Capturing Essence: When Less is More
By Denise Miller
Watching Jane and Steve Darland stand beside a partially filled stainless steel tank holding the culmination of 15 plus years of labor and passion, their joy radiates. They have reached the first important plateau of fusing organic grapes, wooden casks, plus time, into their rare, traditionally aged balsamic vinegar.
“I could almost cry,” admits Jane, while we wait for Steve to retrieve a glass wine thief and climb atop a stepladder to draw tasting samples. It’s a rare moment over a late September weekend as Jane and Steve share their remarkable accomplishment of producing something that few, other than a small, northern Italian fraternity of traditional balsamic makers, have ever tried. Twelve years is a long time to anticipate anything, even forgetting the prior years of terrace building, constructing an acetaia (vinegar loft), vineyard planting, awaiting delivery of custom Italian-made wooden casks which need a full year to acidify. But some things are worth waiting for – and clearly the aged balsamic vinegar of Old Monticello Organic Farms, NM (OM OF NM) is one of those precious things.
“Nature has Her ways,” Steve explains. “Plants and sun produce sugary fruits that want to ferment, then turn to vinegar. We just get aboard that process and steer as we can.” That is one way to begin understanding what the Darlands have undertaken, which, like the best art, can appear beguilingly simple. To taste the rich, complex blend of this treasured elixir, once exchanged by European royalty, is to sense a product born of extraordinary and clear intention; to visit their small, organic farms is to see this intention animated in living color. Forty-eight hours with the Darlands and it feels as if you have stumbled into another dimension – a place where there are artisans with a unique, focused intensity in creating “less that’s better, not more that’s not”, where sense of place and tradition reign supreme. But first, it’s helpful to slow down. That’s because real time – sunrise, sunset, full moon, new moon – has more hold here than clock time. It is also because, much like the products the Darlands craft, time is a relative measure. But beware: once you experience what is within the garden walls, it makes an impression deep within your senses; it is hard to imagine a place like this exists anywhere else.
If this sounds like a certain fairly tale with a rabbit hole, in a way, it is. However, OM OF NM is actually not that far from civilization or even reality. Monticello lies just beyond the I-25 corridor, approximately two hours south of Albuquerque and thirty or so miles northwest of Truth or Consequences. This historic adobe village rests in a picturesque canyon sitting in the foothills of the San Mateo Mountains where fields of lowland scrub and creosote are playground of the roadrunner, coyote, gray fox, owl, deer and occasional bear. Open space, stark light and sky dominate the landscape. Traversing the back roads you pass the sparsely populated town of Placita, founded in the 1840’s by a ranching family. When you hit Monticello’s sole stop sign and old plaza, you see the still-used San Ignacio church, built in the 1860s, an old vacant mercantile, and fire station. Crumbling adobes, mixed with the renovated, hug the quiet road, while brightly painted doors and companion roses stand coyly in warm, late afternoon shadows.
A pompous prickly pear stands poised at the corner of the Darland main property. When you turn the bend, you know you’ve arrived at the right place in the middle of nowhere; you’re suddenly transported to the northern Italy of your dreams. Everywhere the eye comes to rest, something different is growing. A tall oak borders a field of harvested lavender, while dozens of ten-foot shapely pomegranate trees boast bountiful pink-red-magenta fruit along the crushed gravel driveway. Quince hang heavy waiting to ripen – and trellises and vines and all things green reach up toward the embracing sun. The crystalline light helps the eyes focus. You realize you are in a place far more than a setting, backdrop or romantic venue – though it is all of those things, too. Here you feel the Earth that gives food, the sun that fuels photosynthesis, an area rich in history. It hits your sensory receptors hard the moment you arrive.
