From Berry to Business
When life gives you sour grapes, make verjus.
It's an ancient, unfermented food elixir made from unripe grapes that adds a light zest to whatever it is used in.
Although Washington wine growers lop off tons of green grapes each year so vines can focus their full ripening energies on the remaining crop, none has developed a commercial use for the hard, tart berries that otherwise are left to rot on the ground.
Until recently, that is.
When 28-year-old Alexander Gelles was looking to develop an "imaginary" business plan for his wine-industry employment class last year at Walla Walla Community College, he discovered verjus (pronounced ver-ZHOO).
His plan to make and market the clear pale-green liquid widely used in European and Persian cooking as a vinegar or lemon-juice substitute has since turned out to be not so imaginary after all.
Gelles is marketing his first 100 dozen-bottle cases of verjus made from five tons of green cabernet sauvignon and syrah grapes harvested and pressed in August at his family's Klipsun Vineyards acreage near Benton City.
"Basically, I'm taking a waste product and making something useful," he says.
Nevertheless, Gelles is believed to be the only commercial bottler in Washington, joining a handful of other verjusmakers in Oregon and Northern California.
That may not be the case in too many years if interest Gelles has received is any measure. After starting production in August, Gelles' client list already includes 15 restaurants and wine-oriented shops around Washington and a sprinkling in Oregon and California.
A Sauce for All Dishes
Although it is relatively unknown in U.S. kitchens, Gelles calls verjus "the mother of all sauces." He notes its use since medieval times in Europe — and untold centuries before in Persia — in marinades, salad dressings, soups and sauces to complement seafood, fowl, red meats, vegetables and desserts.
It's also wine-friendly because, unlike vinegar, it contains no acetic acid that can impart an off taste to wine when drinking it while having, say, a salad dressed with a vinaigrette.
Greg Schnorr, chef at CreekTown Café in Walla Walla and a recent convert to Gelles Klipsun Vineyard Verjus, swears by the stuff.
On a recent afternoon at the popular wine-savvy restaurant, Schnorr was using verjus to add a clean, subtle tartness to Idaho trout cakes as well as to the basil mayonnaise and fennel he served it with. He also used it to marinade pheasant and prawns for his Cajun etoufee, as a deglazer after searing the meats in a pan, and finally as an addition to the meal's spicy brown.
"The sky's the limit. You can utilize this anyway you want," he says. "It has a nice lemony flavor and it's not going to come off as overly sour. You use it when you want to highlight the acids without having to deal with the pucker."
Masood Gorashi, an Iranian-born American who sells newspaper advertising in Walla Walla, says verjus — which his mother, Elahe, made from plentiful grapes grown around his boyhood home of Mashad in the northeast part of the country — has been a staple in Persian cooking for thousands of years.
Called ahbe ghooreh in his native tongue, verjus also is used for everything from a summer thirst quencher to a liquid digestive aid, says the 45-year-old Gorashi.
"My parents swear that it breaks down the oils and grease from a heavy meal," he says, adding that many Iranians also claim it can improve eyesight and ease rheumatism by reducing inflammation.
His mother mostly used verjus in a simple vinaigrette, mixed with extra virgin olive oil and seasoned to taste with salt and pepper.
First in the State
The notion of bottling his own verjus came to Gelles not from the Old World, however. It came from Australia, where his parents, David and Patricia Gelles, had a chance encounter with food author Maggie Beers during a trip in December 2002.
After hearing upon their return how Beers' Tuscan-style cookbook had "revived interest in verjus" in Australia, Gelles decided to take it on as a business venture and a class project.
For him, it offered a way to carve his own niche in the family farm, which in 2001 was named as one of the top 25 vineyards in the world.
He'd been studying biochemistry in college but decided to take time off to travel in 1999. It turned out to be a nearly two-year trip that took him from home to the tip of South America and back up the West Coast. He figures he worked 17 jobs along the way, from harvesting grapes to washing dishes to being a nightclub bouncer to a final job — dealing blackjack in a Kennewick casino — where he decided it was time to get serious about a career in the wine industry.
In researching the potential market for the product, Gelles said he could find no other producers in the state, and a Department of Agriculture official he worked with to approve the product for sale had never heard of the cooking aid.
Seeing a clear shot at a new market, he asked the Klipsun vineyard crew to collect five tons of grapes during the annual "green harvest" at veraison, the early August thinning period when immature grapes first start to take on their ripened colors.
He then borrowed a small, well-used hydraulic basket press from Yakima Valley grower Dick Boushey and spent the next few days squeezing the juice from the fruit, obtaining about 150 gallons.
To that he added a dose of sulfur dioxide to keep the raw juice from turning brown, prevent fermentation and inhibit bacteria growth. Next, the juice spent two weeks at Kiona Vineyards Winery in a cold stabilization and fining process to remove crystallized tartaric acids and suspended grape particles. After sterile filtering, a process he learned later wasn't required because the grape acids were so high, he added a touch of potassium sorbate to preserve freshness and prevent browning.
The batch was then bottled in rectangular glass containers to sell for a suggested retail price of $10 each.
He then hit the road, drawing on family connections in Washington's wine and restaurant industries to market his verjus.
After he graduates from the community college's viticulture and enology program this summer and completes a six-month vineyard-to-cellar winemaking internship in France, he plans to resume his verjus-making business with the 2005 crop. He says he may contract a local winemaker to produce his Klipsun verjus with the 2004 crop.
Meanwhile, he's awaiting approval of his application for a federal small business grant, which would help finance up to $225,000 in further product research, market development and start-up production costs.
"It's been a great lesson in starting a business, going though phases of planning, production and marketing," says Gelles.
He adds he's happy with the reception the product has received so far, but says "a lot of education needs to take place to see this in everyday kitchens." He may develop a list of uses to sell with each bottle, but for now he directs customers and the curious to a number of Web sites that offer recipes using verjus.
"I think there is a huge market that is basically untapped for the most
part in the U.S," he says.