On the Cusp of Greatness?


California’s Intensive Olive Oil Industry
By Tim Kingston

If ever there was a market sector ready to take off, California olive oil is it, and Dino Cortopassi, founder of Stockton’s family-owned Corto Olive Oil, is doing all he can to give wings to his product. Cortopassi looks every inch the canny farmer and family patriarch. Under a battered baseball cap that shades a deeply lined, farm-tanned face are eyes that twinkle and glitter with the intelligence of a raven.  His frame displays a familiarity with the best of Italian home cooking.

Cortopassi possesses the energy of a man far younger than his 72 years. A farmer/businessman in his prime, he is ever ready to work the next angle. The Cortopassi family’s three farms make up a mosaic of roughly 7,000 acres in the Central Valley, and their patriarch has a long history of innovation and marketing acumen: Dino started Stanislaus Food Products, known for “fresh-packed” canned tomatoes popular with pizzerias nationwide, as well as Muir Glen Organic Tomatoes, which pioneered large-scale organic farming. Cortopassi also built up the world’s largest kidney bean production facility and is using intensive apple orchard farming techniques recently imported from Australia.

“Dino is an entrepreneur, a business-minded creative thinker,” explains Brady Whitlow, president of Corto Olive Oil. Whitlow is a self described IBM (Italian By Marriage) with a background in food product marketing who Cortopassi dragooned into the family olive oil enterprise. “Business is his hobby; it is more than a hobby, it is his life,” says Whitlow, adding, “Dino is always looking for an edge.”

Whitlow and Cortopassi are convinced the next “edge” is California olive oil. If current trends continue, the state will produce over 1 million gallons of extra-virgin olive oil this year, but that is barely a blip in terms of production worldwide, and does not begin to meet domestic demand. The United States is the third largest olive oil market in the world, after Italy and Spain, and is projected to consume 268,000 metric tons this year, according to the International Olive Council and the North American Olive Oil Association. But 99 to 99.5 percent of that oil is imported. Only 0.5 to 1

percent is produced in the United States, most of it coming from California. The potential market for California olive oil is huge, given that Americans are spending an estimated $700 million annually on it in supermarkets.

(That’s not counting Wal-Mart, Costco, and Sam’s Club sales.)

With an eye toward capturing that market, both men became vigorous proponents of olive oil production via the Super High Density (SHD) method, a newly introduced approach developed in Spain that involves densely spaced planting and mechanized olive harvesting. Advocates argue SHD production has the advantages of quality, high yield, low labor cost, and reduced transportation expenses to the U.S. market that make it a viable competitor against the cheap bulk imported and domestic olive oils—many of uncertain provenance—now available in supermarkets. Right now there are about 17,000 acres of SHD olives in the state, and that figure could easily double or triple. Whitlow says, “I see this becoming a crop for California in the future—a profitable, viable alternative to wine grapes and walnuts.”

But not all Californians are as enamored of SHD farming as Corto Olive or California Olive Ranch (COR), the state’s largest olive oil producer. One should take a step back to see why: California’s nascent olive oil sector is similar to its wine industry, bifurcated between a bulk and a high-end artisanal market—with all the backbiting and venom that entails.

Small artisanal producers worry that large-scale production will dilute the market for high-quality oil. They also assert that SHD production limits the flavor profiles available and does not produce the award-winning quality oils California needs in order to be a player on the world stage. Large-scale producers counter this argument with the assertion that everyone benefits if the entire market is expanded with good-quality extra-virgin olive oil. Such expansion will result in more consumers developing a taste for it, and some of these consumers, the big producers explain, will then move on to the highend, smaller-batch “boutique” products.

Gregory Kelly, the president and CEO of COR, expounds on the economies of scale SHD offers: “Our governing mission is to make high-quality olive oil available to everyone. We don’t have to sell it for twenty or thirty dollars a bottle . . . Education is a critical part of our strategy.” Kelly compares the education of consumers to the process that occurred with high-quality cheese, chocolate, coffee, and wine, explaining, “This will open up the market for us.”

And in a bigger market everyone has room to play.

An Alternate Path?

The most realistic alternative to SHD farming is not the traditional stereotype of rustic peasants shaking olive trees then quaffing red wine with their bread and cheese. Or even the actuality of poorly paid immigrant farm laborers sweating in the sun for paltry returns. It is, rather, High Density/Intensive farming, another technique imported from Europe.

Traditional olive farms have 40 to 100 trees per acre, with irrigation supporting the higher numbers. High-Density/Intensive (HD/I) farms have 125 to 250 small trees per acre, while SHD farms cram in 600 to 800 “trees” (large shrubs, essentially) in line-straight hedgerows.  These shrubs yield their fruits up to modified over-the-row grape harvesters, which look the way carwash machines would if cars were really skinny and seven or eight feet tall.

The Bozzano Olive Ranch in Stockton has about 268 trees per acre and is a fine example of a small-scale HD/I farm. The olives are harvested both by hand and by machine. Where Corto mills oil from roughly 3,000 acres of olives (half of them family owned), the Bozzanos grow 45 acres for their mill and also mill olives from several other local farmers. Corto, according to Whitlow, now produces “several hundred thousand gallons” of extra-virgin olive oil. Bozzano’s total this year was more like 800 gallons. It should also be noted that Bozzano produces organic oil.