Speaking with Jane and Steve about vinegar, food, and life is like dancing through summer fields of botany, philosophy, agronomy, microbiology, physics, metallurgy, and more. But you don’t start with vinegar. You start with food. After an early morning selling their wares at the Sierra County Farmers’ Market in Truth or Consequences, which the Darlands helped start a decade ago, Jane prepared a harvest dinner to be shared by neighbors, this writer and Edible Santa Fe publisher, Kate Manchester. Everything on the menu was fresh from Jane and Steve’s bountiful garden or from the efforts of friends – and it was all thoroughly enjoyable: an appetizer of pan-fried Japanese shishito peppers, earthy roasted beet salad with spicy greens and fresh goat cheese, slow-roasted local pork served with spicy homemade harissa, the last of the local sweet corn off the cob with fresh basil, all complimented by some excellent New Mexico wines, and finally, a divine tart made from the Darlands fresh figs – all graced the table on a screened porch of the main house.
It was a year ago that I first met Jane and Steve at their local Farmers’ Market in T or C’s shady Ralph Edwards Park. Steve surreptitiously opened his shirt pocket to withdraw a small vial and proceeded to tap a drop of aged balsamic on the back of my hand in the small well that forms between thumb and forefinger. After waiting a minute or two, it was time for a second taste. The explosion of exquisite flavors was something I had never encountered – sweet, sour, woody, fruity, full-bodied, rich, complex – truly impossible to fully describe. Needless to say, I was intrigued and happily accepted an invitation to stop by their farm on my way home that afternoon. What I observed kept my brain humming all the way home, and I knew I had to come back to learn more about the balsamic product, process and people. Sitting on their porch over dinner was a great place to start.
Steve is an idea guy who spent decades in the ad business on both coasts, finishing as he started, at the preeminent J. Walter Thompson, as a regional president and executive committee member, operating 200 plus worldwide offices. Jane, a marvel of design, culinary and garden arts, is a trained master gardener, a former professional window/set designer, and hails from a family of notable cooks. They are parents of two adult children: Amy (San Francisco) and Garrett (Los Angeles). They have traveled the world; but more than twenty years ago, New Mexico pulled them deep within her when frequent trips visiting family led them to explore nooks and crannies like Monticello. Fifteen years ago, while still living in the San Francisco Bay area, they planted vineyards and started remodeling their hundred-and-fifty year old adobes. They have lived full-time in Monticello now for over a decade, and their properties lie within short walking distance of one another; these include the vineyard, an herb farm, a main house, two remodeled guest casitas, a separate building with an authorized canning/bottling kitchen, a hilltop guest house/office near the acetaia (vinegar loft), a small greenhouse, plus a scattering of small barns and equipment sheds.
The plan to create a farm to produce aged balsamic vinegar sprung from the place itself. The Darlands were intrigued with planting grapes, knowing they had a long, productive history in New Mexico, dating back to the Franciscan friars who needed red wine for their daily mass. The upper Monticello Canyon even supports wild grapes of a type commonly used in commercial grape plant grafting. But they met Fernando Gonzalez, a Spaniard grape and wine expert who had helped a consortium of Europeans plant nearly 1,300 acres of grapes near Engle, NM. He encouraged and assisted the Darlands with planning their vineyards. He, in turn, introduced them to an Italian man with a deep connection to grapes. Paolo D’Andrea, owner of the prize-winning NM winery, Luna Rosa, came to the U.S. to stake his claim in the New World wine business – and landed in Deming. Not only is D’Andrea responsible for grafting most of the grapes in the Southwest, but also his skillful hands grafted Darland’s 1,200 vines of principally trebbiano – the balsamic grape – along with other old Roman varieties, including occhio di gatto.
But why did Steve, a former adman with a longstanding commercial and personal interest in wine, instead choose aged balsamic as his craft of choice for the next decade and beyond? Always diligent in his fact checking, Steve said he knew from his Napa Valley and Sonoma County friends that there was a growing glut in the wine market. New wines too often had to win in the market based on low price, quirky ingredients or goofy packaging. As a marketing guy, he didn’t want to struggle with either sameness or weirdness. But he learned there was no commercial, American-made traditional cask-aged balsamic, and certainly none that was organic. “If you take what Nature gives you, you do better.” Steve explained, “The low humidity in Monticello is a prime factor in the evaporation of our balsamic, so I knew we could work to get to high-viscosity, quality vinegar, especially by using our own organic grapes which would be stressed — and flavor enhanced — by our extreme altitude.”
