Whether you like it green and grassy or butter-churn yellow, chances are you don’t know quite as much about olive oil as you think you do. More than just a dip for bread or tasteless oil for heart-healthy sauteeing, true olive oil has as much depth, flavor and character as a fine wine. And can cost you just as much.
Sonoma County, along with nearby Marin, Mendocino and Napa, are at the heart of an artisan olive oil renaissance that goes back to the early 1990s. Inspired by the robust, peppery, fresh flavors of Tuscan olive oil, a handful of producers — among them SoCo’s own Bruce Cohn, Deborah Rogers, Ed Stolman, Ridgley Evers and Colleen McGlynn — began producing award-winning small-production oils that tasted more like Italy and less like the bland, flavorless imported oils being dumped on the American market.
“There’s fat and there’s flavor,” says DaVero Olive Oil’s Ridgely Evers, one of Sonoma County’s most outspoken advocates for buying fresh, local, extra- virgin olive oil. According to Evers, as well as UC Davis olive expert Paul Vossen, most of the cheap, imported olive oil on grocery shelves is old, substandard stuff dumped on the American market.
“A little rancidity is normal. But olive oil just doesn’t get better with time. You need to get it fresh to capture the essence and flavor,” Vossen said.
Those flavors include things like green apple, green beans, grass, hay, butter, nettles, green banana or green tea. They shouldn’t include flavors (or smells) like varnish, oil-based paint or old walnuts – signs of rancidity. Extra-virgin simply means the oil is of the highest grade. Look for a certification on the bottle from the California Olive Oil Council.
Want to know how to get the good stuff? Go right to the source and be prepared to pay a pretty penny – upwards of $20 -$30 a bottle. This isn’t cooking oil. Instead, use these high-quality oils for dipping, light dressings and finishing oils for meats and fish — where you can truly appreciate their flavor. Save the cheap stuff for searing, frying or sauteeing. The best time of year to get olive oil is straight from the presses in November/December (called Olio Nuovo) or after it has settled, usually around March. Store in a cool, dark place for about a year. After that, treat yourself to a new bottle.
Where to get it? BiteClub hits the hot spots…
One Stop Shopping: The Olive Press
Located inside Jacuzzi Winery (and just down the
street from the dip-and-nibble mecca, Viansa winery in Sonoma), it’s
easy to dismiss the raffia-ribboned, sample-bar charm of The Olive
Press as tourist fodder. Which would be a mistake. Co-owner Deborah
Rogers is one of the most lauded and respected olive oil producers in
California and the Press is a bonanza of hard-to-find, small-production
local oils made on-site.
Two of the earliest champions of Northern California’s Olive Oil boom,
Rogers and business partner Ed Stolman, recently relocated their milling
operation from Glenn Ellen to the higher-trafficked Carneros region.
Rogers continues to make her private label, Marquessa, a bold blend of
old and new world olives and Stolman’s, Lunigiana, has taken top prizes
in Italy and Spain — a bold oil with plenty of bitterness and
For olive oil enthusiasts, Rogers also bottles a handful of varietal
olive oils, from the grassy, fruity Sevillano (one of the most
approachable dipping oils we tasted), to the lusty Koroneiki, a Greek
olive variety under the Olive Press label. Best-sellers, however, are
her growing lineup of flavored oils — clementine, Meyer lemon,
jalapeno and most recently, lime. Citrus zest is crushed along with the
olives to infuse, rather than just flavor the finished product. You can
taste many of Roger’soils, as well as offerings from her clients,
including microproducers Beltane Ranch, Stone Edge and Napa’s Cypress
Hill. Go to The Olive Press in Sonoma (24724 Arnold Dr., Sonoma,
800-965-4839) or the Oxbow Public Market (644 First Street, Napa).
