When a new wave of Californian olive oils appeared in the late 1980s, they were pitched at the top of the market.
They had Italian names, came in Italian-style bottles and carried price tags to match. Ironically, their American producers urged Californians to buy the foreign-looking, foreign-sounding oils because they were locally produced. Great expectations rippled through the press that California olive oil would soon be as popular as its wine.
But if journalists bought it, consumers haven’t, at least not in large numbers. Rather, while wine has boomed, California olive oil remains the stuff of rueful aphorisms:
“We produce the best California olive oil in the world,” says Sacramento-based gourmet food provisioner Darrell Corti.
There are an estimated 100 to 135 producers in the state, as compared to tens of thousands in Spain and Italy alone, and they produce less than 1% of the olive oil consumed in the United States. The estimated 1,600 tons of oil California produced in 2000 compares to nearly 450 million tons imported from abroad, most of it from Italy.
As for price, Californian extra virgin olive oil can cost six times as much as extra virgin Bertolli, the leading Italian import brand, which retails for around $5 a bottle.
Whether or not California olive oil has a future depends on whom you ask. To the mind of UC Davis pomologist Louise Ferguson, an extension specialist for olive growers, California cannot compete in the oil market. At a time when world supplies are cheap and plentiful, boutique U.S. growers are charging unheard of prices for a product made by amateurs, Ferguson argues, or as she calls them, “people with too much money who have had too many trips to Tuscany.”
But where Ferguson sees folly, a fellow pomologist at UC Davis sees promise. Extension specialist Paul Vossen, formerly a consultant to the apple industry, describes the future of California olive oil as “different, exciting and wonderful.”
Yes, the oils are expensive, he concedes, but there is quality and freshness behind the price tag. If making California olive oil is costly, it doesn’t have to be a money hole, he argues. Costs can be cut by growing in the Central Valley instead of Napa, for instance.
From Corti Brothers, his Sacramento food shop, Corti relishes the paradox. “Louise is correct and Paul is correct,” he says. “It just depends on the parameters.”
The California Olive Oil Council, a trade organization in Berkeley, has been working hard to define those parameters. It co-sponsors a tasting panel with UC Davis, in part led by Vossen, that seeks to certify a select range of California oil that its organizers argue will rival the estate oils of Tuscany. Its members hope that consumers will at least give local oil a shot before reaching for imports.
The council’s president, Roberto Zecca, says that cheap foreign oil is not comparable to what is produced here. “Importers have taken advantage of our wide-open market and flooded us with refined or deodorized products labeled ‘extra-virgin’ when you know clearly they are not,” he says.
“Eliminate your dependency on foreign oil,” declares the group on their Web site. “The new standard is here.”
Olive oil came to California in fits and starts. Olive trees, formally known as Olea europaea L ., arrived in the Americas in the 15th century, reaching California with the missionaries in the 1770s. In her book “The Olive in California” (Ten Speed Press, $32.50), Judith Taylor explains how olive oil became an essential source of soap, lamp oil and cooking fat until cattle herds, sources of tallow and butter, became established.
Taylor traces how as the missions fell, the Gold Rush swamped the state, and modern agriculture emerged in the 1870s, when the first commercial olive oil mill opened in Ventura County. But it did not survive, and the trade in pickled olives soon took over.
At the same time, a steady flow of immigrants were arriving from Italy. The Tuscan banking family of Francesco Bertolli first began sending oil to the U.S. as tokens for homesick Italians. By the 1930s, it had an organized distribution system. But olive oil was still strictly an “ethnic” product distributed to Italian groceries.
In California, Italian immigrants found an alternative to Old World oil: They made their own from olive trees already growing here. They found Mission trees introduced by the Franciscans, along with the Sevillano and Manzanillo varieties introduced throughout the Central Valley during the agricultural boom of the 1880s.
Nick Sciabica and Sons in Modesto is the longest-running California olive oil company. It was founded in 1936, when Sicilian immigrant Nicola Sciabica and his son, Joseph, decided to press the olives from orchards around Modesto.
By working with local olives, the Sciabicas pressed a distinctively Californian oil. The family not only pressed the olives of certain varieties separately, they bottled the oil of individual olive types instead of blending it. These single-olive oils are called “varietals.”
Until the 1980s, says Daniel Sciabica, olive oil did not pay. It was only possible to set up the mill because his family also farmed peaches and grapes. “My dad kept the olive oil business going while somebody else would have closed it. It was tradition.”
