(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in October, 2016.)
It may often be called “liquid gold” but olive oil actually comes in a range of luscious hues from pale yellow to deep green, with an exquisite range of aromas and flavors that vary from oil to oil — grassy, acidic, buttery, bitter, floral, fruity, nutty, spicy and more. This agricultural crop is booming in Northern California, where some have said it’s starting to parallel our state’s thriving wine-grape sector while being heralded by foodies and health professionals as a beneficial, delicious substance. And like wine, it can be challenging to select an olive oil due to the abundant choices available as well as controversies that have muddled the minds of many consumers regarding what should be an essential culinary staple. Fortunately, it’s easy to get savvy about olive oil in the South Bay and beyond, including tasting this wondrous product right where it’s made.
First, some background. Olive oil might be high in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants but the growing spectrum of types, brands, grades and prices creates confusion. Within the three main olive oil grades — refined, pure and extra virgin — the latter comprises by far the majority of products, which isn’t surprising because it’s the most expensive. And that’s the problem. One UC Davis test determined that more than 70 percent of imported extra-virgin olive oils (EVOOs) — the kind littering our grocery shelves — were fakes rather than reflecting the “extra-virgin” requirements of being produced by mechanically crushing olives without using chemicals or refining techniques. Meanwhile, scandals in the Italian extra-virgin olive oil industry have revealed that many such products aren’t virgin, weren’t produced in Italy, nor even made from olives in some cases.
These issues have more resonance when considering that at least 98 percent of the olive oil consumed in the United States is imported. Jeff Martin, co-proprietor of Frantoio Grove in South Santa Clara County, explains that “Americans use less than a liter per person per year; Italians use 13 liters.” Given the awards for quality Martin’s EVOOs have won, it’s not surprising that he believes “America needs to reduce its dependence on foreign oil,” so to speak.
The good news is that California’s olive oil industry has been breaking production records of late; our state produces the majority of the nation’s EVOO. Our Mediterranean climate and longtime farming prowess are olive-oil friendly, helping churn out four million gallons of EVOO last year. With more choices than ever before, it’s important to know that outstanding domestic EVOOs without the taint of scandal are not only much better than most imported oils but there are new, delicious ways of sampling and learning about these fine olive oils.
Perhaps the easiest strategy for exploring EVOOs is visiting one of the “tap rooms” in the South Bay where visitors can sip through many different oils along with lush balsamic vinegars — an exquisite mate to these oils. In fact, a common practice in local tap rooms is swirling together complementary pairings of oil and vinegar — an instant tiny vinaigrette — to please and inspire customers. These establishments also supply tips, recipes and other assistance so buyers learn about all the ways to use these fine products beyond just salad dressing. Since proprietors often buy their oils and vinegars from a few well-stocked distributors that serve the burgeoning tap-room market, one will find many of the same products at different locations. However, the quality is high and the selection so large that there’s plenty to choose from.
Another newer development is finding regionally produced EVOOs at local farmers markets, where tastings are typical. Finally, a particularly enjoyable and educational approach for sampling and buying EVOOs is an oil-tasting safari, visiting one of the olive mills that welcome visitors to their groves for sipping and buying. Products offered by most of the following sources can also be purchased online, so check their websites for details.
Visiting Local Tap Rooms
While olives, which originated in the Mediterranean region, have been cultivated for over 6,000 years, EVOO tap rooms are a much newer development. Olive oil tasting bars originated awhile ago in Europe, with such “try before you buy” operations expanding rapidly in the United States in recent years. Instead of puzzling over which bottle to select from bulging market shelves, visitors are able to sample oils “on tap” (typically stored in Italian metal containers called fusti) before making a purchase.
In keeping with the food-savvy mind set found in the Bay Area, there are quite a few EVOO tap rooms here, with at least five in the South Bay and coastal region. The formula at these friendly retailers is offering luscious balsamic vinegars as well as EVOOs, with various other gourmet products often stocked as well. Besides dispensing tastes, these shops typically provide extensive information about their products and the EVOO industry in general — just like your usual winery tasting room. Local tap rooms are a great source of products that elevate foods prepared at home and have also become go-to stops for ready-made gifts.