The Legend: DaVero Olive Oil
Ridgley Evers has some strong opinions about olive
oil, which he’s never shy about sharing. One of a handful of olive
growers behind Sonoma County’s artisan oil boom, Evers and his wife,
chef Colleen McGlynn, have made a career out of meticulously
understanding the nuances of flavor, balance and timing when it comes
to their oils. The 4,500 trees on their Dry Creek property trace their
heritage from a handful of saplings they imported from Lucca, Italy (a
Tuscan region with weather much like Sonoma County). McGlynn and Evers,
who counts chef Mario Batali among his admirers, can be found most
weekends selling their oil at local farm markets and are in the midst
of converting their estate to biodynamic farming principles. Their
flagship EVOO has all the qualities of a great California olive oil –
fresh grassiness, a mild bitterness and a sneaky pungency. “Three
coughs are a compliment,” says Evers. Tours, classes and tasting:
davero.com or (707) 431-8000.
Mom & Pop: Terra Bella Vista Olive Oil Co.
A true mom-and-pop venture, this
growing Bennett Valley orchard is a labor of love for Doug and Judi
Webb. The couple have gone from harvesting just a few hundred pounds of
olives in 2004 to 5,300 pounds in 2007. Each November they gather
friends and family to assist with the harvest and immediately head for
the press, Olivinio in Hopland (also used by DaVero). Tours, by
appointment, (707) 586-3777 or tbvevoliveoil.com.
Mondo Mendo: Stella Cadente Olive Oil
Mendocino fave Stella’s basil olive
oil recently won big love at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, put
on by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade every year
in January. Though herb-flavored oils sometimes just mask low-quality
oil, Stella’s bright, fresh-basil flavor doesn’t overpower the flavors
of the oil. (800) 305-1288 or stellacadente.com.
Well-kept Secret: Skipstone Ranch
Small-production Alexander Valley olive oil with a
very fresh, green flavor. Fahri Diner and Jill Layman, who own the
property mainly devoted to steep hillside vineyards, take advantage of
550 Manzanillo olive trees planted there. Available online at
The Big Boys: BR Cohn
Winemaker Bruce Cohn’s grove of French Picholine olives trees,
planted in the late 1800s, inspire the soft, buttery flavors of their
Sonoma Estate extra virgin olive oil. Available at the winery, 15000
Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen, (800) 330-4064 or online:
Young guns: Dry Creek Olive Company
This recent entrant into the local olive oil
scene has impressed even the toughest critics with their approachable
and well-made oils. One of the few mills with a granite press (the
large circular stone wheels that crush the fruit), Dry Creek mixes
olives from local growers, their own estate and does several infused
citrus oils. Best bets are the cheeky Healdsburg Blend and refined
blood orange and Meyer lemon oils. Want a taste of the harvest? Olio
Nuovo is a green, grassy and fruity blend. Tasting room and mill at
4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, (707) 431-7200.
Dry Creek also mills for a number of small, local producers, including
El Poeta (available at the Dry Creek General Store), a strong, earthy,
lusty oil that just about knocked our socks off.
Gold Standard: McEvoy Ranch
McEvoy has become the gold standard for Northern
California olive oil making. Even competitive olive oil producers get a
little wistful when describing the painstakingly designed property and
state-of-the-art Italian equipment used to mill their mild yet complex
extra virgin olive oil — the one and only oil they produce. The ranch,
based in Marin county and owned by newspaper heiress Nan McEvoy, boasts
nearly 18,000 trees over 550 acres. It is a private residence, but will
be open for tours on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day weekends and
occasional dates throughout the summer. Reservations are required. 5935
Red Hill Road, Petaluma. More details at mcevoyranch.com or (707)
Want to learn more? The “Beyond Extra Virgin” Conference will be held
at the CIA Greystone and UC Davis from June 21-23, 2009 the largest
conference on olive oil quality ever held in North America. The
Culinary Institute of America at Greystone is located at 2555 Main
Street, St. Helena. More details: www.cooc.com/events.html
Where to buy:
Oliver’s: 560 Montecito, Santa Rosa, 707 537-7123; Stony Point, 461 Stony Point Road, Santa Rosa, (707) 284-3530.
Pacific Market: 1465 Town & Country Drive, Santa Rosa, (707) 546-3663
Dry Creek General Store: 3495 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, (707) 433-4171