Artisan Vinegars, Secret Ingredients

It started with a gift of golden raspberries. “You can have them all,” said Craig and Cari Clark’s neighbor who had wearied of his U-pick project partway through his first and last season. Presented with the chance to pick buckets and buckets of raspberries, Craig and Cari got to work harvesting the fragile fruit and then teaching themselves how to make vinegar. They turned around and gifted these bottles of homemade raspberry-infused vinegar to family and friends, who promptly clamored for more. Now offering an array of nine flavored vinegars with most infusion ingredients cultivated from their property, Chaparral Gardens Artisan Vinegars continue to make a great gift for foodies who appreciate exceptional products that lend a flavorful hand in the kitchen.

a selection of Chaparral Gardens Artisan Vinegars

“Craig’s Blackberry Balsamic vinegar? It’s our secret ingredient,” confides Melanie Blankenship, proprietor and owner of  Nature’s Touch Nursery and Harvest, when describing one of their most popular salads. Her Templeton neighbor Ryan Perske of J&R Natural Meat and Sausage also uses Chaparral Gardens Artisan Vinegars as a key ingredient in several of their marinades. “Especially with a lean meat like venison or buffalo,” says Ryan, “a portion of good vinegar helps tenderize the meat prior to cooking. Cut it with a little oil and a sprinkle of spice rub and let it marinade.” J&R Natural Meat and Sausage offers Chaparral Gardens Artisan Vinegars for sale and sample among other local products that complement their grass-fed beef, pasture-fed pigs, venison, bison, and other local, sustainably-produced meats.

Chef Dustin DesJardins of DCS Catering relies on an array of Chaparral Gardens vinegars for making memorable meals. He writes, “Craig and Cari at Chaparral Gardens share the same philosophy as we do, fresh ingredients make a difference. The devotion to their garden and love of the creative process has produced the best vinegars I have ever tasted. Chaparral Gardens plays a huge part in our success, and I could not imagine cooking without them.” CCFoodie agrees and is proud to promote Craig and Cari’s business.

stainless steel tanks keep the fruit forward in the vinegar

Back at our kitchen, just a light touch of one of their rich, fruity vinegars helps food come to life on the plate. Stainless steel tanks help retain the fruit forward quality of these vinegars in contrast to using barrels that can mask flavors under oak. In the preparation of a last-minute Portobello sauté, a couple splashes of Chaparral Gardens Blackberry Balsamic simplified the cooking process and dramatically enhanced the flavor of that dish and our overall meal. The rosemary-roasted potatoes also sprang to life with a drizzle of this same vinegar.

Living Food

Craig holds up the Mother of vinegar

It’s no wonder that artisan vinegars produced with the Mother of vinegar energize so many dishes. “The vinegar is alive,” says Craig as he fished out a blob of the Mother to show me on a recent visit. “It’s like yeast for sour dough bread. It stays alive if you feed it the right combination of oxygen and sugar.” When I glimpsed the strands Mother of vinegar on a tall stainless steel tank lid several months ago, I thought it would look like spaghetti or a jellyfish rather than this layered gelatinous mass that can be reused from batch to batch. The Mother is active, especially at room temperature, and will begin to form if left on the counter after opening. If you want to prevent the Mother from forming in your Chaparral Gardens vinegars, keep them in the fridge.

We’re going to leave one of our three Chaparral Gardens varieties out on the counter to actively encourage the growth of this healthful organism. Cari affirms Craig’s claim that one bite of the Mother—with its very sour vinegar taste and oyster mouthfeel—can immediately stave off a cold. Beyond cold fighting, there are many healthful benefits of vinegars produced with a living Mother component. Stay tuned for a discussion with Courtney Coleman of Cook Well about the healthful benefits of vinegars and how best to use them in your whole food cooking.

These quality vinegars are so good, cooks in the know use them to spike familiar dishes such as stuffing and spinach salad as well as to push the boundaries. “I mix Winter Ambrosia vinegar with whip cream for holiday desserts,” says Steve Tobey, owner of We Olive Ventura. “Just discovered a new one,” types Craig—“Winter Ambrosia and Crown Royal.” Even in a text, I see his big smile when he says the name of one of his favorite vinegars—“Winter Ambroz-ah!” Incidentally, a little vinegar goes a long way. Once you start cooking with vinegar, you quickly realize that you don’t want to overdo it—experimentation is key.

Giving the Gift of Food

sampler packs make a good gift

When we last saw Craig and Cari, they were making new flavor converts at the low key holiday arts event held at Tiber Canyon every fall. They offer a pack of four 2-ounce bottles in an assortment of flavors ($20) and full-sized vinegars ($16-20). The Winter Ambrosia vinegar is only available during the winter months. Be sure to order before December 20 to insure delivery for December 25. “These vinegars are great as gifts,” agrees Ryan from J&R Natural Meats and Sausage—“They can be used in many ways in the kitchen, from glazing a pan to marinating cuts of meat to serving as a base for dipping bread.” Also, gifting a flavorful ingredient to friends who can cook improves your chances of being invited to dinner integrating your tasty gift. ; )

Foodie Awards:

  • Blackberry Balsamic 2011 SOFI Gold for best salad dressing
  • Pacific Spice 2011 SOFI Silver for best flavor enhancer
  • Champagne Mimosa 2012 SOFI Silver finalist for best shelf stable foodservice product


the winter fields at Chaparral Gardens in Atascadero

You can purchase Chaparral Gardens Artisan Vinegars online at, at more than a dozen local wine tasting rooms, and at a number of specialty food outlets including Nature’s Touch Harvest and Nursery and J & R Meats in Templeton, Lazy Acres Market in Santa Barbara, A Matter of Taste in Cambria, and all three Central Coast We Olive stores. View a list of outlets offering these wonderful products If you would like to have a private tasting in their Highway 41 tasting room, contact Craig to set up a time: 805/703-0829

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