More research turned up the best balsamic casks in the world, made in Modena, Italy, by the peerless Francesco Renzi, whose family had been producing these barrels and casks for over 500 years. But the waiting line was years long. Steve followed another lead and contacted Paul Bertolli, chef of Chez Panisse and owner of Olivetto in the Bay area. Paul operated two balsamic vinegar lofts in Sonoma County and knew Renzi , who made the long waiting line disappear. Paul then guided Steve through the “somewhat treacherous” early years of his balsamic’s development. The two of them are now regularly in touch as best of friends, collaborating on projects such as Paul’s new Berkeley venture, Fra’Mani, makers of classic handcrafted salumi and other Italian food specialties.
And so began the work of building stonewall terraces, drilling wells, installing irrigation, planting and nurturing grapes, collecting the prized casks and necessary grape handling equipment, and acquiring the knowledge to tackle a new line of work. The abstract world of ideas from which Steve emerged may seem antipodal to the concrete world of farming – white collar to blue collar. Certainly, one career was abstract, while the other is plain as dirt. But there are crossover skills that matter: paying wide attention, learning deeply from what you see, trying, testing, and being flexible. When you consider that strategic marketing aims to communicate a product or services’ core idea or essence, suddenly it seems an activity not so far removed from Steve’s current efforts to focus the essence of the grape. The process of producing something as intricate as aged balsamic also seems to fit something in Steve’s character that has to do with the discovery and testing of life’s organizing principles. “When you work on the land, when you have your nose in it, it regularly teaches you things, among them sustainability – and we are working on the ultimate sustainable food since even a batch of our balsamic 100 years from now still will be connected to the first. We joined Slow Food at its outset in Turin – and now we make the ultimate slow food. Think of it: our efforts with balsamic are our connection with our descendants who we will otherwise never meet.” Join Steve’s talents and temperament with those of equally talented Jane, and like the perfectly blended flavor of their organic aged balsamic, you have a team of startling organization, originality, and dedication.
The first thing to know about true aged balsamic – or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or di Reggio Emilia – is that it bears little resemblance to the mass-produced, grocery store balsamic which often is a one-day production of mostly red wine vinegar, cooked grape juice, caramel, and coloring. While the common variety (Steve calls “low-priced cologne, rather than perfume”) is perfectly fine for pouring liberally over salads, its aged counterpart is much closer in constitution, value and price to a fine port or cognac. Genuine aged balsamic is rich and complex with a slightly thick, syrup-like consistency, and is most often used sparingly on aged cheeses like a good Parmigiano, with perfectly ripe melons, figs or pears, or on a plain custard gelato. It can also be used in small amounts to elevate a fine soup, atop a prime cut of roasted beef, grilled fish or sautéed veal, or to bring out the sweetness in grilled winter vegetables. Through a process that veers closer to alchemy than pure science, the specially prepared “mosto cotto” or cooked grape juice will spend a minimum of 12 years in distinctive wooden casks – and with each passing year, the entire production gets one year older, just as with port, which shares the same rolling solera production concept; importantly, only a small minority of the liquid is removed each year with the rest left to continue melding and ageing. To prepare the mosto cotto, first the mostly trebbiano grapes are left on the vine as long as possible for maximum sugar content, then harvested, destemmed, and crushed. This year, the Darlands did their annual harvest and crush with family and friends on a single day in early September. The resulting juice is barely simmered at about 140 degrees for about 70 hours until approximately 50% of it has evaporated, increasing sugar content by a matching 50%. The juice cools and settles in a 300-gallon tank, where a specialized yeast (Zygosaccharomyces Balli), capable of fermenting high sugar content liquids, is introduced. Daily stirring with a giant wooden paddle continues over a four to six week period, slowly transforming the sugar to alcohol, usually in the 12-15% range, leaving plenty of residual sugar. Once fermentation slows considerably, the juice moves to large French oak wine barrels on the ground floor for part of a year before being transferred upstairs to the attic where the varied-sized casks peacefully reside. The Darlands’ casks