|California Winery Olive Oil Tasting|
|Artisanal Olive Oil|
A rock 'n' roll winemaker harvests olives from 100-year-old trees
A desire for diversity
Tuscany inspires a winery near Monterey
California wineries such as Grace Family, Joseph Phelps, Jordan and Silverado have been quietly reinstating an Old World crop into their vineyards. It's not an obscure variety from the Rhône Valley or rootstock from a prestigious château, and the harvest doesn't even involve grapes.
The plant is the olive tree, and some California vintners are beginning to produce olive oils whose quality rivals that of their best wines. These producers -- concentrated in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties for the most part -- are among the most familiar and respected in the wine business. The oils are often available only from the winery. Olive oils, and other gourmet products, have long been offered for sale in the tasting rooms of California wineries. But in the past decade, wineries have been handcrafting oils with a level of attention previously reserved for their wines. They maintain estate orchards, pick the olives by hand and painstakingly extract the tiny quantities of oil. The packaging is often elaborate, and the oils can be expensive. Most sell out as quickly as the producer's top wine.
"It's just nice to have another aspect of the bounty of your property," Bart Araujo of Araujo Estate says. Beth Novak Milliken, president of Spottswoode, agrees. "The two dovetail quite well," she says. "Olive oil and wine seem like a natural connection." Wineries admittedly are bit-players in California's olive oil industry, accounting for just 3 percent of the 200,000 gallons produced in 2001, according to state agricultural figures.
The wine industry, however, brings an all-important cachet to California's olive oil business. "The wineries have been able to get people to look at olive oil in a different light," says Paul Vossen, adviser for the California Olive Oil Council and a cooperative extension farm adviser for the University of California, Davis. "Consumers think, 'If they have high quality wine, they must have high quality olive oil.'"
In fact, a handful of wineries are already producing excellent oils, but in a tasting of 19 winery-produced olive oils, Wine Spectator found that California producers have a long way to go to match the best oils of Italy, France and Spain. Six oils were rated to be excellent and nine ranked as good. Not bad for a cottage industry that didn't exist 15 years ago, particularly when you consider that the competition from Europe has a 4,000-year head start.
"Olive oil today is kind of where the wine industry was 25 years ago," says Kris Jaeger, whose late mother-in-law, Lila Jaeger, was a pioneer in California's artisanal olive oil industry in the early 1990's and was one of the founding members of the COOC.
In retrospect, wineries making olive oil may seem like a grand plan, but most began making oil almost by accident.
Many, such as Grace Family, Silverado and Wente, inherited 100-plus-year-old trees (likely planted by missionaries and immigrant farmers), which in many cases were neglected and overgrown. In Napa Valley, that's what Araujo found when he bought Eisele Vineyard in 1990, and what Ted Hall discovered when he established Long Meadow Ranch in 1989.
"There were orchards of olive oil trees that no one knew about. The forest had grown over them. They were completely invisible," says Hall, who uncovered 1,200 trees that he later learned were planted in the 1870s.
Thanks to the old trees they found on their properties, Bruce Cohn, owner of B.R. Cohn Winery, and Lila Jaeger, whose family owned Rutherford Hill Winery at the time, were the first vintners to produce olive oil, in the early '90s.
Most of those old trees were varieties such as Manzanillo or Mission (so-named because they were first cultivated in California by Spanish missionaries). Although the 100-year-old Mission trees are cherished in some circles, many experts say their appeal is more about romance than reality. Mission, in general, produces a pleasant if typically lackluster oil, and olive trees are generally at their prime at 30 years of age. According to Vossen's research, 100-year-old olive trees don't necessarily produce higher quality oil.
Some wineries actually began planting olive trees in the 1980s, but they didn't have oil in mind. It was a matter of aesthetics. "[They] started out as landscaping trees," says Karen Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars. It's easy to see the appeal for wineries. The trees are attractive and add a European touch. They require little water, which is important in drought-prone California. Also, common vineyard pests such as the blue-green sharpshooter dislike olive trees, so they offer some protection for the vineyards.
But there is a downside to olive trees. "You find out what a big mess they make," Cakebread says.
That was the only reason that Cohn entered the business. "My wife said to me, ÔI'm tired of scrubbing up olives. Either do something with them or buy me a new carpet.' " It's a moment that each of these vintners inevitably faced, and one that Laurence Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards recalls with a sense of sarcasm. "So, of course, at some point," he says, "comes the brilliant idea of making olive oil."
Of course, America's passion for food and wine blossomed in the mid-1990s, and consumers began to understand the role of olive oil in the healthful Mediterranean diet. Wineries such as Cakebread, Fetzer, Viansa and Trefethen realized the oils could play an integral part in their culinary programs. Soon, vintners were turning to Vossen and UC Davis for advice, and vintners' trips to the wine regions of Europe were expanded to include visits to oil producers.
By the mid-'90s, the wineries had begun a new wave of plantings with oil in mind, and in some cases olive trees actually replaced vines: Joseph Phelps pulled a plot of Syrah that was underperforming; Preston ripped out an old hillside Carignane vineyard.
