Olive Oil

San Joaquin's golden bounty

by Tammy Hansen

Grassy. Peppery. Fruity. Floral. Valley gourmands are intimately familiar with the adjectives that make up a flavor profile, having enjoyed a few decades of growth in Lodi wine accolades.

A new crop of local artisan farmers is uncorking a different sort of excitement for local connoisseurs, bottling a different sort of Central Valley gold with a pronounced olive green tinge. These entrepreneurial growers are hoping to start a revolution in olive oil. You'll find them at wine tastings and in fine food stores across the state encouraging consumers to savor nuances in their fresh products, sometimes offering straight-shot samples to emphasize that their products are as far from the ubiquitous oils on the supermarket shelf as, well, Italy is from Stockton.Valley olive oil farmers widely credit Oroville's California Olive Ranch with kick-starting the California olive oil industry in 1999 when it brought high density farming and harvesting from Spain, along with the California friendly Arbequina, Arbosana, and Koroneiki olive varieties. The vine-like trees and mechanical harvesters similar to those used in grapes are a perfect fit for local farmers seeking newly profitable crops. Quick draining loam soils in the Valley are a perfect growing ground for olives, says Leonard Cicerello, a partner in Lodi Olive Oil Company and owner of the wine distributorship Lodi Wines LLC. He estimates his company's olive oil production at 1,500 gallons, which is distributed through about 100 wine buyers. Add a Mediterranean climate and it's a recipe for success.

Although it only recently graduated from the miscellaneous category of the county report, the area's 77 tons of olive oil from 86 acres (at a value of $119,000) is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years.

Local farmers are replacing row crops and old fruit trees with olive trees. Many, like Joe Bozzano of Bozzano Olive Ranch, are a bit bewitched by the gourmet cachet of a crop that echoes the romance of wine. A fourth generation farmer, Bozzano is smitten with the old-world olives of his Italian heritage. His family farm boasts nine varieties on 45 acres.

"All the varieties I grow are Italian varieties. Each variety has a flavor profile that's inherent to itself," says the graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, who cooked at coastal and Napa restaurants before returning to the family farm. Most of his olives are hand-harvested, but Bozzano doesn't thumb his nose at mechanization. His olives are harvested with pneumatic combs that gently pick up the olives from nets over the ground. "Even the pneumatic combs are essentially old-world," he says. "Really all we're doing is mechanizing the rakes."

Growing and harvesting olives is just phase one, however, says Mike Coldani of Coldani Olive Ranch, who has 100 acres of trees. Milling the olives—pressing the oil from the fruit as quickly and simply as possible after harvest, with no additives—is another key aspect of a fine oil. Then comes blending, in which oil producers combine flavors. Oils are then stored in stainless tanks. At this point the clock starts running down. Coldani, a Cal Poly graduate who studied vineyard design, and other producers have no more than 18 months to get the oil to the table. Therein lies the major difference between the locally produced oils and the imported oils many cooks buy, he says. While most growers tread lightly on the issue of imported oils, Coldani tells it like it is.

"In America we've grown accustomed to a rancid taste," he says. Rancid in this case means older oils that have oxidized. The result is a less fresh, varnish-like flavor.

A University of California at Davis July report on olive oil quality (funded by the California Industry) reported 69 percent of imported and 10 percent of California olive oils labeled extra virgin failed to meet criteria for that moniker. Researchers found rancid, fusty, or musty problems through tasting and chemical analysis in 86 percent of imported extra virgin olive oils. The poor flavors are a result of oxidation, blending with inferior oils, or use of lower grade olives for oils. Responding to industry concern, in October the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented voluntary grading standards for all olive oils. The simplest chemical indicator of quality oil is fatty acids at less than 0.8 grams per 100 milligrams. Some California producers have taken to touting their low acid content on the label.

There are dozens of other chemical factors that go into good olive oil, but producers tend to keep the politics at the industry level. With consumers, they let the product speak for itself.

Bozzano says the industry will continue to fight behind the scenes for fair standards, but getting the home cook to start thinking 'peppery, fruity, grassy' is the key to a robust California olive oil industry.

"Just like people started to develop a vocabulary for wine," he says. "That's where we need to head with olive oil."

For more information:

Visit the California Olive Oil Council at www.cooc.com.

Olive Oil Sources

  • Bozzano Olive Ranch, Stockton: Bottled oils and gift boxes. www.bozzanoranch.com
  • Coldani Olive Ranch, Lodi: Bottled oils, 1-gallon containers, balsamic vinegar, a buying club, and a unique dipping dish. www.calivirgin.com
  • Corto Olive California Olive Oil, Stockton: Bottled oils, a 6.5 pound bag in a box, and a 20 pound bag in a box. www.corto-olive.com
  • Lodi Olive Oil Company, Lodi: Bottled oils, 1-gallon containers, gift packs. www.lodioliveoil.com
  • Shady Oaks Farm, Lodi: Bottled oils. www.shadyoaksoliveoil.com

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