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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"It's impossible for a small producer to make money through a distributor," says Evers, who funded his foray into olive production by developing software. "There are 130 or so olive oil brands out there trying to get into the market."

"I don't know how this will all shake out," agrees Paul Vossen, farm advisor at University of California Cooperative Extension. "Go to any better grocery store and look at the shelves. They have oils from all over the world―France, Spain, Italy, Greece, California. They have the regular brands everyone knows, plus the expensive ones that California has to compete with."

But Alan Greene, for one, thinks there's room for everyone. He promotes olive oil with a zeal that is becoming a refrain among California's producers. "Look at the wine industry," he says. "There was a time 45 years ago when people just thought in terms of red and white, not varietals. Now we understand the use of Cabernet and Merlot, of Pinot Noir and Syrah. We understand that there's a range of tastes, that you taste and you learn the flavor profiles and find what works for you."

Certainly, when you talk to a true olive oil believer, your doubts may vanish. Nick Sciabica & Sons is California's oldest producer of olive oil: The company has been raising olives near the San Joaquin Valley town of Modesto since 1936. Founder Nick learned the trade in Sicily; his son Joseph, now 90 and the family patriarch, still works with sons Dan and Nick and grandson Jonathan.




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