are of seven types of wood – oak, chestnut, acacia, ash, cherry, mulberry, and juniper – each of which bestows its distinctive flavors to the ageing juice. When the juice arrives upstairs, its first stop is another of eight 57-gallon French oak barrels; there it joins the remainder of the previous year’s mosto cotto, which has been slowly acidifying in combination with a long established vinegar blend from a “mother” of Italian origin. This is usually done in late summer when warmer temperatures encourage acetobacter activity converting alcohol to acetic acid. (We’ve all experienced that happening to an open bottle of wine exposed to oxidation.) The casks are organized in a solera system that melds each year’s new juice with that of previous years. Winter is a good time for the heavier, tiny particulate material to settle, but come spring, when the weather warms and the vinegar is prime for tasting, the Darlands start the process of shuttling the vinegar from one cask to another – by small hand pump – first removing about 80% of the juice from only the end cask (the smallest) and bringing it downstairs in a glass carboy for later blending in the tasting room. Then, back in the attic, each barrel is topped off with some of the content of the adjacent cask, all the way up the line. To further aid in evaporation and oxidation, a large opening atop each cask is covered with a porous, muslin material, which also further concentrates the flavor. No barrel is ever completely emptied. Only the smallest cask in each battery of seven, out of which the finished balsamic comes each year, is partially drawn down for a few minutes, before being refilled by its neighbor – and it gives up less than a few percent of the total balsamic volume within that battery. So, in theory and practice, notable traces of the very first product placed in the solera are present even after 100 cycles (read: years!). It is for this reason that the Italians do not permit “tradizionale” to be labeled with its age, except in bottle cap colors; red cap means 12 years or older; silver cap means 25 years or older; gold cap means 50 years or older. “In this long, one-ingredient process, the beginning and the end are connected amidst a natural set of actions and reactions. You assist, but it truly makes itself, slowly and as one thing,” explains Steve, and it’s clear that this is another part of the special process he treasures.
The Darlands have eight batteries (complete sets of barrels), allowing them to produce a maximum of up to 1,000 four-ounce bottles per year, which is larger than the average Italian production. But keeping the operation manageable for one or two people was important to Steve, who also seems to find the concept of correct scale to be another key organizing idea. “Despite classic business tendencies, the solution isn’t always to double what you’re able to do,” he notes. And for producers of aged balsamic, it’s a particularly good thing to recognize that more isn’t always better, because each year, by necessity, you end up with less than you started with, even before you sell any. This year, the Darlands harvested and crushed 3.5 tons of their own organic grapes. But take a one-ton example. From that, they would gain only 100 gallons of grape juice. While they could squeeze out 150 gallons or more, they don’t want the last watery extract, but only the first-run, premium juice common to premium wine production. By the time the juice has been simmered for around 70 hours, half is gone in pursuit of the requisite higher sugar levels. A loss rate by evaporation of 35% per year is typical in Monticello’s arid environment, so a starting potential of 150 gallons becomes 100 then 50 then 33 gallons, all by the end of the first year; continue that for 12 years and a four-ounce bottle has the potential juice of 50 bottles of wine, squeezed by time and evaporation into a little bottle. While the rate of reduction lessens during the rest of the lifespan, the casks are always breathing, alive in the attic where considerable seasonal temperature swings are key to the vinegars’ development. Where does the rest of the vinegar go? “That’s known as the angels share, and for their share, they bless what you are doing,” Steve explains of the proverb also known to producers of wine, cognac and port. Each step of the reduction process maximizes the potential to taste, and, this again is where specific location works in Darland’s favor. “Our climate speeds up the process,” Darland explains, referring to the extreme aridity of Monticello. (By way of comparison, Modena, Italy averages 60% humidity, while Monticello’s hangs in the single digits). “Also, at this altitude, where the plants fight to survive, their fruit’s flavor complicates and intensifies. I believe the fruit is already concentrated to some extent by bright sunshine and our very warm air, even before it comes off the vine.”
