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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While Greene and Evers are planting new varietals and trying new farming methods, the make extra-virgin oils from the three varietals ― Mission, Manzanillo, and Sevillano ― that have been California mainstays since the 1800s.

While the new waves of Tuscan varieties, with their stronger flavor and often spicy finish, have drawn many customers to that more forward and flavorful style, the buttery style of Sciabica oils was for years the benchmark for California extra-virgin oils.

And Dan Sciabica remains fiercely loyal to the traditional olive varieties, and especially to Mission.

"It's such wonderful fruit," he says. "We can harvest it in three seasons. In the fall, the oil is pungent; in the winter, sweet and medium fruity. If you leave the fruit on until spring, and pick when dead ripe, the oil is very light and sweet, buttery."

Patriarch Joseph, ever the salesman, doesn't pass up a chance to praise the traditional varieties, or his wife Gemma's three olive oil cookbooks. And, even at 90, he doesn't rely on supermarket sales or a successful website to move the goods.

"I take the oil to the farmers' market," he says, "and if you let people taste the oil, there never seems to be anybody who doesn't like it."

California Olive Ranch (tours 9-12 Fri, Apr-Sep 15; 2675 Lone Tree Rd., Oroville, CA; www.californiaoliveranch.com or 530/846-8000). DaVero (www.davero.com or 888/431-8008). Nick Sciabica & Sons (www.sciabica.com or 800/551-9612).

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