Thursday, February 19, 2009


Very soon after the vinegary was established, visitors came, wanting to know what in the world a vinegary was. That was a legitimate question since we had actually coined a logical word. What intrigued me was that so many people had no idea how vinegar was made. It apparently mystified them and they wanted to know.

The first tours we gave were of the vinegary only. Ron explained the process and showed the primary fermenters and carboys for making the wine. He usually had a piece of mother to show as he explained the steps in converting wine to vinegar. He often had a gallon or two of herbs infusing in fresh vinegar. He always gave tastes of the vinegars at hand.

When we started giving sample tastes, we used little glasses but Ron found it difficult to pour from the bottles into little glasses without spilling. Also, a tablespoon of vinegar was far more than the average palate could handle. People weren’t accustomed to tasting straight vinegar and it was overpowering. When we located a source for small bottles with dropper tops, we switched to using spoons and mere drops of vinegar which was enough for all but the true vinegar lovers.
When we found that people were intrigued by what we were doing, we connected with the local tourism committee, a group with which I had worked for several years. Local tourism was interested in promoting sites of interest for bus tours. That brought the first buses to our door.
Buses carry far more people than the average car or SUV and we needed a way to deal with larger groups with the vinegary only a small 10’ x 18’ room filled with stainless steel tables, a triple sink, and supply racks. It could hold, at elbow to elbow capacity, 12 average sized people. Buses often brought 25 to 50 visitors.

We found an effective solution, at least during the warmer days of spring, summer and fall, by dividing groups in two. Ron took half directly to the vinegary and I led the other half through the herb garden and orchard, usually passing by the koi ponds and the vegetable garden which also has herbs.

We provided chairs scattered throughout the tour path for anyone less able to handle the terrain. Some sought shelter in the flower enhanced gazebo, listening to the waterfall and the various songbirds with hummingbirds flitting in and out to feed from the feeder hanging nearby. Occasionally I’d bring the herbs to the group with the pond and the fish lending ambiance to the herb talk. We’ve been generally lucky with the weather and only twice did I bring herbs into a bus to fill the time while the visitors waited their turn in the vinegary.

We always share what we’ve learned about growing grapes, apples, cherries, plums and rhubarb. I’ve grown many many varieties of herbs over the last 30 years. I usually highlight those that we use in the vinegars as well as some medicinals that I’ve grown for years and find particularly interesting. When garden clubs visit, many of the members grow herbs and are familiar with them. On the other hand, when a military reunion group, as an example, comes to see the garden, they may be less familiar with herbs. I always give nibbles of French tarragon, anise hyssop, lovage, mint, oregano, basil, sage, cilantro, thyme; whatever is fresh an abundant. Many people have never tasted fresh herbs and are amazed and delighted by the variety of natural flavors.

When we have master gardeners and those who have gardened for many years, we learn from them, too. I love this exchange of information. If a spring or summer rain has resulted in mushrooms springing up in the lawn, we talk about them. If visitors are interested in medicinals, I point out the uses of mullein, plantain, yarrow and others. Many ask if we make dandelion wine and the answer is still, no, not yet.

We talk about the black walnut trees, the overgrown bittersweet vines on the back porch, and of course the leatherwood growing in the yard, from which our business was named. Leatherwood is a flexible twigged shrub that at its tallest is only six feet. It has small yellow flowers in the spring before it leafs out. It doesn’t seem to bear fruit from them but may need a companion shrub in order to reproduce. The leaves are oval and usually among the first to fall in the fall. Leatherwood grows on rich soil and is considered to be found in a widespread area of North America and yet is relatively uncommon. It’s native to this area and we’re pleased that for us it represents this quality of being uncommon but springing up in a healthy place, a metaphor for the creativity we bring to our business.

After giving tours for a couple of years and handling vinegar sales in the small display corner of the vinegary, we decided that we needed a bigger retail space. We added the vinegar and wine and beer making supplies and equipment to my art gallery in Long Prairie. That worked fine for a few months but when that summer arrived and with it the numerous tour buses and groups, we felt it would be far better to have everything in one location. We had built a pine paneled shop space on our property in 1985. It had become a storage area but with a little scrubbing and added shelves it became an ideal display area for the vinegar with adequate space for the other supplies, as well as paintings, pottery, note cards, and consignment space for Amish baskets and locally woven rugs.

We decided to just have it open for tours, groups and by appointment. That allowed us to keep abreast of the vinegary, garden and orchard work while still having a retail space.
Heated by a small wood stove, the shop could only be open in the warm months. We move everything that is in danger of freezing into other heated spaces during the winter. We still maintain the small display of vinegar in the vinegary.

As things are arranged now, we can accommodate most any visitors. When we had a group of fifty people we had to do some creative group dividing and do the tasting outside the vinegary. We’ve found that guests are quite willing to take us as we are and we’re all richer for it.

We'll soon be planning our tour schedule for the upcoming season. Call 320-732-2879 for tour information.