There isn't an olive train yet. Nor is there a steady stream of traffic, darting in and out of tasting room after tasting room after tasting room, sucking, sloshing and...
SONOMA VALLEY, Calif. There isn’t an olive train yet.
Nor is there a steady stream of traffic, darting in and out of tasting room after tasting room after tasting room, sucking, sloshing and smacking yet.
And there aren’t the grand architectural structures, with equally grand art collections and every so often a grand pretension or two to showcase this fruit of the tree yet.
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But they’re coming.
The olive small, savory, and just as historic as the other orb so inexorably linked to these valleys north of San Francisco is beginning to press its way into the heart of wine country and even squeeze itself into a kitchen cupboard near you, just as the fruit of the vine has done for so many years. And, yes, it already is becoming another reason perhaps the prime reason, shockingly to some more than a few visitors trek to Northern California these days.
What? An achy-head-free, vino-less fling in the valleys? Who would have thought?
Not too many, up until maybe 10 to 15 years ago at the most, say several California olive-oil mini-industrialists. Actually, make that extra-virgin olive oil, if you would, because that’s the product that has the focused frenzy of oil people these days in this sunny state.
Up until that time, Italy equaled olive oil to fans all over the world. That country was, and still is, the biggest olive-oil importer/exporter on the planet.
But maybe Spanish missionaries, whose homeland now is the biggest oil producer in the world and who brought olive trees and a new religion to California about 200 years ago, had an alternate dream. Yes, the religion caught on among many. So did the olive as finger food.
But only today is the oil pouring from presses and into bottles the way some, no doubt, envisioned.
And California, flyspeck though it might be on the world extra-virgin olive-oil stage, is set to be first in the United States again to introduce us to something new (OK, at least something renewed).
Now there is state-approved, real extra-virgin olive oil that’s grown, crushed and bottled right here in the Golden State, and the curious are coming. And even though it can take some dogged research and determination to plot an adventure-filled day to experience the stuff, there are olive-oil tastings, grove tours and even oily massages to be found.
In fact, there’s a festival the Sonoma Valley Olive Festival which just wrapped up its third season.
“It actually started because of the mission here (Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma),” said Wendy Peterson, executive director for the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. “It had been planted centuries ago with olive trees, and it’s been our anchor. Long before we had a festival, we have always had a traditional blessing of the olives. Local growers would bring their baskets or buckets of harvested olives and the priest did the blessing.”
Perhaps the cumulative effect of those blessings finally paid off.
That same ceremony kicks off three months of olive feting in Sonoma (December through February), including everything from tastings, pressings and hikes to a host of cooking classes and dinners. And it’s bringing an increasing number of visitors to the valley during the off-season.
But it’s the picking, and the pressing, and that strong scent of freshly mowed grass as the olives are crushed, that widens the eyes and excites the blood of California’s oiled ones and gets to an increasing number of visitors.
Deborah Rogers is managing partner at The Olive Press in Glen Ellen, about 15 minutes from Sonoma. The business is a cooperative of several local growers who press and produce their own olives as well the harvests of others.
“It’s such a unique experience, when we’re pressing in October and November and December, and when you can see the mill at work. It doesn’t get any better or fresher than this.
“We walk you through at our tasting bars how it’s made, the differences in olive oil, the time of the harvest, how they’re picked, where they come from, how long will it last.
“There’s so much,” she said. “I never knew.”
Most likely she and her partners didn’t know these things, at least not as much as they do now, when several of them went to France in the mid-1990s to study olive-oil making and farm cooperatives. The trip was sponsored by the California Olive Oil Council, itself not more than a few years old at the time, and the French government.
At dinner one night, Ed Stolman, one of the group and an eventual Olive Press founder, “said we should do this in Glen Ellen,” said Rogers. “So we all came back, wrote checks, he flew off to Italy and bought equipment, we decided to attach a store, and the rest is history.”
No, it wasn’t as simple as all that, she laughs. But in the end, that’s exactly what happened.
And if there are measurements of success to be noted, here are a couple: Stolman, who now owns 1,400 trees, recently produced the first American extra-virgin olive oil to be named top in its class in Spain and in Italy.
