California Olive Oil—The Evolution of an Industry

January 25, 2016
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By Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne

Within 100 miles of the offices of Edible Silicon Valley, four very different companies are making extra-virgin olive oil. These four producers provide a portrait of today’s olive oil industry in California and the road traveled to get here. 

The earliest record of olive oil production in California dates from 1803 at the mission in San Diego. Production in the state saw a slow start during colonial times, followed by a flurry of expansion in the late 1800s. By 1900, however, the tide was shifting to the production of table olives due to the difficulty of competing with cheap imports—a leitmotif for the industry, as we shall see—and olive oil was taking a back seat to the production of California black “ripe” olives (which are actually harvested dead green and become black in the processing). 

From Table to Oil—Nick Sciabica & Sons

1936: The country is still deep in the Great Depression, Bing Crosby croons “Pennies From Heaven” on the radio and Nicola (Nick) Sciabica starts producing olive oil in the Central Valley of California. Almost 80 years later—having long outlasted all the competitors—the Sciabica family is still making olive oil in Modesto. 

Nicola’s grandsons Daniel and Nick, and Nick’s son Jonathan, are now at the helm (and the oars!) of the company. When asked about the secret of the company’s longevity, Jonathan has an answer that is both simple and profound: He credits the passion of his grandfather Joseph for the success of the company. “I’m not trying to sell olive oil,” Joe would say. “I’m trying to close half of the hospitals!” A living testimonial to his own medicine—extra-virgin olive oil—and the value of doing what you love, Joe was still working the local farmers market up until a couple of weeks before he passed in 2010 at the age of 95. 

The first brand from Sciabica’s was called Marsala, after Nicola’s hometown in Sicily. It was made from olive varieties that had been planted in California for table olive production. The Sciabicas found that olives that were undersized or too ripe to be processed into table olives were great for producing olive oil. The Marsala brand is still being sold, although it recently underwent a makeover from a tin to a bag-in-box. The bag-in-box protects the oil from oxidation even after opening (no headspace), has a lower carbon footprint and creates less waste. 

Daniel Sciabica recalls the company shift that started in the 1980s. In 1982 Sciabica’s installed the first continuous mill with a centrifugal decanter in California. “That was when we started to make single-varietal oils under the Sciabica’s brand, working with varieties like Mission, Manzanillo and Sevillano.” 

The Sciabica’s label now accounts for the majority of the company’s production. An important addition to the product line in recent years is their collection of “Fresh Flavored” oils. Made by co-milling olives with fresh citrus, herb or chilies, these oils are frequent medal winners for Sciabica’s. In 2015 they took home a Best of Show Flavored award with their jalapeño in the recently revived olive oil competition at the California State Fair. In 1961 the last Gold Medal for olive oil awarded at the fair before the competition went dormant for decades went to the Sciabicas for their Marsala brand—all part of a fine historical convergence! 

When fourth-generation Jonathan muses on the greatest challenge he faces on his watch, he identifies change on two fronts. “We need to help the consumer understand what extra-virgin olive oil really is, and we need to work with the supply chain to ensure that the product gets all the way to the consumer in good condition.” To improve what can best be thought of as “olive oil stewardship” in the supply chain, he speaks of educating distributors and retailers about how to protect olive oil from its arch enemies heat, air, light and time. 

For the consumer he speaks of an “olive oil fitting”—extra-virgin olive oil has a wide range of intensities and varietal flavors so you must find the one that’s right for you. As his grandfather Joe would say, with characteristic passion, “Though we’ve always used olive oil because it tastes good, olive oil is also amazingly healthy ... but it doesn’t work in your cupboard! You must find the olive oil you love, and use it everyday.” 

California’s Olive Oil Renaissance—McEvoy Ranch

Nan McEvoy, San Francisco legend and former chairwoman of Chronicle Publishing, was also driven to produce olive oil by passion rather than calculation. In 1991 when she bought the 550-acre property in Marin County that would become McEvoy Ranch, the county required that it remain a working ranch. Although it was grazing land when she bought it, cattle ranching did not appeal to her so she sought an alternative. Inspired by a love of Tuscan olive oil and Maggie Klein’s book Feast of the Olive, she made inquiries about the feasibility of planting olives in Marin County. Defying conventional wisdom from the local agricultural community, McEvoy imported 1,000 olive trees from Italy and started planting what would eventually be 80 acres of mostly Central Italian varieties. 

