You wouldn’t know it from all the olive oil being poured into tiny saucers at Italian restaurants across America, but the makers of fine extra-virgin olive oil are worried. At a time when demand for their product is booming around the world and modern techniques have made it possible to bottle some of the best oils ever, the author of a fascinating new book on the subject argues that cheap, fraudulent products are making it difficult, if not impossible, for the good stuff to be profitable.
That’s because, writes Tom Mueller in Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (Norton, $26), most people don’t know what good-quality olive oil should be. Early in the book he quotes one expert, after tasting a poor-quality oil labeled extra-virgin, as saying, “This is what nearly everyone in the world thinks is extra-virgin olive oil! This stuff is putting honest oil makers out of business.”
Official standards only require that extra-virgin oil contain less than 0.8 percent acidity (which indicates only how old the oil might be), and be free of a list of possible defects, such as mustiness or rancidity. Mueller reports that very little oil is rejected, however, as big producers and those who trade in fraud intimidate Europe’s tasting panels. In fact, Mueller argues, so much bad and fraudulent oil travels as extra-virgin that most non-experts think that’s what it should be, not the intense panoply of rich flavor and distinctive peppery qualities that characterize true extra-virgin olive oil.
In the book the expert goes on to say, “In wine, you can trust the label. If it says Dom Pérignon 1964, then that’s what’s in the bottle, not last month’s Beaujolais Nouveau.”
It’s not surprising that the olive oil world sees wine as a model. After all, as recently as the 1970s Italy produced an enormous amount of wine, most of it for early consumption locally, and most of it faulty or insipid by world standards. Today, Italy abounds in fine wines that can command commensurate prices, but it took a few gutsy pioneers to stick their necks out, insist on quality and, most important, create a market for their wines.
Mueller lives in Italy, a country with a big reputation for great olive oil. On a visit to San Francisco this week, he agreed that it will take a critical mass of dedicated producers who can do what wine did to overcome what’s happening with olive oil. In brief, the problem is that most of what’s labeled extra-virgin olive oil simply isn’t.
If the words "extra virgin" have been so corrupted, I wondered, maybe the good oil makers should just come up with a new category. It would be as if a famous wine appellation had been so debased that new ones had to be created. Which is pretty much what Italy did in 1980 when it created the first DOCG (Brunello di Montalcino), adding “guaranteed” to some existing denominations of origin. The idea was to impose higher standards. In reality, it was imperfect, but it worked to establish certain wine types as a cut above.
“I agree,” Mueller whispered. “But you would get a fierce argument from some people,” especially those furious that they could no longer use a phrase they spent their lives trying to live up to.
“Wine has a head start of several centuries,” Mueller added. “Wine has generally recognized patterns of quality, such as premier cru and grand cru in France, the classified-growths of Bordeaux. And most important, oil has no independent observers who can educate people and communicate with consumers about which oils are worth buying. There’s no Wine Spectator of olive oil.”
Mueller discovered the heart of the problem when he tried to demonstrate the difference between extra-virgin oil with the intense characteristics experts love and other oils considered to be bland. Wouldn’t you know, when he asked regular folks which one they liked better, the bland oil almost always won.
“I realized I was asking the wrong question,” he shrugged. “When I asked which one tasted fresher, everyone got it.”
Actually that preference for the blander option is one more thing olive oil shares with wine. Offer a non-expert a pleasant but unexceptional wine alongside a highly distinctive wine with plenty of character, and most will go for Wine A. Why? Less chance it contains some flavors to be found objectionable. Of course, if olive oil can develop the equivalent of a Gaja or Antinori, the halo effect could influence the equation.
The good news, Mueller noted, is that the number of stores in America specializing in olive oil has reached more than 400, and not just on the coasts, but in almost every state. We’re beginning to get it.
Lorenzo Erlic — Canada — January 20, 2012 4:42pm ET
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — January 20, 2012 4:49pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 20, 2012 5:02pm ET
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