Magazine article Sunset

A New Crush

Magazine article Sunset

A New Crush

Article excerpt

California's Central Coast wine region is booming- this time with olive oil.

GREGG BONE cradles the little blue cup of olive oil in one palm while covering it with the other, to trap aromas. "Using your body heat to boost the temperature even a few degrees Celsius is going to release more of the volatile aromatics/' says Gregg, revealing his tech roots.

I lift my top hand and sniff. Light, fruity. I take a slurpy sip, and first taste a burst of grass and herbs reminiscent of summer lawns and warm sun on a patch of sage. Then there's a pungent, peppery kick that builds in the back of my throat until it makes me cough. But it's not unpleasant; quite the contrary. I drip more on my tongue, draining the cup. Gregg, owner of Kiler Ridge Olive Farm, on a hilltop in Paso Robles wine country, nods in approval, and pours the next sample.

More than two centuries after olive trees first arrived in California with Franciscan missionaries, olive oil is swiftly joining wine as one of the state's agricultural offerings. Production has skyrocketed and is on track to rise another 30 percent this year. Here on the Central Coast, there has been a particular kind of renaissance: More than 65 farms are growing olives today, a fourfold increase from 10 years ago. Most of them produce quality, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh-pressed juice nothing like the big-name stuff on supermarket shelves. oils have personalities and are winning medals at taste competitions here and abroad.

At Kiler Ridge, whose first harvest was in 2007, I go for the full gastro-tourist experience: tour, tasting, and lunch on the terrace. Six Italian varieties are grown here, from the fruity-nutty Nocellara del Belice to the intensely peppery Coratina, and used make blends and an occasional monovarietal oil. farm tends about 2,500 trees, tiny compared to mega-farms but fairly typical of northern San Luis Obispo County. "Here production is smaller, more artisanal," says Audrey Burnam, Gregg's wife the farm's co-owner. "We handpick everything."

Many of the farms fueling the rise in Central olive oil are second-career projects. Gregg a retired engineer and tech entrepreneur, and still works part-time in Santa Monica as social psychologist. "At first, when Gregg retired, thought we'd get a few acres and plant a few olives," Audrey recalls. "But Gregg said, 'What am I going to do?' and that's why you see all of this today."

I join Gregg for a tour of the impressive, 3,400square-foot frantoio, the buildingwhere olives are milled into oil after the fall harvest begins. Finished last year, it has super-insulating straw-bale walls and resembles a classic barn, albeit one with a patina-green, hand-stained exterior and powered by solar energy.

Gregg stands proudly next to his state-of-theart Pieralisi extracting machines from Italy and explains the process of turning olives into oil. "It's vital to get the olives into the crusher as fast as possible," he says, pointing out the stationary forklift he designed, activated by iPod Touch, that lifts and dumps bins of olives. "Decay is the enemy, and it begins four hours after the fruit is picked." He launches into a30-second explanation of time's exponentially bad effects on olive oil's beneficial triglycerides, then pauses. "You can tell I have way too much chemistry background."

During lunch on the terrace, I taste the oils I sampled earlier in straightforward but satisfying dishes. When paired with a few drops of balsamic vinegar, smooth 2012 Gregg's Reserve marries the diverse flavors in a salad of arugula, avocado, cantaloupe, and chèvre. …

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