The final steps of the process are blending, bottling, labeling and packaging, also very time consuming hand tasks, like all prior steps. And so we return to the small tasting room where the first complete batch of Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello rests patiently. The Darlands are taking a slow, organic approach to marketing their distinctive and expensive product because it doesn’t help to hurry sales any more than hurrying helps to age balsamic. The sun will rise, the sun will set, and the balsamic improves with the passage of time. There will always be a market for those who wish to indulge in life’s extreme culinary pleasures, and for those who choose a gift of rare, handcrafted, aged balsamic vinegar for a wedding, anniversary or other special occasion. When you make a product that takes a minimum of 12 years, having the long view is important, and Jane and Steve muse that one day they will have a great-granddaughter who will appreciate what it is all about. “The earth is sour and its fruit is sweet. Striking a balance is “agro dolce,” asserts ancient Italian wisdom. In Monticello, the Darlands are artfully striking that balance as they successfully blend old and new traditions, knowledge, and community in an amazing place they call home. For more information, their websites are: www.organicbalsamic.com and www.oldmonticelloorganicfarms.com.
Echoes in New Mexico’s Monticello
What are the odds an out-of-the way place in southwestern New Mexico would share so much in common, including its name, with the famous Monticello estate of the third U.S. president?
Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home was named with a nod to its Italian Renaissance architecture and the way it sits atop an 850-foot summit; thus, Italian for “little mountain.” The naming of mile-high Monticello, NM is less clear. Founded by farmers and herders in 1856 as Cañada Alamosa (cottonwood canyon), some records say its first postmaster renamed it in 1881.
Similarities between Jefferson’s Monticello and the Darland’s Monticello are striking. Jefferson’s love for collecting seeds and cuttings from around the world resulted in his wide-ranging botanical laboratory. The scale of Darland’s planting is smaller, but to walk their properties is to be astounded by what will grow in New Mexico. In addition to beautifully terraced vineyards, the Darlands grow an abundance of unusual trees, fruits, vegetables, flowers and botanicals concentrated on about 10% of their land. Mother Nature and Mother Jane, who is “chief pruner” of everything but the grapes (those are Steve’s domain), have created a Garden of Eden Jefferson would have appreciated. It seems the list of what doesn’t grow under Jane’s care is much shorter than what does; Jane admits she’s had trouble with kiwis, various berries, and chestnuts, but currants and rhubarb are still a possibility. In addition, they are still experimenting with hops, Chinese medicinal herbs as well as pressing black seed sunflowers for biodiesel.
Like Jefferson, their plants have come from a variety of sources, many with stories all their own, such as their prolific pomegranates. Most originated from cuttings exported from the former Soviet Union by a Russian Jew who moved to Israel and later donated cuttings to UC Davis where the Darlands located exceptional varieties.
We can all learn the stories of what will grow in New Mexico. The botanical language of other places often easily translates here – and it is a rich and happy ending we are still writing together.
Growing at the Darlands (a partial sampling):
Apricots: natural black (from Turkey), puget gold
Apples: pink lady, granny smith, Arkansas black, red fuji, mutsu, cinnamon spice, Anna
Beans: romanetta flat beans, pintos, Chinese long beans
Cucumbers: suyo long
Figs: Violette de Bordeau, flanders, brown turkey, neveralla, panache (tiger stripe), Peter’s honey, black mission, Texas blue giant
Grapes: trebbiano, malvisia
Olives: Mission, arbequina (from NE Spain)
Pomegranates: wonderful, Kasmir blend, ambrosia, sweet, grenada, red silk, pink satin, angel red, garnet sash
Melons: French heritage
Mulberry: black & white Middle Eastern
Peppers: Hungarian sweet chili, Japanese shishito
Pluot: dapple dandy, flavor supreme
Peaches: Indian white, baby Crawford
Pears: red d’anjou, bosc, comice
Plums: Bavay Gaye, Italian prune
Quince: pineapple and orange
Plus, many culinary herbs such as bay, mint, dill, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, marjoram, and botanicals such as lemon verbena, lavender, rose geranium, wild-crafted basil, yarrow, Echinacea, and heritage Damascus rose blossoms. In between preparing for market and producing aged balsamic, the Darlands also create signature products for their daughter’s San Francisco Spa, International Orange.