food item,” says Darland. For him, these products do not even fit into the category of real balsamic vinegar. “The key thing for people to learn: when you read the ingredient list on the label and it has more than one, it is industrial balsamic. Like it or not.”
The Darlands devote their down time to travel. They conduct tastings at stores and restaurants to highlight the differences between their balsamic and the less expensive industrial alternatives. “We take nearly every opportunity to visit islands of foodies, wherever we can sample and talk about the real thing, since ours is the only American commercial balsamic and probably the only organic version in the world,” says Darland. Surprisingly, one of the most difficult groups to convince is chefs. “Chefs are challenged with being fashionable, and making a profit. In culinary school or other training, chefs are shown how to make faux balsamic,” says Darland. Many chefs will cook down inexpensive industrial vinegars with sugar to make a facsimile of a rich, aged balsamic to use for plate presentation. They end up with a sweet product that clings to the tongue, but has had all the subtle flavors and volatile compounds cooked out of it. “It’s a hoax on the menu. It makes everyone the fool – the wait help, the kitchen staff, the chef and the diner all get the wrong lesson without ever tasting balsamic.” says Darland. “There’s a cruel humor in it.”
While cost-conscious chefs are reticent to pick up a bottle of Monticello vinegar, Darland has had to turn away many retailers trying purchase his product. Producing a maximum of 1000 bottles per year makes relationships with retailers a delicate balancing act. Each new retailer thins out the number of bottles that go to all the rest. “We sell online and through very special retailers, and have to be judicious with supply. We sold everything we bottled last year, and we were down to just two bottles when the year ended,” says Darland. “So, we want retail allies with smart retail staff who we can rely on for sales. In turn they can rely on us for supply.” In addition to the 1000 4.5-ounce bottles, limited batches of one ounce bottles are released, as well as a condiment balsamic version made from the same grape must, but aged for less than 12 years.
When asked how he is planning on expanding, Darland states, “I’m not.” While some nationwide retailers have tried to bring Traditional Organic Balsamic of Monticello to their shelves, Darland doesn’t have enough stock, and more importantly, doesn’t like the way they do business. “If we had done that, we would have done it 23 years ago,” says Darland. “The retailers we have are really smart and really know what they’ve got.” Though making organic and artisan products is more involved, Darland steadfastly believes that small production of quality ingredients has a growing place in the market. “These days, everything is monetized. But with true balsamic, there is no short term fiscal shortcut. Rather than repeating the classics, people have settled for fakes. Still, there is room for real, and things made with great care,” says Darland. “Handcrafted, organic, small production is a lively segment for balsamic and many gourmet products.”