Unlike the balsamics one finds at a supermarket, Waldrop's vinegars have a thick, almost syrupy consistency and offer a rich, multifaceted bouquet, like a good wine. Under his blue tent at the markets, he decants it from small silver containers into corked bottles while the customer waits, often dispensing recipe ideas and good-natured banter along with the vinegar.
“I’m a talker; I like to talk,” Waldrop says. “And part of the reason I like doing farmers markets is so I can interact with people, let them taste the vinegar, show them how it’s different from what’s in the grocery stores.”
Waldrop took up the art of vinegar-making as a hobby about 10 years ago after he tried a remarkably delicious balsamic at a dinner with friends in his native Valdese. As they sat around discussing how they thought one would go about making vinegar, Waldrop became intrigued, and his friends challenged him to give it a shot.
“It was kind of a good-natured dare,” he explains. “I decided it's not magic. I decided that if an Italian can do it, anyone else can do it.”
At this point, Waldrop — who admits he is analytical by nature and obsessed with figuring out how things work — began reading up on the process. The problem, he says, is that there are not many books on how to make vinegar. So, of course, he Googled it, then proceeded to spend countless hours poring over everything he could find online on the subject, including vast numbers of lab reports and scientific papers on esoteric topics such as yeast performance. “The real trick is understanding the chemistry,” says Waldrop.
It was helpful, too, that vinegar is produced from wine, and winemaking is something with which Waldrop, a member of Burke County's Waldensian community, has a deep-rooted family connection.
The Waldensians are a Christian sect from France whose members came to Burke County via Italy in the late 1800s to escape persecution. They brought with them centuries of winemaking knowledge that, according to Waldrop, translated into vinegar-making when his grandparents were young during the Prohibition years.
To this day, Valdese is known for its wineries, and many families in the area grow their own grapes. “It is not so much a family tradition, but it is a Waldensian tradition. I kind of started with that, with the wine culture,” Waldrop explains. And from that start, he began experimenting.
Working at a friend's winery outside of Valdese (he prefers not to disclose the facility’s name and exact location at this point), and using grapes grown on his family's property and by friends, Waldrop, who up until three months ago was employed in the field of marketing and events promotion, now immerses himself full-time in the art of vinegar.
The process begins with crushing the grapes using a hand-operated press to create what is called a “must” that’s heated to concentrate the sugars, then enters a two-stage fermentation process. First it becomes wine as the yeast consumes sugars in the grapes and makes alcohol. Waldrop then adds acetobacters which consume the alcohol to yield acetic acid, or vinegar, and it all has to sit in oak casks without being disturbed for — wait for it — five and a half years. That's right. Years.
“The key, something I've learned from all this,” says Waldrop, “is patience.”
Right now, Waldrop is selling a regular balsamic along with dark-chocolate and raspberry-lime infusions. In the works is a batch made using chocolate from the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, and he plans to bring back a fig-vanilla flavor that had been very popular. Also, during the markets' winter off-season, Waldrop says he will introduce a line of vinaigrettes, some of which are specifically designed as marinades for roasting or grilling.
Waldrop likes to encourage those who buy his vinegar to experiment and think outside the bottle.
“What most people think of for balsamic is salad dressing and dipping bread in it,” he says. “But there are hundreds of potential recipe applications for it.” He notes some especially memorable cupcakes topped with chocolate-balsamic ganache whipped up by Home is Where the Heart is Bakery owner Cheryl Robinson using his vinegar.
Although he acknowledges the $15 price tag on his 8-ounce bottles ($10 for refills) may initially seem prohibitive to some, he says the flavors are extremely concentrated and a little lasts a long time. And he is finding that plenty of market shoppers are quite willing to pay for his product — especially after they try a sample and learn a little about the skill and care that goes into its production.
“Asheville is different from so many places,” he says, because it is an area that “encourages fresh ideas, but also encourages doing things in a traditional way, in a way that honors the process.”
For the foreseeable future, he plans to continue selling exclusively at farmers markets. This season Waldrop has been setting up shop at the West Asheville, Montford, Oakley and east Asheville markets. He hopes to soon get a slot at the Asheville City Market. Due to the amount of time it takes his vinegar to mature, scaling up for distribution will take several years. But he also feels that developing consumer awareness about his product through personally meeting and talking with people is vital to his business.
And Waldrop feels fortunate that his business is located in Asheville. “Everyone here is an amateur chef these days,” he explains. “That is the root of the food movement in Asheville right now. None of that [farm-to-table restaurants etc.] would happen without a lot of people who are absolutely nuts about food. There's an environment here that's very nurturing of that.”