Seeing the Light
But in the 1980s, after 40 years of subsidizing the family’s oil production by growing peaches and grapes, their oil started to make money. “My dad got to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Daniel Sciabica.
While Sciabica oil enjoyed a small boom in the Bay Area, Bertolli began to finally break out of the “ethnic market” of Italian delicatessens into supermarkets. Today, as Paul Barrett, Bertolli’s marketing director, says, “We’re the only true national brand.”
The Tuscan company coaxed its new American audience to sample the stronger extra virgin green oils by first introducing them to mild-tasting oils, called “light.” It sponsored tastings, sponsorships, cooking demonstrations and pamphlets.
The strategy worked. Across the country, consumption went from less than 10% of all households in the 1980s to more than 30% today. In 1982, the U.S. imported 64 million pounds of oil. Last year, the figure was almost 449 million pounds. The lion’s share of this market belongs to Bertolli, followed by widely marketed European brands such as Berio, Star and Colavita.
By the end of the 1980s, while mainstream America was only just learning to use olive oil as a low-cholesterol fat, Bay Area millionaires were toying with the idea of growing their own.
Lila Jaeger of Napa Valley’s Rutherford Hill Winery began making olive oil as what she called an “elegant hobby.” Initially she took olives to the Sciabicas for pressing. But by 1992, she had founded the California Olive Oil Council in Berkeley to improve standards, and by 1996 she had opened a community press in Glen Ellen, in Sonoma County.
Jaeger originally started working with local olives from old trees that she found on her estate, remembers Daniel Sciabica. But soon, she and other landowners in Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties wanted to rival the ancient oils of Tuscany.
To do that, they needed new trees, says Ridgely Evers, a Bay Area software entrepreneur turned olive-oil maker in Healdsburg. California olive trees, he felt, were not up to the task. “Producing oil from Mission olives is like making wine from Thompson Seedless grapes,” he says. “You can craft an oil well from Mission olives, but it will never be a great oil.”
By 1990, he had imported 2,400 saplings of the varieties he felt would make a great oil: Leccino, Frantoio, Maurino and Pendolino. “I’m the first person to import Italian trees into this country this century,” he says.
He was not the last. A number of elite Bay Area farmers followed suit. The most flamboyant planting, covering more than 550 acres in Marin County, was done by Nan McEvoy, inheritor of the San Francisco Chronicle fortune. She also funds a large nursery to propagate trees for other farmers, and brought an elaborate olive press which can handle their harvests as well as her own crop.
Today, the mock Tuscan oils made by Evers, McEvoy and Jaeger’s heirs (Jaeger died last summer) are already so established that there are dozens on the market.
The techniques behind them vary. McEvoy flies in an Italian consultant to supervise her pressing and blending. Evers planted and crushes olive varieties in the same percentages that he observed being used in Lucca. The common thread is the use of Italian tree types, which have given rise to a new class of Californian oils. In the Olive Oils of the Americas tasting for the L.A. County Fair, one of the most hotly contested categories was “New World European Blends.”
A Real California Tuscan
When Roberto Zecca retired from banking in Milan in 1989, he and his American wife, Christine, bought a castle in Tuscany. It came with 40 acres of ancient trees, so Zecca began making olive oil. But their children lived in California. Says Zecca, “After six years in Tuscany, we realized that we really missed our kids.”
When they moved to Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, they found a nascent olive oil industry enamored with everything Tuscan waiting for them. Zecca opened a restaurant with an olive press in it and named it Frantoio, the Italian word for both an olive press and a prized Tuscan olive tree type.
He certainly benefits from the cachet, but at the same time, Zecca throws water on the snob value of the Italian olive. Actually, its attraction is its yield, he says; Italian varieties are juicier. “That’s why everyone plants Tuscan trees,” he says. “You have much more olive oil in the fruit.”
After opening Frantoio in 1995, he began pressing olives from local farmers under his own brand and pressing for local producers, including Evers. More Italian than the Italians, Evers named his oil DaVero, meaning “the real thing.”
A Rocky Start
Zecca giggles at the linguistic excesses of Bay Area Italophiles, but he admires the enthusiasts, none more than Evers. They’ve survived a rocky infancy, he says.
In 1997, when he first took a dozen California oils to a tasting at a regional office of the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, he says, “They laughed.
“I took mine, took the Sciabicas, took everybody’s. As they started tasting them, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done?’ Everything was either rancid, fusty or winy.”
