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A Flood of Gold and Green

California's artisanal olive oils are more abundant and better than ever

Tara Weingarten
Posted: June 24, 2003

Ridgely Evers and his wife, Colleen McGlynn
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Nan McEvoy didn't set out to revitalize California's long-dormant olive oil industry. The 83-year-old one-time matriarch of the San Francisco Chronicle just wanted a hobby and some tree-studded rolling hills on which her city-dwelling grandchildren could run free on weekends. So in 1990, she purchased 550 acres in rural Petaluma, just south of the Sonoma County border, and planted 5,000 Tuscan olive saplings.

"There wasn't much on the property except some cows," McEvoy says. "And the county extension agent wasn't sure I'd have success with the trees because it's cooler here along the coast than it is in most olive-growing areas."

The bureaucrat couldn't have been more wrong. McEvoy Ranch now encompasses 18,000 trees and is the nation's largest producer of estate-grown olive oil. McEvoy's early plantings signaled the beginning of an olive oil renaissance for California.

Throughout the 1990s, while most food and wine lovers were focusing on California's incredible wine boom, a fledgling olive oil industry was taking form. Today, more than 150 artisanal producers in California -- up from fewer than 15 a decade ago -- are bottling estate oils, with prices around $18 to $50 for 200ml to 750ml bottles.

National consumption of olive oil has had a comparable increase. Although per capita consumption is difficult to trace, overall imports have more than doub- led, according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures, from 105 metric tons in 1992 to a projected 220 metric tons this past year. And the segment of the market showing the greatest increase was extra virgin oil, importation of which rose more than 200 percent over the past 10 years.

In restaurants and home kitchens alike, chefs are tossing out their European oils in favor of the typically more robust California brands. Josiah Citrin of Santa Monica's noted Mélisse restaurant, Mario Batali of Babbo in Manhattan and Spago's Wolfgang Puck were early adopters.

"It's been the workhorse in my Spago kitchen for a long time," says Puck, who uses 55 gallons of Calio Groves oil each week in his Beverly Hills restaurant alone. "We like it so much, we're thinking of designing our own Spago blend of California oil."

The Calio Groves oil Puck uses is a general purpose oil for cooking. Citrin favors central California oils from Paso Robles over Northern California oils. "They are milder. I don't like a big, strong oil that overpowers my dishes," he says. Citrin particularly likes Paso Olivo. He marinates Meyer lemons and triple-blanches garlic in the oil and uses it to make a sauce for Mélisse's Dover sole. The finest (and usually quite expensive) extra virgin oil should be used as a condiment, drizzled on fish, salads, pastas or into soups. High heat will destroy its flavor.

All this brings us to an age-old question: What exactly is extra virgin olive oil? Simply, it is oil that has 1 percent (or less) free fatty acids. Extra virgin oil is always made from the olives' first press, which extracts the very essence of the olive. It contains compounds such as polyphenols that make olive oil so healthful to consume. Extra virgin oil cannot be made using heat or chemicals during the extraction process. Regardless of how flavorful an oil is, it's tough to determine on your own which are extra virgin and which aren't.

That's where the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) comes in. It acts not only as a trade organization but as a watchdog group, doling out its certification seal only to those oils that pass its rigorous blind taste test. Oils that are certified extra virgin by COOC's tasting panel exhibit known profiles of fruitiness, pungency and bitterness. Oils found to have defects, such as rancidity, mustiness or muddy sediment, are rejected.

California oils are usually sharper, more peppery and tannic, and fruitier than their European counterparts. "We're not exactly sure why, but we think it's because Europe's trees are more mature than ours," says COOC president Albert Katz. "Trees older than 10 years tend to produce oil that's rounder, more balanced."

Oils made from Tuscan trees, which most California artisanal growers favor, have sharp notes of freshly cut grass, green apple peel, hay, artichoke, sometimes even braised celery. Growers here planted Italian saplings because it was widely accepted that the most flavorful oil comes from Italy. Tuscan varieties currently favored include Frantoio (found in nearly all Tuscan oils, it is picked green and contributes a spicy, grassy characteristic), Leccino (picked slightly black, it is rich and round with flavors such as fennel and artichoke) and Maurino (picked while cherry-colored, it falls in between the two other varieties in spiciness and richness).

Lately, as a growing number of producers perceive a glut of Italian-style oils, they're moving toward Spanish varieties such as Arbequina (the principal variety in Spain) and French varieties such as Picholine and Aglandaou, which often create a more mellow, buttery tasting oil, delicious on a Bibb lettuce salad. Greek varieties such as Koroneiki are being propagated for their fruity and lush characteristics, as are several varieties from North Africa, particularly some from Tunisia. All together, California grows more than 100 distinct varieties of olive, according to the COOC.

Perhaps the most surprising development in California olive oil production comes from a group of Spaniards. About to launch its new California-grown, Spanish-style oil in the New World, California Olive Ranch represents the latest thinking in olive growing: trellising. More than 324,000 dwarf Spanish Arbequina olive trees have been trellised (exactly like grape vines) along the hillsides of the eastern Sierra Nevada outside of Chico.

"There's nothing like this in the United States," says Michael Denny, who's managing the operation for its Spanish investors. "There's barely anything like this in Europe. Trellising is just getting started over there."

