Olives Alive : Graber Olive House in Ontario Is Among Southland Facilities Welcoming Visitors

Bennett is a Los Angeles writer.

Cliff Graber, president of the Graber Olive House in Ontario, surfs, skis and skateboards with the reckless abandon of a teen-ager. He'll be 53 in December.

Edna Bachstein has helped four generations of Grabers pick, pickle and pack their famous tree-ripened Manzanillo olives. At 91, she's still on the job. So are Marguerite Larned, 77, and Inez Bjorkman, 67, who together have 85 years of service with the company.

"It's really no secret why no one looks or acts his age around here," said Graber, who munches jumbo olives like cocktail peanuts. "It's the olives."

"Sometimes Cliff drinks the olive oil right out of the can," said his wife, Maura June, a former fashion designer. "I thought this was very bizarre the first time I saw it."

While the Graber Olive House may or may not be a fountain of youth, it claims to be the oldest business in Ontario and a modern link to the ancient tradition of olive growing.

Now, during the fall harvest, visitors to the Graber Olive House can view the grading, curing and canning of the olives, as well as sample the Grabers' "secret of youth." Olive gourmands also can visit the tasting rooms at two newer olive companies--the Santa Barbara Olive Co. in Solvang and the Chase Olive Co. in Arroyo Grande.

Beginning in October, pickers at the Graber's olive ranch north of Porterville limit their picking to the olives with a deep cherry-red color, a sign of ripe tenderness.

To prevent bruising the fragile fruit, pickers take care to handle no more than three olives at a time as they collect them in felt-lined buckets.

Pickers say they treat the olives as if they were little orbs of unstable explosives. "Every step is taken very carefully," said Graber, a former mining and nuclear engineer.

To avoid shrinking in the San Joaquin Valley sun, the olives are trucked at night for processing to the Graber's 2 1/2-acre estate in a middle-class Ontario neighborhood.

There, the processing of the olives goes on in shops, warehouses and workrooms where the methods and equipment have changed little since 1894, when the company was founded by Cliff's grandfather, Cliff (Old Dad) Graber.

In vats that look like tiny hot tubs, the olives cure in a saltwater brine for two to three weeks. All olives, not just the Graber's, must undergo a curing process to remove a bitter substance (oleuropein) before the fruit becomes edible.

Before canning became popular, the olives were packed in kegs with wooden lids. Customers scooped out what they wanted and took them home in their own buckets.

"Up until the 1950s," said Graber, "people would drive through here and take olives on evenings or weekends, using the honor system." Graber said. "They dropped their money in our door slot. A case was never taken without proper payment."

Although that practice is gone, the Graber crew, which totals about 80 people during peak production, still uses a 1930s vintage Panama Paddle Packer canning machine to assist in handpacking up to 40,000 cans of olives a day.

At the entrance to the Graber Olive House, there are picnic tables set amid redwood, walnut, palm and olive trees and an early California olive mill with 1,200-pound granite wheels. The Grabers--and Edna--live next door in a 1906 bungalow.

Unlike the Graber Olive House, which will soon celebrate its centennial in the olive business, the Santa Barbara Olive Co. in Solvang isn't a decade old. Yet at every turn, say its owners, it seems to be changing the way consumers regard olives.

Started in a one-car garage in Santa Barbara in 1982, the company now markets 41 varieties of olives in the United States and abroad, where they can be found in gourmet shops, supermarkets and restaurants--as well as in such stores as Neiman Marcus, Macy's and Harrods in London.

Gross sales jumped from $48,000 its first year in production to about $2 million last year.

Craig Makela, 34, who owns the expanding company with his wife Cindy, says he even supplied President Reagan with six cases of olives during the former chief executive's Moscow summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. "Olives traditionally represent the gift of peace," Makela said. "The Reagan Administration used them quite literally as a peace offering."

Makela's Solvang shop, a refurbished 1909 two-story Victorian, curries to the varied tastes of his customers who have come from all over the world to visit this quaint Danish village.

The former assistant wine maker serves up green Cajun-spiced olives, Greek-imported Calamata olives and a wide assortment of olives stuffed with everything from almonds to jalapenos. Lessons learned as a vintner guide his olive-making.

"Just a few years ago, wine-makers used red grapes to make red wine and white grapes to make white wine or chablis, and that was about it," Makela said. "Then they started experimenting with specific varieties of grapes to develop Rieslings, Chardonnays, etc.

"Well, the same holds true for olive making. At first, everybody was making green (processed unripe olives) or black olives (green olives exposed to air and mixed with an iron compound). Now we're utilizing the olive to its fullest potential."

Makela's olives are processed in Corning and Bakersfield, but the tasting is done in Solvang.

About an hour north of Makela in Arroyo Grande is the Chase Olive Co. located among one of the world's largest groves of eucalyptus trees.

Last year, Bill Majors, the owner and manager of a dental plan, bought the company from Ruben and Evelyn Chase, who started Chase Olive in 1938 as a roadside stand in Duarte.

"I'm still in a business that deals with the mouth," Majors said with a grin.

As the first owner outside the Chase family, Majors plans to retain all the Chase family recipes for such gourmet delicacies as smoked, garlic, jalapeno, pimiento-stuffed and wine-spiced olives, and promises to continue expanding the line as well.

Other traditions Majors will preserve are the plant tours and free olive and pickle tasting.

"I like this because it's a people business," said Majors, who has been in a few pickles himself, sorting out parking, traffic and slow-growth initiatives as a former Pismo Beach Planning Commissioner. "I like to create things that people like to enjoy and want."

Majors, assisted by his wife Lana and sons Bryan and Kevin, does all the bottling and packaging at what once was a Richfield gas station. Although they buy barrels of pre-graded and pre-cured olives, they still have to cure, wash and sort them to their exacting specifications.

"Everything is done by hand," Majors said. "No machinery is involved at all in our operation.

Majors' tip to olive tasters: "Just open your mouth wide, pop one in and start chewing."

Ontario. Graber Olive House, 315 E. Fourth St.; (714) 983-1761; 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Solvang. Santa Barbara Olive Co., 1661 Mission Blvd.; (805) 688-9917; 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Arroyo Grande. Chase Olive Co., 1129 Mesa View Drive (old Highway 1) ; (805) 481-5450; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

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