My name is Jim Neal, I am the proprietor of Fusion Verjus.
I spent half of my career cooking in great restaurants with iconic chefs. The other half I’ve spent in vineyards and wineries in the Napa Valley.
I learned about verjus from Madeleine Kamman at her School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards. Madeleine was teaching us how to pair food with wines in a way that would compliment both. Her theory, and one with which I concur, was that vinegar should not be used in a recipe to be served with good wine, because the acetic acid in the vinegar affects the perception of the wine on the palate.
A wine with too much “volatile acidity” or VA, has a high level of acetic acid and that is a flaw caused mainly by poor cellar practices. While many wines have some VA, that amount is usually under the threshold of identification to the taster. A big blast of VA in a wine is off-putting, so we don’t want to introduce acetic acid in the form of vinegar while drinking wine.
She taught us how to make verjus from table grapes and brandy, and we used that in a salad dressing instead of using vinegar. The grapes we used were Thompson Seedless from the grocery store, and although somewhat tart, they were sweeter than the grapes used to make real verjus.
In 1993, I stopped working in restaurant kitchens and went to work for David Abreu, a vineyard manager in Rutherford, CA. I was part of a labor crew, and worked through a full cycle of vineyard growth and development.
One day during the summer, we were working at Spottswoode Estate and I learned about thinning grapes. The crew foreman told us to count the number of grape clusters on each plant, and remove all but two clusters on each shoot. This meant cutting off up to 20 clusters of premium cabernet sauvignon and dropping them onto the ground where they would be disced back into the soil eventually. The vineyard rows are long, some of them a few hundred yards from end post to end post. The quantity of grapes on the ground was staggering to me. I thought of verjus. The berries on the ground were sour and hard, and I believed that they would make perfect verjus.
So I asked David about the grapes, and I told him what I had in mind. He told me that if I could learn how to make it he would give me the fruit and we would pull a gondola down the rows to collect the grapes instead of dropping them on the ground.
We did it on a Saturday, we collected about a ton of grapes from Star Vineyard in Rutherford and I took them to my friend Mike Chelini at Stony Hill Vineyards, where we crushed and pressed the fruit. We filled three 55 gallon plastic drums with the juice, added some sulfur dioxide so that it wouldn’t ferment and drove it down to a refrigerated storage facility in Napa.
The verjus was wonderful, I was very excited to get it bottled and start showing it to chefs in the Valley.
I took a sample to Hiro Sone, the chef I worked for in LA at Spago and at Terra is St. Helena in Napa Valley. I took a sample to Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, he had just recently taken over the restaurant when I went into dinner with a sample. I connected with Gary Danko, he was Executive Chef at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco and a protégé of Madeleine Kamman. Everybody liked the verjus and began buying from me.
Barely a month after bottling my first batch of verjus, Gary asked me if I would go to New York with him to help with an event, and he said he’d help me promote my verjus while we were there. He was doing a luncheon at the Ritz in New York, showing off new products from California.
I went along, my first trip to New York City and we prepped and cooked and dined and made sales calls for three days. We talked to the biggest names in the City, and many of them became customers.
After we cooked the luncheon at the Ritz that day, Gary asked me to come out of the kitchen and answer questions about my verjus. The group was about 20 people seated in a private dining room, and they were all food writers. New York Times, Gourmet, Food and Wine, Restaurant News and on and on. Suddenly my product was featured in articles in all the best food magazines and newspapers, and I was off and running.
Over the next several years my production volume slowly increased, as more and more chefs and diners learned about verjus.
As of this writing, I’m planning my 30th harvest.
I am extremely grateful to all of my customers for their loyalty as well as the many growers, wineries and vendors I’ve worked with over the years.
Every man is entitled to three things in life—one good dog, one good horse and one good woman. This was my dog.
See how we make Fusion Verjus
It's all about the fruit. The grapes we use for Fusion Verjus ripen slowly in a cool but sunny part of California. Our focus is on the acid / sugar balance of the fruit at harvest, and we monitor the vineyard daily as the projected harvest day draws near. We wait for verasion, the point at which the berries undergo a transformation; they become soft and juicy instead of hard and dry. As soon as the grapes are soft enough to press we pick them and rush them to the winery for processing.
The pictures below show the various stages of the crush.
Grapes arrive on flatbed trucks, and they are dumped carefully into a hopper which moves them through the processing equipment.
This giant auger pushes the fruit into the destemmer.
This machine removes the stems from the grapes then the fruit rides up a conveyor belt which feeds the press.
This is the juice pan under the press. The juice gushing out of that pipe is free run juice. When the pan fills, a pump moves the fresh juice into a large tank where it settles. After 24 hours the verjus is filtered and prepared for bottling.
The last step is bottling. Once the juice has been clarified by cross-flow filtration we are ready to bottle. These bottles will be labeled and packed into 12 bottle cases.
History of Verjus
Verjus is the French name for sour grape juice, and has been used as an ingredient in food preparation for millennia. It is a product with historical significance and has been made and used in most winegrowing regions, dating back to the world’s first cultivated vineyards in the Middle East. Eventually,verjus became a common ingredient found in the New World's expanding winegrowing areas. In that period, northern European countries and North America used sour berries and crabapples to add acidity to food; verjus became popular in those regions with vineyards.
Records show that during the 2nd century AD in Dijon, France, a piquant paste was made by crushing the seeds of a wild bush with salt and the sour juice of half-ripened grapes, resulting in a spicy condiment which would disguise the smell and taste of unpreserved meat. This would become known as Dijon Mustard; must- being the unfermented juice of grapes and -ardin the Latin word for fiery. Mustard or moutarde was made with verjus for hundreds of years, until vinegar was used in its place beginning in the 19th century.
Viticultural areas are frequently near rivers, so there are many old recipes featuring verjus as an ingredient for fresh water fish, especially for poaching (court bouillon) and sauces. Verjus often appears in recipes with poultry, including foie gras from Perigord and Bresse chicken in Burgundy. Today in the United States, verjus is used in many types of preparations including salad dressing, savory pan sauces, marinades, and also in desserts.