Liquid Gold

New varietals, production innovation, and the rise of the farmers' market are changing the olive oil industry in California. Will homegrown soon replace the favorite imports on tables around the West?

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  • The olives produce oils of varying intensity depending on when they're picked.

    Olives

    Brown Cannon III

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Since 1999, workers at California Olive Ranch ― which is owned by a Spanish company ― have planted more than 320,000 trees, making it the nation's largest olive oil-producing orchard. What's unique about this orchard is that it's designed to be harvested by machine, not by hand.

The semidwarf trees and a planting density of 675 to an acre, instead of the traditional 120, allow for mechanical pruning and harvesting. That eliminates 80 percent of the land cost and 95 percent of the labor cost. Those savings translate to a less expensive bottle of extra-virgin oil. The company's oils, made mostly from Spanish olive varieties, currently sell for $10 to $13 for a half-liter bottle, near the bottom of the $10-to-$60 range for California extra-virgin oils.

The new methods don't seem to have undermined quality. California Olive Ranch's oils have won medals at the L.A. County Fair. "With the mill on the same property as the trees," Greene says, "and given the speed of the harvesting, olives make it from picking to crushing within 90 minutes. So we get an oil that's startlingly fresh."

 

 

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