The ranch produced its first olive oil in 1995. A now-iconic style, the “California Tuscan Blend,” McEvoy Ranch extra-virgin olive oil is one of the best-known California brands in the country. Nan McEvoy passed away in spring of 2015 but her son Nion carries on the family legacy at the ranch. Although they have diversified over the past several years with a popular olive oil body care line called 80 Acres plus grape growing and wine production, olive oil remains the heart of the ranch. 

At McEvoy Ranch, the passion for olive oil combines with a profound environmental commitment. The olive orchards and mill are certified organic by CCOF. The health of the soil and sustainable practices are paramount at the ranch. The olive pomace and fruit water from the milling process are returned to the orchards through their on-site composting program. Sheep graze the orchards in the spring to control weeds and recycle nutrients. In 2009, the ranch installed a 225 kilowatt windmill that meets about half the electrical energy needs of the ranch and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 110 tons of CO2 each year. Thrifty in their use of water, the ranch irrigates with captured rainwater. And in 2014 they received their B Corp certification, meeting rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. 

The mill on the McEvoy Ranch operates under the keen eye of master miller Deborah Rogers. As a founding member, then managing partner and miller at The Olive Press for 14 years, Rogers won more awards than any other producer and helped to define modern California olive oil. Before that, she was a partner in creating the V.G. Buck brand. She trained as a member of the first California olive oil taste panel and has been active since early on in the industry, giving her a front row seat for the renaissance of olive oil in California. 

So how did that industry revival come about? Although the Sciabicas and a few others were motoring along from the earlier days, Deborah thinks the spark of the new era was the late Lila Jaeger. She revived an old olive grove found buried under blackberries and scrub oaks on a hillside at Rutherford Hill and started to make olive oil from the fruit. It was Jaeger, Nick Sciabica and a handful of other producers in the early days who founded the Northern California Olive Oil Council. They dropped the “Northern” from the name after a few years, but it still exists today. 

“It felt really cool—we were bringing something back from 100 years ago. In retrospect, yes we were naïve, we never thought about the economics of the big picture,” admits Rogers. “But there is something good about that: We were all passion-driven.” 

McEvoy, like Sciabica’s and Corto Olive, is a member of the new Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC), a mandatory organization under the CDFA comprising producers of more than 5,000 gallons of olive oil annually. The purview of the OOCC is limited to olive oil standards and research. Although the scope of the OOCC does not include small producers, Rogers sees an important role for it in the industry as it matures. “It’s an opportunity to unify the industry, really solidify our common interests as California producers of genuine extra-virgin olive oil.” 

She also sees connecting with consumers as key for the California industry. “I think the ‘aha!’ moment is when they taste a well-made fresh extra-virgin and a supermarket commodity ‘extra-virgin’ olive oil side by side,” she says. “People just need that opportunity; they get it.” 

The story arc of the California olive oil industry goes from the Table to Oil days of the first three-quarters of the 20th century to the Olive Oil Renaissance of the last quarter of that century. The next chapter belongs to the big boys: the super-high-density (SHD) plantings of the first part of the new millennium, when olives planted for oil passed table olives in acreage for the first time in over century. 

Super-High-Density Expansion—Corto Olive 

Corto Olive’s name comes from its founder, California agricultural icon Dino Cortopassi. Cortopassi made a name for himself in the production and canning of tomatoes near Stockton; his tomatoes are regarded as the gold standard by restaurateurs all over the United States. As the 21st century began, Cortopassi was looking for a new challenge. First and foremost a farmer, his interest was piqued by the new style of olive production coming out of Northern Spain. Known as super-high-density, it plants the trees on spacing and trellises that are reminiscent of a vineyard. Harvesting is done by over-the-row machines that look like grape harvesters. 

Cortopassi went on a fact-finding mission, and came out convinced that SHD had the potential to produce first-quality olive oil in a consistent and economically sustainable way. Beginning 12 years ago, Corto Olive planted trees and built a large mill in Lodi. 

The ability of mechanical harvesters to pick quickly means that the mill can get the fruit at its peak, but producing high-quality olive oil on a large scale takes much more than that. Walking around the mill at Corto with master miller David Garci-Aguirre can only be called a delightful olive oil nerd-fest. David is—there’s that word again—passionate about making the best olive oil possible. He is analytical, insightful and innovative, dissecting the milling process with gusto and pointing out the many modifications and adjustments he has already made in the enormous facility that can process 25 tons of olives per hour. And he shows no signs of stopping, discussing his high-tech experiments improving both processing and the logistical controls to keep the fruit deliveries steady, high-quality and manageable. “I have the best job,” he says with a huge grin. 

