Magazine article Sunset

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? Bill Staggs Reports from the Central Valley

Magazine article Sunset

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? Bill Staggs Reports from the Central Valley

Article excerpt

"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 Nevada. "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 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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 extravirgin 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 under-mined 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 carned 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. …

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