Olives, Anyone? Entrepreneur Is Cultivating Demand for Upscale Oils
If Ed Rich’s dreams come true, in a few years waiters won’t simply ask diners which variety of wine they prefer with dinner. They’ll also ask, “And with your bread? Manzanillo? Mission? Frantoio?”
And diners, knowing full well the waiters are talking about olive oil, will pause only to consider their choices. Will it be Manzanillo, with its taste of fresh-picked apples? Or the rare Frantoio--dense, tangy, unmistakably olive? Or the light-bodied, nutty Mission Blend?
To gain such sophisticated palates, Rich imagines, chefs and gourmets will travel to the renowned olive-growing region of Calaveras County, much as they now make pilgrimages to Napa and Sonoma for wine.
There they will find fine oils pressed from dozens of local groves--the nectar of fruit descending from trees from Italy, Greece and the Mother Lode region of the Sierra Nevada foothills where Rich lives.
Rich, a mile-a-minute urban transplant to this laid-back region, is passionate about his new lifestyle, “where you don’t have to make an appointment to have pizza with your kid . . . and at night, you look up and see billions of stars.”
He’s equally passionate about olives.
In the 1980s, Rich was in commercial real estate development in the San Francisco East Bay. He lived the six-figure life, constantly behind the wheel when not at appointments or schmoozing at charity events.
He put together deals that brought bank buildings and upscale shopping malls to the East Bay suburbs, rarely spending time at his own Oakland home. “Quality time” with his wife and their two teen-age sons was squeezed into weekend getaways to a retreat in Calaveras County, home of Mark Twain’s celebrated jumping frogs.
“I mean, you run, run, run, to make all this money and get all these things and . . . what for?” said the 52-year-old Rich.
So, in step with the mid-life, baby boomer American dream, the Riches decided in 1990 to bag the harried, urban version of the “good life.”
He traded his house in Oakland for 220 acres in Calaveras County and built a 3,600-square-foot house outside the hamlet of Copperopolis. Instead of making monthly outlays of $8,000, “now our payments are only PG&E; [Pacific Gas & Electric], Safeway and the phone company.”
In his search for a way to make a living in a rural area where, he says, “getting paid is a spiritual event,” Rich made a discovery: Calaveras County was once home to a major olive growing and canning enterprise.
The canners long ago moved to the irrigated flatlands. But they left behind the nearly indestructible trees on what are now the backyards and ranches of Rich’s neighbors.
It dawned on Rich that maybe he could use the trees to create a new industry, along the lines of one he knew about in the Apple Hill region of El Dorado County, about two hours north of here.
At Apple Hill, small, family-owned orchards have created a popular tourist attraction by joining forces each fall to sell fruit, cider, baked goods and country ambience. The locals benefit from tourism and increased apple sales, yet the area retains its rural charm.
Rich learned it doesn’t take many acres to grow enough olives to generate a healthy income, and that the hardy olive tree survives hundreds of years on marginal soil.
“You plant it, grow olives for several years, and even if you get tired of it, you can dig it up and sell it!”
Many of Calaveras County’s 39,000 residents live on ranchettes Rich describes as “too big to mow, too little to grow.” He discovered that on just five acres, the size of the typical ranchette, it’s not difficult to generate 15 to 20 tons of olives from trees that require little care.
The fruit sells for $400 to $600 a ton, and each ton yields 40 gallons of oil.
Rich also learned that Calaveras County is identical in climate to regions of Italy famous for olives. He traveled to Tuscany and Greece, exporting olive trees back to his ranch. While his 15 European varieties grow to maturity, he harvests the crops of neighbors who consider the heavy fruit a bothersome mess but don’t mind the checks he slips under their doors.
Peter Boysen, a local real estate broker who owns 10 undeveloped acres overgrown with olive trees, says he was glad to have Rich approach him about three years ago. The trees, ignored for decades, produce a good crop about every other year--nearly enough to pay the taxes on the land. In low-yield years, Boysen says he’s happy to take a case of Rich’s premium oils as payment.
“They’re excellent,” Boysen says, adding, “I think he may be hitting the right idea here.”
Rich takes the olives to Modesto or Porterville for crushing, filling 55-gallon drums with the oil. The drums are rolled down a 2-by-12 plank to the basement of Rich’s Calaveras Olive Oil and Land Co., which he runs out of an 1890s-era bank building in Copperopolis.
In the basement, Rich and his sons--now 16 and 21--check the oils for acidity, then filter them.
Upstairs, in a shop smelling of cedar and olives, Rich holds tastings and sells oil in fancy bottles. Also for sale are fragrant soaps, handmade with olive oil in the bathtub of another foothills entrepreneur.
Sales of olive oil in the United States have increased dramatically in the past several years, up 12% from 1994 to 1995, 27% the following year and 31% from 1996 to 1997, according to Paul Vossen, farm advisor and olive specialist for the University of California.
Almost all olive oil produced in this country is from California, Vossen said, and there is a growing market for high-end, extra virgin varieties such as Rich produces.
The United States is the world’s largest importer of olive oil, but it produces less than 1% of the world’s supply.
Vossen too thinks Rich may have hit on a good idea: “The market is huge, and there’s a premium being paid for California olive oil, just like California wines.”
While some wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys have begun producing similar boutique oils, land is cheaper in the Sierra Nevada foothills--a key consideration because olive trees take up to eight years to mature to full production.
Rich is disdainful of the olives most Americans eat. Plump, pitted “with a hole big enough for a pinkie finger,” they are picked while unripe and flavorless, dyed and sometimes processed with lye, he says.
“People come in and say, ‘I don’t like olives,’ ” he says. “I tell them, ‘How do you know? You’ve never really eaten one.’ ”