A particularly friendly tap room is Olive Crush in downtown San Carlos, which also has a location in Half Moon Bay. Visitors have called it a “wonderland” because of the large assortment available while praising the helpful attitude of the on-site proprietor. As is typical, Olive Crush carries EVOOs from all over the world but fear not — there aren’t any of the European fakes that have made so many consumers gun shy about olive oil from that region. In addition to medal-winning EVOOs made from various olive varieties, Olive Crush has a dizzying array of olive oils flavored with citrus (lemon, orange, lime), garlic, herbs, chipotle and more.
The line-up of balsamic vinegars is also sizeable, including dark and white versions that are flavored with just about everything you can imagine — apricot, blackberry, ginger, mango, strawberry, red apple, vanilla bean, jalapeno, espresso and others. While Olive Crush is primarily focused on oils and vinegars, the store also carries an outstanding assortment of terrific Pappardelle dried pasta and yummy biscotti in twelve flavors from local star La Biscotteria.
At the cozy, attractively cluttered Olive Bar in Campbell, the EVOO and balsamic selection is reasonably large but the store also carries items like local honey, virgin coconut oils, olive-oil-based soaps, lip balms, spreads and other appealing items. An attractive assortment of EVOOs includes butter-flavored oil, Meyer lemon-flavored oil and French white truffle oil. On the balsamic vinegar side, the offerings all come from Modena, Italy, and are aged between six and 18 years. Some highlights are chocolate balsamic, which staffers say is great on waffles or fresh strawberries as well as ice cream.
An unusual flavor is elderberry balsamic, a thick, sweet vinegar that can be inspiration for salads, starters, desserts or finishing grilled chicken or duck. As is typical, the friendly staff makes recommendations about oil and vinegar pairings, with some home runs including basil olive oil and tangerine balsamic, garlic-infused oil with pomegranate balsamic and rosemary oil with cranberry-pear balsamic.
We Olive & Wine Bar in downtown Los Gatos isn’t just an EVOO and balsamic vinegar tap room but a thriving tapas spot. On the tap room side, this franchised operation showcases California-grown oils along with all the usual tempting selections like flavored oils and vinegars (pineapple white balsamic, anyone?) that have made these tasting bars such a local hit. Among the California EVOOs, try the lovely Sonoma smoked olive oil to finish seafood or explore frantoio EVOO with its grassy, herbaceous aromas or the fruitier, nutty California-grown arbequina EVOO.
Also available is a selection of gourmet foods like tapenade, olives, dressings, unique spreads, jams, chocolate and caramel sauces, infused honeys, flavored salts and marinades. In addition, the store carries some small-production wines and the whole shebang is available for tasting. Those who can’t bear to leave can grab a table and munch on items such as prosciutto-wrapped dates and cabrese salad that were prepared using the delicious oils and vinegars carried in the shop.
A pair of coast-side tap rooms called True Olive Connection are helping residents jazz up their cooking. Located in Santa Cruz and Aptos, these petite shops in pleasing Provençal colors feature round tables where tastings take place. As is common at such establishments, customer loyalty is encouraged through discounts after people return their bottles for refills. EVOOs come from local and international groves, while vinegars are the usual enticing array, like serrano honey balsamic, grapefruit balsamic and ripe peach balsamic.
Besides the oils and vinegars, the stores carry nut and seed oils, olive-oil-based skin care products, jams, condiments and other enticements. Among sea salts are some unusual flavors for lovers of heat in which the salt is infused with ghost peppers, habañero peppers, hot curry or a five-pepper blend. The staff provides helpful tips like adding a touch of flavored vinegar to water to zip it up, using these vinegars as pancake syrup, or sprinkling the butter-flavored EVOO on popcorn to avoid the cholesterol damage of fatty dairy products.
Focused on olive oil’s healthful aspects is cute little Quail and Olive in Carmel Valley, since the shop is owned by a retired cardiologist who promotes EVOO as a way to prevent heart disease. A smaller selection of the usual delightful oils and balsamics found in most tap rooms is available but a unique offering here is a few special blends of California-grown EVOOs like “doctor’s blend,” an oil that takes advantage of the naturally high polyphenol levels found in koroneiki and coratina olives (Greek and Italian varietals, respectively).
With freshness a key element in deriving health and taste advantages from EVOO, Quail and Olive displays the harvest date and source of most oils sold. Locally sourced are some appealing products like a kiwi-mint fruit vinegar made from fruit and chiles grown on an organic farm in the region. Another winner is plum-basil reserve balsamic that combines Santa Rosa plums, opal basil and sweet Italian basil.