That year, Zecca went on to qualify as the first California taster accredited by the International Olive Oil Council. The following year, UC Davis’ Vossen also got certified and both men began aggressively educating olive oil makers in the state.
“We had people like Ridgely Evers and Nan McEvoy saying, ‘We’re gonna do this,’ and suddenly they had lots of questions, like ‘How?”’ recalls Vossen.
Vossen and Zecca went about hammering out the defects that induced all the hilarity at the Italian Ministry of Agriculture. Zecca says the Sciabicas no longer buy cannery culls, rejects that ferment and cause a defect in the oil. His own oil is no longer winy, a defect caused by yeast fermentation when olive paste is exposed to oxygen.
But nobody’s oil has gone through greater peaks and troughs than Ridgely Evers’ Real Thing. “I took Ridgely’s oil in 1998, put it on the table of the top tasters of France,” says Zecca. “On a scale of 1 to 9, he got an 81/2.”
But this summer, Evers’ oil, along with McEvoy’s, took a weak silver at the L.A. County Fair. Evers dismisses the competition as a “beauty contest” and blames the tasters. But Zecca, one of the judges, thinks it’s the learning curve. The art of knowing what to do and when is not something you learn overnight, he says. His guess is that Evers is still learning how much and when to irrigate.
What Price Glory?
If California olive oil makers are learning on their feet, they are charging as much as the masters. Evers and McEvoy charge from $18 to $24 for 350-milliliter bottles, headier price tags than one finds on even the best Tuscan oils. Even Sciabica charges roughly the equivalent of about $12 per 350-milliliter bottle. Zecca manages to keep his costs for Frantoio oil down to $13 for a 500-milliliter bottle, because he buys olives, rather than growing them, forgoing the premium of “estate bottled” oils.
Zecca’s Frantoio “Proprietor’s Select” took best of show at the Los Angeles State Fair this summer for late-harvest oil, a category that connotes slow-maturing ripe olives that produce mellow oil. The top prize for a greener, more piquant early harvest oil went to Lunigiana Estate from the Olive Press cooperative founded by Jaeger. The flavored category was won by the Sciabica’s jalapeno-infused oil.
But for all its pluck and emerging quality, it’s hard to see how California’s oil industry can compete against an ancient and accomplished Italian industry.
They are not on a level playing field, complains Evers. “The olive oil you are used to either comes from European countries where it is heavily subsidized,” he says, or it is imported by Italy from the Middle East, “where the farmer gets paid $50 a ton for the olives, whereas in the U.S., if you’re really efficient, it costs you $350 a ton just to pick.”
The impenetrability of the middle market is why, he says, the California industry has made an unabashed bid for greatness.
Zecca, Evers, Vossen and an increasing number of olive oil producers think they just might make it. The key to “the new standard” is not just whizzily bottled extra everythingness, but freshness. Olive oil is a perishable commodity that is ideally made, bought and consumed locally. “It’s a fruit juice with a limited shelf life,” says Zecca, who recommends buying small quantities and consuming it quickly.
Though some producers date their oils voluntarily, the California Olive Oil Council does not require dating, says Zecca, on the grounds that as a quirk of the winter bottling cycle, an oil made in December 2000 might seem a year younger than one bottled in January 2001, an unfair advantage.
Will People Pay?
But even for the benefit of a notionally fresher product, will consumers pay the premium? Possibly, says gourmet shopkeeper Corti. He points to the burgeoning California farmhouse cheese industry as a measure of our improving palates. Now that consumers are more sophisticated, he thinks, they will want the commodity oil of the sort found in supermarkets for everyday cooking and the top-of-the-line oils for garnishing.
“One oil does not fit all,” he says. “Every well-run kitchen should probably have a light, fruity oil and an intensely fruity oil.”
Vossen, now studying olive oil on a nine-month sabbatical in Spain, tenaciously argues that while California olive oil may never match the glorious success of the wine industry, there is room for a high-end domestic market.
Zecca, the former banker with a doctorate in business, sees a danger in Napa-issue preciousness. He doesn’t want California olive oil to be “the Tiffany’s of agriculture.” Rather, he insists that while the U.S. is up against subsidy and tradition in Europe, labor is cheaper here and there are no transport costs. “If we can get out of the cottage industry mentality, we might just make it,” he says.
Meanwhile, Ferguson, the skeptical observer, concedes, “stranger things have happened. People stopped smoking.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.