Extending the Olive Branch
Artisan producers in Wine Country are fueling California's growing passion for olive oil.
While the grape harvest reaches its peak in Sonoma and Napa in October, the excitement of the crush doesn’t end there. Come November, in groves and orchards throughout both valleys, olives are being picked, processed, and readied for pressing. Extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil—mostly from Spanish, Italian, and French varietals—has become big business in Wine Country over the last decade, as appreciation for its health benefits and complex flavors has grown.
“It took 20 years, but we are finally getting recognized,” says Bruce Cohn, who in 1990 started harvesting olives from trees on his Sonoma Valley winery estate. “After making estate oil from these picholine olives for just a couple of years, we could see the demand was rising.”
According to industry observers such as Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, demand is expected to continue rising. “At the end of 2008, there will be 21,000 [olive-growing] acres in California,” says Darragh, adding that the projected total by 2020 is 10 times that. Like others in Wine Country, the olive trees on B. R. Cohn Winery’s eight-acre Olive Hill were first planted in the early 1800s. Immigrants from Italy and France, and missionaries from Spain, commonly brought cuttings with them when they settled in Northern California in order to have the oil they preferred for eating and cooking.
Vintner Ted Hall also discovered old olive trees growing at Long Meadow Ranch, the estate he established in Rutherford in 1989 with the intention of making wine. Originally planted in 1872, the orchards, like many vineyards, virtually disappeared during Prohibition, until Hall unearthed them from beneath a substantial second-growth forest. He built a facility—which he claims was the first new frantoio (Italian for olive press) in the United States in 50 years—that would serve both wine and olive oil production.
Not far away, the MacDonnell family also produces wine and olive oil at Round Pond, the estate they founded in the early 1980s. “We started making oils just for fun in 1993,” says Ryan MacDonnell, co–chief operating officer. As the hobby expanded into a business, the MacDonnells built their own crushing facility on-site. “Freshness is key,” says MacDonnell. “You want to minimize the time between harvesting and crushing at the mill.”
Round Pond produces a Spanish varietal oil and an Italian oil, which is a blend from five of the most popular Tuscan varietals, which are sought after for their green, bold taste. They also make two citrus blends (blood orange and Meyer lemon), which are created by crushing the peels with the olives.
At DaVero in Healdsburg, oil production preceded winemaking. Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn began with cuttings they imported in 1990 from an old grove in Tuscany and planted on their Healdsburg property. In 2003, after expanding their product line with estate-grown items ranging from lemon curd to lavender oil, they made their first DaVero wines.
One of California’s olive oil pioneers, Nan McEvoy began her orchard after learning that the 550-acre ranch she’d bought near Petaluma in 1990 was strictly zoned for agriculture. She consulted with a leading Italian expert, Maurizio Castelli, who recommended she order 100 trees from Tuscany, selected for the high quality of their fruit. Orchard manager Shari DeJoseph now tends some 18,000 trees on more than 80 acres. “We typically start harvest in mid-November and finish within three weeks,” says DeJoseph. “The fruit is milled as soon as it comes in, first as olio nuovo (new oil).” As opposed to the extra virgin oil that follows, the olio nuovo “is not filtered and it hasn’t settled, so the flavor is fantastic, extra-fresh and rich,” she says.
The Olive Press, which Deborah Rogers helped found in 1995, does custom pressing for private growers and, twice a year, opens its doors to the community, who can bring in up to 300 pounds of fruit for crushing. Interest has expanded to the point that the press now processes as much as 8 to 12 tons in a single day. For visitors, the Olive Press is one of the best places to sample a wide variety of oils from different producers year-round. During the crush (late October–December), however, many other producers offer tours and tastings, and the Sonoma Valley Olive Festival (December–February, www.olivefestival.com) turns the season into a three-month celebration, with events ranging from dinners and tastings to an epicurean showcase.
“When we started making olive oil, we knew that interest was growing,” says Ryan MacDonnell. “We’ve often likened it to the wine business 30 years ago, before the Paris Tasting…and felt olive oil would be a similar case. But did we think consumption would have doubled in a period of 10 years? It’s grown beyond what we could have known.”