Farmers Market EVOOs
Tastings are usually offered by vendors who sell their products at farmers markets, with the focus being on locally produced EVOOs and sometimes vinegars either sold directly by the olive growers themselves or by those who source from them. Unlike the tap rooms, this is the place to find exclusively California olive oil — an outstanding product that is fresher, healthier and tastier than most of what’s available in supermarkets.
A fixture at South Bay farmers markets is Big Paw, a producer of lush olive oils, vinegars, bread dippers and more that has many local fans. The proprietors get their EVOO from high-quality Northern California farms and whip up a slew of enticing blends like an addictive chipotle EVOO, “flaming fig” dressing and some killer vinegar concoctions such as wild matsutake mushroom champagne vinegar, apricot-lavender balsamic, hibiscus balsamic as well as smoked chipotle catsup.
Made in the California olive heaven of the Capay Valley northeast of San Francisco, Grumpy Goats is a little EVOO producer with an impressive array of awards for its varietal oils. Organically, sustainably farmed, the oils vary from mild, fruity, creamy pendolino EVOO to rich, forward pictual EVOO with a complex, peppery aroma, and coratina EVOO, the most robust of the trio, featuring hints of wheat grass and apple. These oils are available in carefully chosen specialty stores and at the downtown Palo Alto farmers market.
Luscious Tuscan-style EVOOs are the focus of Valencia Creek Farms in Aptos, a small producer whose operation grew from 100 trees from Pescia, Italy, planted in 1994. A food-friendly, complex, blended oil in the style of central and northern Italy is produced, along with a ripe, fantastic Meyer lemon-infused EVOO in which the citrus is crushed with the olives. Valencia Creek is also noted for making some unique chocolate truffles in which olive oil replaces the usual cream. Besides availability at a few select coastal retailers, these products can be sampled at the Cabrillo College farmers market in Aptos.
Tasting at the Source
Just as cruising to wine country and sampling bottles while surrounded by the vineyards the grapes came from is de rigueur for foodies, olive oil tasting tours are growing in popularity as groves multiply in copacetic areas of Northern California. In fact, some wineries have added rows of olive trees to their operations, showcasing the links between these agricultural products. Happily, no designated drivers are needed for EVOO tastings.
Olive groves were originally planted by Franciscan monks 150 years ago at the missions they set up between Sonoma and San Diego but the olive oil industry in our state is now mainly thriving in the northern half. The highest concentration of olive orchards is between Red Bluff in the north and Porterville below Fresno in the south but South Bay olive oil aficionados seeking an agro-tourism experience need not go that far to find great oils to taste in lovely environments. Here are the most noteworthy destinations closer by, located in Southern Santa Clara County and environs, Livermore, the Suisin Valley, Capay Valley and, of course, wine country.
Frantoio Grove operates in San Martin and Gilroy and makes incredibly fresh, lush Tuscan-style EVOO. Picked by hand, the olives — many of the frantoio variety — produce a rich, complex oil with great balance. Owner Jeff Martin has become a bit of an EVOO rock star who sells his product to a few high-end markets, wineries and online. However, group tours and tastings can be scheduled by contacting his website.
Gorgeous Pietra Santa Winery in Hollister produces superb EVOO from its own groves, which can be tasted along with the estate’s wines. Visitors like seeing the Italian olive press and production areas, as well as just gazing at the beauty of the surrounding Cienega Valley while admiring the estate’s bell towers, cut-glass windows, trellised vineyards and ancient oaks.
Also combining grapes and olives is Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company in the heart of the Suisun Valley. This operation grows and produces 12 different varieties that are mainly bottled separately. EVOO and balsamic tastings include a food pairing and reservations can be made for a facility tour. The tasting room overlooks a patio and the flowing fields.
Grapes, olives and honey are the focus at Seka Hills in the agriculturally intensive Capay Valley. This farm is owned by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, which also operates nearby Cache Creek Casino Resort. The nice tasting room looks into the milling area and tours that explain how oil is made conclude with a tasting of EVOOs, vinegars and wine.
