Pressed for Success; California's Wine Country Is Gaining a Reputation for Another Product -- High-Quality Olive Oil

By Macdonald, Dan | The Florida Times Union, August 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Pressed for Success; California's Wine Country Is Gaining a Reputation for Another Product -- High-Quality Olive Oil


Macdonald, Dan, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Dan Macdonald, Times-Union food editor

gLEN ELLEN, Calif. -- Wine is not the only liquid gold that comes from the rocky fertile soil of California's Napa and Sonoma counties. Tourists may travel west to taste the wine, but they would be remiss if they ignore the olive oil.

California is a small player in terms of production. The California Olive Oil Council estimates it produces only 1/2 of 1 percent of the olive oil consumed in the United States. However, these growers are going for quality rather than quantity.

"Nobody is making money in the olive oil business," said Deborah Rogers, managing partner of The Olive Press in Glen Ellen, Calif. "It is a passion. You have to love it to put up with losing money."

And there is a price for this artisanship. California olive oil can cost as much as $50 for a half-liter bottle. Pricey, yes, but it is an ingredient that adds its own unique flavor to salads and pasta. Even in these carbohydrate sensitive times, a plate of olive oil and crusty bread is a temptation that can weaken the strongest wills.

Bruce Cohn returned to his Northern California roots in 1974. Cohn, who has been manager of the Doobie Brothers for more than 30 years, bought property along the Sonoma Highway with some vines and several picholine olive trees that were planted in 1870.

"I didn't even think of wine," Cohn said in his tasting room that had once been the house he shared with his wife, Sharon. "All I could think of was chilling out after years of 150-city tours with the Doobie Brothers."

However, he did begin to think about wine after he met Charlie Wagner of the Camus Vineyard. Wagner convinced him to give grapes a try on his 46 acres of land. Cohn's rock 'n' roll roots caused the locals to wonder what he was up to.

"Charlie joked, 'Are you sure that you are growing grapes over there? Are you sure you aren't growing something else?' "

The first grapes were harvested in 1978, and the first BR Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon was greeted with much praise.

All was well in the Cohn household except for one small problem. Every fall, the olive trees dropped their tiny fruit all over the property. Work shoes squashed them, and inevitably the mess was tracked into the house.

"I told Bruce, 'Either you buy me a new carpet or you pick up that fruit,' " Sharon Cohn said. Thus an olive oil business began.

Axing the ancient trees wasn't an option. When Cohn purchased the land, the former owner walked him around the property and told Cohn he'd sell him the property only if he promised not to remove the trees.

It has turned out to be a wise bargain. Cohn's olive oils sell for top price, and they are award winners. In May, Cohn's earned the gold medal for his Sonoma Extra Virgin Olive Oil at the Los Angeles County Fair.

More wineries are getting into the olive oil business because olives and grapes thrive in the same sort of soil. The trees can be planted next to or between the rows of vines.

"It may be a business advantage for them," said Bruce Golino, president of the California Olive Oil Council. "They already have the tasting rooms to display and sell their goods." Vineyards also already have the major investment in the land and farming equipment, he added.

Past the Jack London Lodge, up a narrow road, is the Benziger Winery. This nationally known winery is crowded with visitors nearly every day touring the all-natural vineyard. It uses a biodynamic principle of planting flowers and encouraging bugs to care for the vines. No fertilizers or pesticides are used.

Mike Barbitta began making olive oil in 1997 to make use of the trees already on the Benziger property. The oil was made to give away to customers. As the oil gained recognition in local competitions, the winery began to sell it in the tasting room. Barbitta remarked to owner Mike Benziger that he'd like to expand the olive oil business one day. …

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