The ranch's trees were planted in 1999, and the company harvested its first crop last fall, using a grape harvester. For now, the oil, which is certified extra virgin by the COOC, is sold primarily in gourmet shops. But next year, when the trees are more mature, Denny expects to sell 100,000 gallons of the ranch's estate-bottled oil in supermarkets across the country. "Artisanal bulk is what they're going for," says Katz. "They're going to be big players."

Olives have a long history in the United States. The first European settlers to the East Coast brought over Mediterranean saplings. But harsh winters killed the trees. Thomas Jefferson tried his hand at cultivating a few French trees, also to no avail.

But in 1769, the first Spanish missionaries arrived in California to find a climate similar to their own. Alongside the 21 missions they built from San Diego to Sonoma, they planted vineyards and olive groves from cuttings they'd carried from Europe. They used the resulting oil not only for food, but as fuel for their oil lamps. For a hundred years and more, olive orchards continued to thrive and be propagated on the West Coast, for both their oil and their fruit.

By the late 19th century, however, imported oil was cutting so deeply into the market that the domestic industry was nearly eclipsed. The Depression and a botulism outbreak traced to canned ripe olives caused further problems for growers. Very few oil companies carried on. That is, until the early 1990s, when America's interest in fine dining and handcrafted ingredients was renewed.

Olive oil's renaissance began in Northern California, especially in Napa and Sonoma, where the wine industry was also being reborn. In the mid-1990s, when the economy was at a rolling boil and dot-com millionaires were paying record prices for prime real estate, those who were more interested in food than wine took up the olive business. It offered the same rural -- read: gentleman farmer -- lifestyle, without the competition that came with wine.

Citrus and avocado farmers along the coast in central and southern California, where the weather is more akin to that of the Mediterranean, soon came on board, adding olives to their crops. But olive tree propagation hasn't proceeded as vigorously south of Paso Robles. The olive fly, which first hitchhiked from Europe into Los Angeles five years ago in ornamental olive trees, threatens to wreak havoc on local crops. Although damage by this fruit fly has been minimal so far, local extension agents and the COOC are helping farmers learn to detect the fly's presence and eradicate it. Infestations in Europe have periodically wiped out large crops.

Ron Asquith is one of the few olive farmers in Southern California. A successful orange and avocado farmer most of his life, Asquith acquired 120 neglected old-growth olive trees on land overlooking his Ojai ranch about six years ago. In short order, he planted 1,100 more. "I thought to myself, if those old trees from the late 1800s do so well, being neglected for decades, then let's plant more and see what happens," he says. Now in his second year of production, Asquith sells about 1,000 bottles per year at the Ojai farmer's market. When his young trees mature, he'll be able to double his production.

Benign neglect isn't necessarily a bad thing when it comes to olives. There are gnarly, biblical-looking trees in Europe that date to 1000 A.D. Like grapevines, olive trees grown under somewhat stressful conditions -- rocky soil, little water -- can produce the most concentrated fruit. Harsh conditions can reduce an olive tree's yield by about 40 percent, producing a sharper, more peppery and fruity taste. Many groves in Europe are left for nature to manage.

It was on a trip to Tuscany about 10 years ago, viewing 350-year-old trees outside the walled town of Lucca, that software creator Ridgely Evers decided to adopt a farming life. He convinced the grove's owner to sell him cuttings of the four varieties considered best for making Tuscan-style oil: Frantoio, Leccino, Maurino and Pendolino. The trees spent a year in quarantine before being planted in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. His DaVero brand, packaged in an eye-catching, dark Bordeaux-style bottle with a richly colored amber and olive-green label, was an instant hit.

"These trees have spectacular heritage," says Evers. "I knew we'd have good oil because Sonoma's climate is similar to northern Italy's, where these trees came from." Last year, Evers' trees produced a record yield of more than 1,000 gallons. When the trees mature in a decade, they'll produce twice that.

Olives ripen on a similar schedule to grapes, with harvests normally running October through early November. Most artisanal oil producers harvest by hand so as not to damage the fruit. Since the designation of extra virgin is important, how an oil is processed is crucial. Many artisanal producers favor the Old World method of a stone wheel to smash the fruit and extract the oil, using gravity to allow the oil to drip into a collector. But human error can intervene. Because a mat is used to separate the olives from the stone, an improperly cleaned mat can produce a funky taste.

The most modern method -- the one favored by high-volume producers -- employs a hammermill or a continuous-feed press. Olives go in whole on one side of the machine, are literally hammered to pieces, and oil comes out the other side. But the jury is out on which process works best. The hammermill causes the oil to be slightly more oxidized, resulting in fewer healthy polyphenols. But proponents say the drop in polyphenols is negligible, and that the hammermill's sanitary properties outweigh this shortfall. "The California olive oil industry is a fairly new industry, and we're not sure yet which type of press produces the best oil. That answer will come to us over time," says Katz.

Since there are so many oils to choose from, how can you be sure you're making the right selection? As with wine, you'll just have to taste and see. But one thing's certain -- freshness is key. So set aside away your wine lover mentality and eschew the aged vintage. In olive oil, youth is everything.

Tara Weingarten is a special correspondent at Newsweek.

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