Located down the road from Wente Vineyards on the bucolic side of the Livermore Valley, The Olivina grows an unusual olive selection, including native, Italian and French cultivars so this is a great place to taste the difference. The tasting area is no-frills and visits are limited to groups, who should call to set up an appointment.
Napa might be known as a cabernet powerhouse but olives also thrive there. In the heart of the valley is Round Pond, an acclaimed wine producer with a beautiful facility geared toward visitors. Various tours and tastings are available, from short to leisurely. This operation is so focused on quality that it constructed its own unique olive mill, which crushes olives immediately after picking.
Long Meadow Ranch is located in a gorgeous location in Napa’s Mayacamas Mountains, growing a variety of things in addition to olives — with the groves here being the oldest in the county. Abandoned for years, the trees were ultimately restored and make a lovely blended EVOO — even though nobody knows what the olive varieties are. Reservations can be made for a two-hour tour and tasting of wines and oils.
McEvoy Ranch near Petaluma has been a gold standard for olive-oil making while also being breathtakingly beautiful, with wooded hills, spreading oaks, ponds and orderly rows of grapevines and olive trees. One rich, grassy, vibrant blended oil is produced and can be tasted by appointment, which also includes facility tours, wine tasting and munching on locally made cheeses.
Nearby Sonoma County has a growing number of wine-and-olive ranches, with some beckoning visitors. Not to be missed is DaVero, owned by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who’s also a passionate farmer, producing outstanding EVOOs as well as fine Italian-varietal wines. While the olive groves are a few miles from the tasting room, this lovely facility is definitely worth visiting anyway. Walk-in or private tastings are available.
One of Sonoma County’s first olive oils came from BR Cohn, legendary rock group manager, whose picturesque property also produces wine. Even though this operation was sold recently to a wine conglomerate, tasting visits are still enjoyable and should be scheduled in advance. The estate EVOO is made from French picholine olives and is fresh, subtle and with a hint of citrus.
Located in a bucolic wine area of rolling hills, Dry Creek Olive Oil Company produces absolutely delicious EVOOs, particularly some of the best citrus-infused oils around. The oil operation is part of Trattore Farms, a winery of some distinction. Visitors can sample wines and EVOOs or make reservations for a walking tour of the vineyards and orchards. Another option is by-appointment olive mill tours followed by wine, EVOO and food pairings.
With such a wealth of divine, locally produced EVOOs available for sampling and buying, it should only be a matter of time until South Bay residents start bumping up their consumption of this delicious, healthful product to European levels — without fears of getting anything less than high-quality, extra-virgin olive oils.
Where to Get It
653 Laurel St., San Carlos; 300 Main St., Half Moon Bay; (650) 533-1189. http://www.theolivecrush.com
The Olive Bar
232 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell; (408) 370-1901. http://www.theolivebar.com
We Olive & Wine Bar
112 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; (408) 354-7474. http://www.weolive.com/los-gatos
True Olive Connection
106 Lincoln St., Santa Cruz; (831) 458-6457; 7960 Soquel Dr., Suite C,
Aptos; (831) 612-6932. http://www.trueoliveconnection.com
Quail and Olive
3 Pilot Rd., Carmel Valley; (831) 659-4288. http://www.quailandolive.com
(530) 796-0000; http://www.grumpygoatsfarm.com
Valencia Creek Farms
(831) 662-2345; http://www.valenciacreekfarms.com
10756 Green Valley Dr., Gilroy; (408) 391-0013. http://www.frantoiogrove.com
10034 Cienega Rd. Hollister; 831-636-1991. http://www.pietrasantawinery.com
Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company
2625 Mankas Corner Rd., Fairfield; (707) 864-1529. http://www.ilfiorello.com
19326 County Road 78, Brooks; (530) 796-2810. http://www.sekahills.com
4555 Arroyo Road, Livermore; (925) 455-8710. http://www.theolivina.com
875 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford; (707) 302-2575. http://www.roundpond.com
Long Meadow Ranch
(707) 963-4555; http://www.longmeadowranch.com
5935 Red Hill Rd., Petaluma; (707) 778-2307. http://www.mcevoyranch.com
766 Westside Rd., Healdsburg; (707) 431-8000. http://www.davero.com
15000 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen; (707) 938-4064. http://www.brcohn.com
Dry Creek Olive Oil Company
7878 Dry Creek Rd., Geyserville; (707) 431-7200. http://www.trattorefarms.com