As president of Corto, Brady Whitlow has worked to develop not just the production side but also the marketing and sales. Corto focuses on food service—putting genuine California extra-virgin olive oil on restaurant tables—but sees a parallel in the enlightenment of consumers and chefs. “The UC Davis report [that found around 70% of the samples of big brand imported olive oil sold labeled as EVOO in California supermarkets were not really EV grade] was a turning point,” says Whitlow. “It focused attention on the state of olive oil quality in the U.S. market.” He stills sees this quality issue as a critical aspect of making the California industry economically sustainable in the long run, citing the unfairness of competing in a market “flooded with cheaters.” When asked about solutions that will support California’s olive oil farmers, he mentions the work of the OOCC. “It is giving California growers firm ground to stand on in their efforts to build a new industry, with a stronger standard for quality, built on solid science.” 

Brady is optimistic about the future of California olive oil. “If the cheaters can be held accountable, the big challenge for the California industry will be finding enough olives to meet demand!” He also has words of advice for restaurants in this era of growing consumer quality awareness. “Imagine serving a basket of stale tortilla chips to your customer. Wouldn’t you make a better impression with a basket of warm, fresh, delicious chips? Same thing with your olive oil; instead of a stale, rancid oil, give the diner a fresh, delicious extra-virgin olive oil to whet their appetite for your great food.”

Small Is Beautiful—Frantoio Grove

To many, the future of farming looks small and local. The locavore movement is strong, and the notion of respecting your “foodshed” makes a lot of sense at a time when carbon emissions and land stewardship are critical issues. 

Thirty miles south of the center of San Jose is a thriving 30-acre grove of olive trees and a small mill. Owned, grown, milled and sold by Jeff Martin and his wife, Pam, Frantoio Grove is a single-varietal Frantoio extra-virgin olive oil. First produced in 2010 from trees planted in 2005, Frantoio Grove has developed a devoted following with its food-friendly and versatile flavor profile. In 2015 they added wider acclaim by winning one of the top awards at the Los Angeles International Olive Oil Competition, Best of Show Domestic Robust. 

Jeff Martin came to olive oil farming from a career as a builder. The Santa Clara County land where the grove is located is zoned permanent agricultural open space. “What’s more permanent than olives?” he points out. At the time he was putting in the grove, the majority of new olive planting was SHD, and that is exactly why the Martins chose to plant something else. Eschewing the more common blend of Central Italian varieties, they planted only the Frantoio variety, with a small percentage of pollinizers. This decision gave them a good point of differentiation in the market: Consumers are starting to learn about olive varieties and there is a lot of interest in single-varietal oils. The grove is in its third year of transition to certified organic status. A nice connection: The trees at Frantoio Grove were propagated from the stock imported by Nan McEvoy back in 1991. 

This weaving of the threads of the industry leads to something that Jeff and Pam both mentioned. They shared how impressed they were with the support and openness of other growers and people in the industry like Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers in Sacramento. Pam also volunteers how rewarding it is to make good olive oil that people enjoy. “It’s a lot of work,” says Jeff, “but that’s not a bad thing.” This year that workload has been even bigger than usual because Jeff is building a new mill and office right at the grove. When it’s finished, the fruit will be able to go from tree to mill in minutes, and as a bonus for his efforts, Jeff’s office window will look out over the grove to the hills in the distance. 

Frantoio Grove faces a market challenge because of its size. They are too small for a distributor to make sense so they sell direct to select retailers. They also do direct sales to consumers through their website, a market strategy that is crucial for small producers with high production costs, and do some private label as well. Pam’s advice to consumers is a common refrain among quality olive oil producers around the globe: “Stop shopping on price!” She advises people to buy a more expensive bottle of genuine extra-virgin olive oil and taste it next to what they are using now. She also wants to see the supply chain step up its game. “If you are a grocery buyer, smell and taste the olive oils you’re buying,” she urges. “Don’t just look at the pretty bottle.” 

The diversity of the California industry is encouraging; this is clearly not a “one size fits all” industry. These are very different companies yet these producers all share a passion for that aromatic golden and green elixir. Bringing creativity and dedication to bear on the challenges, they are building an industry that will, with the support of conscious eaters across the country, endure to the benefit of us all. 

Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne is an international olive oil consultant and educator based in Sonoma County. She is the author of Olive Oil: A Field Guide from AOCS Press.

Photo 1: Jeff and Pam Martin of Frantoio Grove.
Photo 2: Jessica Cortopassi with master miller David Garci-Aguirre.
Photo 3: Nan McEvoy
Photo 4: Nion McEvoy
Photo 5: Three generations of the Sciabica family.
Article from Edible Silicon Valley at http://ediblesiliconvalley.ediblecommunities.com/eat/california-olive-oil-evolution-industry
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