And last year, The Olive Press won nine awards at the prestigious Olive Oils of the World competition at the Los Angeles County Fair, 26 medals in all (out of 69 possible) if you count the oils they press for other growers.
But perhaps an equally significant number is this: Rogers says traffic at The Olive Press has jumped about 25 percent, by rough estimate, each year in the past couple of years.
Even at that, the number of tourists seeking the oil experience is still small. But it’s growing. And people are tasting and buying.
“We’re not an industry yet,” says Albert Katz, past president and now a board member of the COOC, “not like the wineries.
“And it’s not consumer-friendly yet. The olives are harvested in a short period of time, often milled at communal mills. Once that’s done, that’s it for the work of making the oil.”
But there are places to go, things to see and oils to taste.
Increasingly, there are tours, although as the pre-tour instructions from Sonoma’s McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma relate, they may not rank up there with, say, Disneyland’s Small World. “Tours involve a substantial amount of standing, so please wear comfortable shoes.” Translation from a number of growers (who usually add a self-deprecating chuckle): There isn’t much to watching an olive tree grow.
But, the visits can be fascinating. The McEvoy Ranch offers 18,000 olive trees on 80 acres of orchards (the vistas are beautiful), a look at its milling room, and tastings and lectures. McEvoy’s tours, which are by reservation, run from the end of March into October.
Other tours focus mainly on tasting and a glimpse at the pressing equipment.
That’s partly because many of the growers do their growing privately, on small parcels of land and don’t have on-site pressing facilities, let alone public facilities, at least not yet. And while they’re available on a few Web sites, a significant variety of their products won’t be found on your neighborhood food shelves.
“We’re like the wine industry was maybe 30 years ago or more,” says Katz. “We have hobbyists, millionaires, people who have small groves.”
There also may be more uses for the olive ahead, no doubt even beyond the good friars’ abilities to see into the future of the fruit.
Massages and body treatments, for one. At Napa Valley’s Auberge du Soleil, where luxury (and prices) abound, you can treat yourself to everything from olive-oil body exfoliation to the “Grove Head to Toe” (a bit like becoming a human salad, one might surmise) “a full-body Meyer lemon, olive-oil massage with the lemon-zest foot therapy and olive-oil hair treatment.”
In the meantime, there’s homework to be done.
In the Napa Valley, one place to start is Peggy O’Kelly’s St. Helena Olive Oil Co.
There are oils of several types for tasting at her storefront and press in St. Helena. She’s a native of the valley, got the olive bug in the 1990s and makes her own oil.
“My goal was to build a retail room. Education is huge, but to try to do that through supermarkets is expense and ineffective. I wanted to mimic a winery.”
But why wait to get to California? Instruction can begin here in Seattle. At an olive-oil tasting bar in south Lake Union, you’ll be well-schooled by Michael Janiszewski, vice president of purchasing at ChefShop.com, a specialty foods online and retail company, and somebody Katz recommends.
This year, ChefShop.com is carrying eight California oils (of its total 40 oils), Janiszewski said; last year it offered five.
He lectures on trees and olives, styles of oils, blends and taste a good tune-up for a trip to California, let alone to your local supermarket.
And you will taste in fact you may drink, a startling concept for those used to relegating extra-virgin olive oil to bites of crusty bread.
But taste you must and cough, too, at times.
“There’s a running joke,” Katz says. “Is it a two-cough oil? If it’s fresh, it will have pungency, it will have pepperiness.”
The attributes and defects in an oil have recently taken on more importance in California where the state now has a seal, guaranteeing purchasers that oils that pass its standards have been tasted and certified, grown, pressed and bottled in California as true extra-virgin olive oil.
Expensive? Many of the oils can be, in part, experts explain, because harvesting and production are time-consuming and costly especially considering the small size of some of the groves.
Does price equate to quality? Not necessarily.
“In the end it’s a matter of personal taste,” Janiszewski said. “You should never lay out the bills unless you know what you’re getting.”
And that sounds like yet another axiom borrowed from the textbooks of wine experts the world over drink what you like and don’t pay an arm and a leg for it. But axioms seem to be paying off for California olive-oil producers and their friends.
The friars would be pleased.
Terry Tazioli: email@example.com or 206-464-2224