Pressed for success
Jan./Feb. 2007 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
More ranches are growing olives and producing boutique oils, but none to the scale of California Olive Ranch in Oroville in Butte County.
Expanding production while maintaining high quality standards at California Olive Ranch falls to officials Guillermo Romero (left) and Alan Greene.
The northern Sacramento Valley for generations has been a place with miles of elbowroom, sleepy little towns and rice fields for as far as the eye can see.
But a movement is well under way that's putting this quiet region on the world map for a gourmet food staple—olive oil—bringing the promise of much-needed economic vitality to the area and delivering a food that is fast rising in popularity.
Olive oil has been produced in California since the 19th century, but the vast majority of the fruit has traditionally been canned. A host of factors, including overseas competition, has forced the canned olive industry to plummet. At the same time, olives crushed for oil represent one of the rising stars in the Golden State.
Two attributes have piqued consumer interest: flavor and nutrition. The finest olive oils carry a slightly bitter, yet sweet fruitiness with a peppery finish. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fat, which researchers for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration believe can decrease the risk of coronary heart disease. Additional studies suggest the oil may help prevent strokes.
California currently produces 400,000 gallons of olive oil a year, a veritable drop in the bucket compared to the 65 million gallons consumed annually in the United States. Consumption has risen nearly eightfold since the early 1990s, making America the second-largest market—despite the fact that the nation uses one-fortieth of the olive oil consumed in Spain, the world's largest producer and customer.
California Olive Ranch is at the forefront of innovation, including denser plantings of smaller trees that are harvested by specially designed equipment.
"California has the greatest producers in the world, and there's a huge market right in our back yard," said Paul Vossen of the University of California Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County. Vossen has studied the olive oil industry extensively and guides those farmers taking the plunge into this field. He said 2,000 acres of olives for oil have been planted in the state each of the last two years, bringing the total to about 10,000 acres.
Over the years, the number of ranches in the state growing olives and producing boutique oils has grown from a handful to about 300, though none to the scale of California Olive Ranch in Oroville in Butte County.
"The consumer should be very excited as the California olive oil industry awakens," said Alan Greene, ranch vice president and general manager. "It has been emerging for several years. It's very much like the coffee industry where we all learned that there are better-tasting coffees, or the wine industry. Americans don't have to look overseas for their olive oil. They can get it right here at home."
Alan Greene, ranch general manager, checks the quality of the fruit just before harvest.
The Spanish-owned ranch took root in California in 1999, with an experimental planting of semi-dwarf trees that has flourished. Their 500-acre planting included five times more trees than the norm, with diligent pruning to keep them squatty. Unlike in more traditional orchards, these trees are harvested by custom machines at a fraction of the time and cost. Expansion for the ranch last year totaled 500,000 trees in neighboring Glenn County, bringing the current total to about 1,400 acres.
"We can speed the olives into the mill and have them crushed in less than 90 minutes, which allows us to have a very fresh taste," Greene said. "That's important because fresh oil always tastes better."
During harvest season at the ranch, 21,000 pounds of olives are crushed and milled each hour. It takes 1 ton of fruit to make 35 to 40 gallons of oil.
"We want to grow as fast as possible," said Guillermo Romero, ranch vice president and a member of the ranch's board of directors. Romero lives in Spain, but is often at the ranch during harvest and processing season in the fall. "This area is perfect for olive oil because of California's Mediterranean-style climate, the growing demand and because more than 99 percent of American consumption is from imported oil."
California Olive Ranch is America's largest olive oil grower and processor, with about 80,000 gallons made in 2006. Greene said they expect to make twice that amount this year and project it to rise to 1 million gallons annually by 2012.
The ranch's oil—which has won numerous awards, including best of class and best of show at the 2006 Los Angeles County Fair—is sold online (www.californiaoliveranch.com) and at hundreds of stores throughout the West and in Canada. Half-liter bottles go for about $10 to $13 each.
University of California Farm Advisor Joe Connell in Butte County completed a three-year study of the ranch and said it's a prototype of where the state's olive oil business will proceed in the future.
"California is producing world-class olive oil—as good as or better than the olive oils being produced in Europe and imported to the United States," Connell said. "All California producers have to do is get the consumers to realize that their olive oil is equal to or better than the olive oils they are used to using. If we can do that, I think that the market potential for California olive oil is excellent."
Educating consumers about olive oil is paramount to capturing more interest, agrees Darrell Corti, pioneering Sacramento-based retailer of fine wine and gourmet foods. The owner of Corti Brothers store said he personally uses about one bottle a month and has made a concerted effort to market California olive oils for 20 years.
"We have proven we can make really good oil, but the customer has to learn that there's a whole world of oil," he said. "Americans don't use much olive oil because they are accustomed to something that's rather neutral in flavor. Generally speaking, Americans don't have a palate for decided flavors or smells. It's important to remember, that's what they used to say about cheese. Now we have lots of strong cheeses made in California."
Corti suggests that those who want to experience olive oil for the first time go to a knowledgeable retailer, so they can learn about the different varieties and flavor characteristics available.
A key to finding a good olive oil is seeking a bottle with the sticker or logo that indicates it has met stringent criteria set up by the California Olive Oil Council.
The Berkeley-based council has had a certification program in place for eight years, which became mandatory three years ago. This certification is equal to or exceeds the most stringent requirements in the world and includes certified lab analysis, a signed affidavit that the fruit is 100 percent grown in California and blind tasting before an expert panel signifying it is free of defects.
The council recommends that shoppers also look for the term "extra virgin" on the label, which indicates the oil is of the highest quality with the greatest degree of health benefits—and without any defects. No heat or chemicals are used during the extraction process. Olive oil defined as "virgin" meets half the criteria of extra virgin.
"We're extremely enthusiastic because demand for the state's olive oil has been growing by up to 25 percent year after year," said California Olive Oil Council Executive Director Patty Darragh. "We have witnessed very dramatic growth and are expanding fast. More consumers are realizing we can provide a fresh, authentic product."
Long days supervising harvest and milling don't stop Greene from enjoying the product that promises so much to so many people.
"I use olive oil on my fresh-popped popcorn, which really brings out its unique flavors," he said. "I also enjoy it with a fresh squeeze of lemon or lime to top my salad, and I finish all of the steak, pork and fish I eat with a little drizzling of olive oil. There's nothing else like it."
Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at email@example.com.