Experts say California Olive Ranch's olive oil packs more bite than those brands because of its freshness and provides good value for the money.
California Olive Ranch isn't "trying to make the best olive oil in the world," said Nicholas Coleman, chief oleologist at Eataly, a gourmet food emporium in New York City. "What they're trying to do is make high-quality extra virgin olive oil that can compete at the same price points as some of the big guns you see in the supermarket like Colavita, De Cecco, Goya, Filippo Berio and Bertolli."
During the recent harvest at the company's Artois ranch, burly machines rumbled through the rows of olive plants. A phalanx of flexible plastic rods shook the tree branches until they spilled green and purple orbs onto a conveyor belt, which dumped the fruit into a storage vehicle called a gondola alongside.
The olives were then whisked to a mill at the center of the farm, where they were quickly crushed to extract the luminous green juice, then bottled. Olives can go from branch to bottle in as little as two hours.
Speed is critical to producing the best-tasting oil, said Jim Lipman, the company's head of production operations.
"It's not like wine. It doesn't get better with age," he said.
Quality has surfaced as a major challenge for the industry in recent years, with some producers taking shortcuts to make a buck. Author Tom Mueller detailed widespread cheating in the gourmet business in his 2011 book "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil." European oils purporting to be extra virgin were cut with cheap vegetables oils or coloring to mask their inferiority.
As recently as October, the European Parliament's committee on health and food safety issued a draft report deeming olive oil at the greatest risk for food fraud, ahead of fish and organic foods.
Olive oil importers in the U.S. say the negative publicity has unfairly tarnished their brands.
"I think there's been this broad stroke to basically vilify imports as if we're all swimming in a sea of garbage," said John Sessler, a New York-based importer.
Complicating matters is the dearth of regulation. Any olive oil can be labeled extra virgin in the U.S. regardless of its quality.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture began issuing voluntary extra virgin certification in 2010. Since then, California Olive Ranch has been behind almost every effort to bolster the domestic industry and ratchet up the pressure on imports.
The company footed half the $250,000 cost of two UC Davis studies showing that most foreign olive oil brands tested from select Californian grocery stores were falsely labeled extra virgin.
The studies rankled the import community and rippled to Europe. The Madrid-based International Olive Council, a nonprofit organization whose members account for more than 98% of the world's olive oil producers (but not the U.S.), issued a statement saying the reports had the "evident undercurrent of aggressive, inexplicable criticism of imported olive oil quality."
Even ardent backers of American olive oil disagree with California Olive Ranch's fixation on imports. They'd rather see the domestic industry grow on its own rather than resort to protectionism.
"You can't just shut things down and cut your nose to spite your face," said Mary Squires, a former Georgia state senator and a member of the Extra Virgin Alliance, an international trade association that issues extra virgin producers a seal of authenticity.
"This is an international business, and what I'm noticing is that the U.S. has a lot of internal conflict as opposed to stepping it up and being a world player," Squires added.
One of the biggest pushes to restrict imports came in 2012 when the California Olive Ranch and other growers launched a plan to establish a USDA marketing order. That would have exacted tougher quality standards on imports. The effort was dealt a punishing blow by the importers and their superior political muscle.
Despite the defeat, momentum hasn't died. The California Olive Ranch and fellow domestic producers succeeded in lobbying for the U.S. International Trade Commission to issue a report examining competition between domestic and foreign olive oil producers. The study, released in August, was applauded by U.S. producers with the hope it could one day spur trade action.
"The challenge is to keep growing," said Guillermo Romero, a spokesman for the Spanish investors. "It's a long-term investment. It's not something we expect a return on in a short period of time. To create an industry takes decades."
Special correspondent Lauren Frayer in Madrid contributed to this report.