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?

I see myself as a kind of missionary," Alan Greene says. He's surveying his company's olive grove in Butte County, in California's Sacramento Valley.

Stretching out before him are not the towering, irregularly shaped olive trees so familiar in the landscapes of the Mediterranean, but laser-straight rows of squat, precisely pruned olive trees marching toward the Sierra.

"California is now producing a whole palette of olive oils," says Greene, who is vice president at California Olive Ranch. "What's really important is the freshness of the oils, the advantage we have of making oil close to the point of consumption. California oil will always be fresher." Greene and his California Olive Ranch are part of a revolution ― one that will likely transform one of the state's oldest food products: olive oil.

Thanks to a growing appreciation of its flavor and health benefits, Americans consume more than 64 million gallons of olive oil a year ― most of it from Italy and Spain. California's 400,000 gallons are a drop in the bucket. But new producers are making high-quality oils that fetch lofty prices. They hope to woo the committed fan away from Mediterranean oils to the deeply flavorful oils made closer to home.

 

 

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."

 

 

The new approach at California Olive Ranch has earned the respect of another modern olive oil pioneer, Ridgely Evers, proprietor of DaVero oils in Sonoma County. He and Nan McEvoy, at McEvoy Ranch in Marin County, gained recognition in the 1990s for their Tuscan-style oils.

 Evers uses four Italian varietals: Frantoio, Leccino, Maurino, and Pendolino. The result is characterized by a peppery finish much like that found in Tuscan oils. His oils have earned international awards and graced the tables of famed American restaurants.

But Evers's story inspires a question: Is there room on American grocery shelves for so many premium olive oils? In his case, after several years of trying to build national distribution through wholesalers and retailers, and learning how profits evaporate along the way, Evers sells his oils in a relatively small number of specialty-foods stores. He's also opened a mini farmers' market, Plaza Farms, on the square in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg.

 

 

"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.

 

 

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).