Waste in the wine industry is a problem—and one you are unlikely to consider while snagging a bottle of your favorite rosé this summer. Winemakers, wine distributors, and retailers are sitting on a lot of inventory that’s not fit to be sold. A dry growing season yields a less-than-perfect blend. The market is oversaturated with a particular style. Labels are torn or stained. Bottles aren’t selling (yes, even during a global pandemic when alcohol consumption is rising).
So, what do you do with wine destined for the dump? Well, if you’re Brian Kwasnieski, you get a five gallon crock pot, add a few bottles of unsold red wine, add Mother, and begin fermenting in your bedroom closet. In the process, you might also smoke out your roommate with the stinging aroma of homemade vinegar seeping through every wall in your apartment.
But every brand needs an origin story and this one is Little Fork Vinegar’s—the after-hours project Brian now operates from Matchbook Distilling, a research and development spirits facility that he and his wife Leslie Merinoff-Kwasnieski opened in 2018. Since then, he’s been working to solve this problem with one small batch of vinegar at a time.
Spending his evenings opening and blending 1,400 bottles of red wine is perhaps not what Brian always dreamed of doing, but there’s one question that’s driven his career since his internship at a wine distributor six years ago: how do we make the wine and spirits industries more sustainable?
While Matchbook Distilling is innovating how we distill spirits, like using a yogurt-maker’s leftover whey and the excess squash harvest from a local farmer in place of growing their own fruit and grain, Little Fork buys excess, damaged, and imperfect wine from makers, distributors, and retailers to help manage their losses without pouring thousands of gallons of wine down the drain.
Vinegar is more forgiving than spirits, so it’s unlikely your chosen blend will produce an off-putting flavor combination. Brian explains, “the vintners, the winemakers, the wineries—all their expertise is already in the [wine]. You really just let Mother Nature do the rest.” Though, there is still a mix of art and science to the process. Brian is thoughtful when considering his blends. While each batch is different, terroir still exists. He aims to use wines from the same region; his first batch of vinegar used only wines from southeastern France.
Since he’s moved on from his five gallon crockpot, he needed a new solution for fermenting and packaging his blends. Sitting unplugged on the floor at Matchbook is a Frings Acetator, which uses natural Mother, or culture, to convert ethanol to acetic vinegar. Eventually, the Frings will be Little Fork’s workhorse, but for now, Brian partners with Mark Simakaski, founder of Artesano Mead in Groton, Vermont. “He’s been guiding me through the fermentation process. I sent totes of wine and he sends it back as concentrated vinegar.” Each bottle of wine yields two bottles of vinegar.
Once back on the North Fork, the vinegar isn’t poured back into the glass bottles from which they came, even though one might think that full circle is the key to sustainability. Re-using glass packaging, Brian quickly learned while working in the distillery, is an energy-intensive process. Bottles need to be sterilized, old labels removed and new ones meticulously added, then capped and sealed. Instead he uses the AstroPaq, an airtight, lightweight bag with a spout and 80% less carbon footprint than glass.
It’s not just unused wine that makes Little Fork Vinegar a beacon of sustainability. Brian takes advantage of unused space and time—in this case: the quiet of Matchbook’s production space after the team closes down for the day.
Some might read this and assume Little Fork is more of a hobby project than a growing business. But Brian has no intention of quitting, especially now that he has the hard stuff, like sourcing and packaging, figured out.
“I’m always looking for creative ways to partner with people,” whether that’s developing a personal blend for an oyster bar or as a key ingredient for restaurants or delis or simply increasing retail partnerships. Until then, you can enjoy Little Fork Vinegar at L&W Market in Bridgehampton, Lombardi’s Love Lane Market in Mattituck, and online at mdcdropshop.com.