These budding artisanal olive oil makers discussed and debated the style of oil and the merits of individual olive varieties with the same passion as vintners did the particulars of wine. Wineries generally emulated the Tuscan style, a hearty, herbaceous and peppery oil, and planted Italian varieties such as Frantoio, Leccino and Pendolino. A handful of wineries, such as Araujo and Chalone, preferred the more elegant oils of Provence, and planted appropriate French varietals such as Picholine. In recent years, California growers have learned that the level of ripeness also plays a key role. Variety and the maturity of the fruit at harvest account for 90 percent of an oil's flavor, Vossen says.
Iron Horse and Benziger were typical of most wineries and planted a few hundred trees. Other wineries, such as Long Meadow Ranch and Pietra Santa, planted thousands of trees and added their own olive presses, envisioning olive oil as a significant part of their business. (Both also produce non-estate oil on a larger scale under their own labels.)
"One wing of our building is for winemaking and one wing is for olives," says Hall, who organically farms 4,500 trees at Long Meadow Ranch on the Mayacamas Mountains above Napa Valley. "Olive oil isn't just a trinket in the tasting room."
Making wine and making olive oil are not altogether different. What variety you plant and where you plant it are crucial. The trees, like vines, must be tended and pruned. Picking the fruit at the right levels of acid and ripeness is key. After harvest, olives are crushed -- traditionally by a heavy granite millstone, but a more modern method is a hammermill that continually pulverizes the olives. The leftover paste is then pressed, extracting the oil, olive juice and water. The oil is then separated from the juice and water, often via a centrifuge. Like wine, oil often needs to rest and must be racked off its sediment, a process that takes several months. The end product of grape and olive are similar in one final way: Both are best evaluated by taste and aroma.
There are differences, of course. "With winemaking, you can interact with your product as it's being made if you need to," Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards says. "With olive oil, once you pick, it's all about not screwing it up, unless you're under the belief that you can improve it by sticking a sprig of rosemary in it."
Wineries such as Preston and Joseph Phelps have embraced olive trees because, among other reasons, they believe it improves the biodiversity of their properties. "Growing just one thing is really destructive to the soils," Preston says.
The diversity, for others, is in having a variety of products that promote their estate. "It's a nice alternative for people who can't take wine home for whatever reason," says Mike Barbitta of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen. "They can take a little bit of Sonoma County home and share it with family and friends."
Olive oil and wine are also similar when it comes to profit. It isn't always easy to make money on either one.
"You can't justify the retail price to recoup your investment," says olive oil consultant Marvin Martin, who works with Cakebread, Rudd and other wineries and is also a partner in The Olive Press in Sonoma County, where many wine-country oils are made. "If you're careful, you can break even." When people ask Cohn why his estate oil costs $50 for a 500ml bottle, he has a quick answer: "Because it costs me $60 a bottle to make it."
Olive trees, like vines, require three or four years before they bear fruit, and picking olives is as labor intensive as harvesting grapes. Wineries rarely plant trees in one large orchard; instead, they scatter the trees throughout the estate -- along roads, creeks and in parking lots. And because different olive varieties ripen at radically different times, two or three different harvests may be required. Each olive produces a tiny amount of oil; depending on the ripeness and variety, a ton of olives produces 15 to 40 gallons of oil. By comparison, grapes yield between 120 and 180 gallons of must per ton.
Consider what Phil Woodward, chairman emeritus of Chalone Wine Group, who produces olive oil under a label affiliated with the winery, has to say on the subject: "There's no money in this business. Of course, I said the same thing about wine when we started Chalone in the late '60s."
A number of wineries, such as Harrison and Pine Ridge, produced estate oil for a time, but did not continue. Making oil as a dalliance is one thing, but the economics of doing it in a place like Napa Valley, where winegrowing is more profitable, is another. For that reason, despite the affinities between wine and olive oil, the wineries of California may never produce oil on a large scale.
And there's something else to consider. Napa and Sonoma may be the best places in California to produce wine, but are they the "Napa" and "Sonoma" of olive oil? Is California really like Tuscany, where the best wine grapes and oil olives are grown side by side? It's a controversial topic. Albert Katz, president of the COOC and owner of Katz and Co., a Napa-based gourmet retailer, is cautious in his answer. "Remember, we're only 15 years into the industry. It might be the case that Napa and Sonoma counties are not the best place to grow olives for olive oil."
Olives, for example, prefer more heat than grapes do (grapes need a more moderate climate to balance acid and sugar levels). Many suspect that the warmer climates north of Sacramento may be superior for this crop. The Oroville area, for example, has a long and rich tradition for growing olives.
UC Davis has trial orchards in five areas of the state to find the best locale. "In five years," Vossen says, "we'll know the answer to that question."
Hiking into the western foothills above Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, Preston isn't waiting for an answer. Looking out over the valley, he tells stories about Italian immigrants who settled in the area a century ago, stories that are as much folklore as reality. "They said it reminded them of home," Preston says. With vineyards rolling off into the distance, you don't have to be a romantic to see a resemblance to Tuscany, but look to the top of the ridge behind Preston, where there's a silvery green grove of olive trees, and it seems especially true.
For Preston's part, his vineyard might have been inspired in another way by Tuscany, where the best wines and oils are often grown side by side. "If I had it to do over," he says, "I think I might have planted olive trees instead of a lot of these grapes."
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