WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- It was nine years ago that Al Courchesne took a fall trip to Tuscany and fell in love with the region's olive oil, a zesty, pungent nectar so revered that locals knock it back like vodka. Courchesne worked the harvest, plucking purplish olives from trees and celebrating the bounty at Italian festivals.
"They have a joy and appreciation for everything having to do with the olive -- the wonderful taste, how healthy it is for you," Courchesne says. "Their civilization was built around olive oil."
Brentwood, Calif., fruit farmer, was hooked on huile. Upon his return, he planted 400 olive trees on his 130-acre Frog Hollow Farm, on the organic acreage famous for peaches. Today, he makes Tuscan oil based on a centuries-old ratio of Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, and Maurino olives.
Courchesne is one of dozens of producers today who are making Northern California synonymous with zippy, handcrafted, extra virgin olive oil, which ranges from soft and buttery to grassy and peppery. From Petaluma to Menlo Park, they farm 150 olive varietals to create oils so vibrant, they're almost a different commodity than the stuff you buy off supermarket shelves.
Currently, most of the olive oil we consume comes from countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece. A lack of government regulation means that despite the label it's possible you're consuming adulterated olive oil, canola oil, or a blend, says Patricia Darragh of the Berkeley-based California Olive Oil Council. The COOC filed a petition with the USDA in August 2004 to set standards for the importation of olive oil into the United States. The petition is pending.
Furthermore, most imported oils arrive months after production. And, unlike wine, they don't get better with age. They can get rancid, and lose flavor and heart-healthy benefits after about two years, Darragh says. But, olive oil made close to home hails from fruit that was hanging off a tree a few weeks -- or even days, in the case of olio nuovo -- before you purchased that bottle.
Much like the grape business, weather and ripeness determine when harvest begins, but it's usually between October and December. The later the harvest, the mellower the oil. Within 24 hours, the just-picked olives are rushed to a mill, where they are cleaned, separated from stems and leaves, and ground into a paste -- pit and all. The paste is then mixed or spun to encourage separation between the oil and water or vegetable matter.
Since you can't taste or measure when an olive is ripe -- black skin isn't necessarily an indicator -- David Navarrette of Brentwood Spice and Olive Oil has developed his own system. Navarrette, who has been making olive oil for 12 years, walks through the orchard and picks a random sample of olives from his 320 trees, a few of which have been bearing fruit for 60 years. He has six varietals planted on two acres, including Arbequina and Sebiano.
"I close my eyes, squeeze the olives, and check the drag against my fingers," Navarrette explains. "Less drag means more oil. That's how I know." To make his infused lemon or blood orange olive oils, Navarrette adds one gallon of pure lemon oil to 20 gallons of olive oil. He presses the olives for flavored oils late in the season, so the oil's acid and overall flavors are low.
Once it has been bottled, producers seeking the extra-virgin label submit their oil to a lab for chemical analysis. In California, extra-virgin means that the oil contains 0.5 percent or less oleic free fatty acid (the international standard is 0.8 or less). Also, it must be blind-tasted by a trained panel and determined fresh, fruity and free of defects.
The olive oil of Shadowbrook Winery was the first in Walnut Creek to be certified extra virgin by the COOC. Olive grower Tim Jochner planted half an acre of Mission and Manzanilla olive trees five years ago on Northgate Road. By the third harvest, he was bottling oil.
"With the winery, we're bringing Walnut Creek back to its origins as an agricultural place," Jochner says. "I thought it'd be fun to do olive oil as a complement. It makes everything taste better." Because olive presses can cost a quarter of a million dollars, small producers such as Jochner and Courchesne press their olives at larger, established facilities, such as McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma.
The Menlo Park-based Owen's Creek Company presses the olives for its Italian blends at Bozzano Olive Ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. However, their 5,250 olive trees grow on a 35-acre orchard at Redington Ranch, close to Cathy's Valley in Mariposa County. The trees were planted in 2005, so this year is their second harvest.
Owen's Creek is one to watch: They are one of the only producers in California growing Sicilian olive varietals, which impart a tart, grassy and slightly bitter finish.
One shot and you'll feel like you're in a southern Italian olive orchard.
OLIVE OIL FACTS
Extra virgin: Extra virgin olive oil is obtained from the fruit of the tree by mechanical or physical means. No chemicals or extreme heat may be used during the process. Like "new and improved," "cold press" is a marketing term that carries little meaning. All olive oil is pressed with minimal heat. The oil must contain less than 0.8 percent oleic free fatty acid (the California Olive Oil Council's requires less than 0.5 percent) and a peroxide value of less than 20 meq O2/kg. It must be judged by a trained tasting panel for freshness, olive fruitiness and no defects.
Olio nuovo: Much like wine's Beaujolais Nouveau, olio nuovo is the harvest's first olive oil. The olives are pressed, and the limited-release oil is bottled and on stores' shelves within weeks of harvest.