Corto’s olives are grown conventionally—that is, with chemicals and pesticides. (Even so, olives require far fewer chemical inputs than most California crops.) Whitlow says Corto Olive considered going organic and may yet do so. “[But] we are trying to introduce consumers to a new product. If we went organic it would be pushing two large rocks up a hill.”

For Jack Bozzano, an avuncular farmer in his 60s with sun-darkened features and a ready smile, the decision to go organic was easy. “We are a family business and the majority of the family believe in the organic movement for health reasons. The other reason was for marketing purposes.  We are trying to stay ahead of the trend and be proactive.” Given their small size, they had to shoot for niche, not scale. Thus Bozzano stayed high-end artisanal, selling extra-virgin olive oil for $24 a half liter while Corto charges $8 for the same amount. “We could never spar with the big boys, why follow them?” says Bozzano.

Taste was another factor. Bozzano adopted HD/I instead of SHD because they can grow many more varieties of olives for a greater variety of flavor profiles and blends. SHD growers must rely on cloned versions of three olive varieties: the Greek Koroneiki, the Spanish Arbequina, and the Spanish Arbosana. Even so Bozzano sometimes buys oil from Corto to blend when his supplies are short.

Everything about Bozzano‘s operation is a miniaturized version of Corto’s. Instead of a huge milling plant with rows of 40-foot-high stainless-steel storage tanks holding 30,000 gallons of oil each, there are a few 7-foot, 500-gallon tanks in a medium-sized, temperaturecontrolled warehouse. Instead of a rattling just-in-time bottling plant there is only one four-spigot pump. “Corto is banking on the U.S. market,” says Bozzano. “If they gain a couple of percent [in market share] they will be sold out every year. If you can’t beat someone, why get in the same game with them? We are trying the other way.”

Why Olive Oil? Why California?

California and olives are made for each other. “You can go anywhere and find olive trees around old barns and homesteads that have had little or no attention paid to them; and they look great,” says John Slaughter of Oakdale’s Burchell Nursery, speaking from his Fresno office.  “The climate in the Central Valley is a pure Mediterranean climate, more so than in the Mediterranean in that we have less summer rain events and lower humidity than Spain typically does.”

The olive trees’ tolerance of dry heat means fewer pests, and the trees can thrive in marginal soils where little else will grow. They require substantially less water than other Central Valley crops: Almonds need 40 inches a year, while olives require half that. Slaughter says, “Almonds do love this climate, grapes love this area, but olives are even more adapted to these wet winters and hot, dry summers.”

Olives were probably introduced to the Americas from Seville in the early 1500s by Spanish colonialists, notes Fran Gage in her 2009 book, The New American Olive Oil. Their first ports of call were Cuba and Hispaniola. The first trees in California were planted not long after Junipero Serra arrived here in 1769. The first pressing took place in 1803 and was probably used for both lighting and food.

California’s olive industry waxed and waned with the economy. The gold rush brought Italian immigrants who took up olive farming when prospecting did not pan out. They produced olive oil for the local market, but by the late 19th century, Italy, Spain, and France began exporting cheap—sometimes adulterated—olive oil to California, hammering the local producers. The 20th century introduced cottonseed cooking oil and Mazola corn oil. This killed California olive oil.  Farmers were forced to develop a new market for their fruit, and with the assistance of the University of California’s College of Agriculture at the turn of the century, they started canning the now-familiar black olive.

It was not until Americans got interested in ‘healthy’ food in the late 1970s that interest in olive oil perked up. The development of organic and local food, the reintroduction of Americans to the Mediterranean diet, and the emergence of yuppies (and their related and equally irritating subspecies “Hipsters” and “Foodie Sapiens”) all helped create a grand new market, and a growth rate in olive oil sales of about 10 percent a year. But the proceeds have gone almost exclusively to Italian, Spanish, and French exporters.

What are the health benefits of olive oil? At the 2010 California Olive Oil Council meeting in February, Registered Dietitian Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, made a careful presentation covering the myriad claims one hears bandied about. Citations at hand, she reported that extra-virgin olive oil reduces arterial inflammation and blood pressure while increasing HDL, the ‘good’ cholesterol, and decreasing LDL, the ‘bad’ cholesterol. Extra-virgin olive oil contains plant omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and has a larger proportion of monounsaturated fats compared with the less healthful saturated fats. It is sodium free and high in vitamin K. According to a 2005 study reported in the journal Nature, extra-virgin olive oil has also shown effect as a natural antiinflammatory compound, acting in a similar fashion to ibuprofen.

Benefits aside, Miller warned producers of extra-virgin olive oil against making excessive claims, “unless you have good lawyers and don’t mind being bothered by the FDA or FTC.” Unproven claims include assertions related to antioxidants and health; claims about “treating” or “preventing” illnesses; and untruthful and “misleading” claims.  She offered as an example a tongue-in-cheek claim that extra-virgin olive oil makes one “smarter and more beautiful than people who consume other oils.”

The Catalans Are Coming!

The Catalans Are Coming!

It is generally understood that price is key to capturing the growing American demand for olive oil, and so it is no surprise that Spanish producers would try to hold on to that edge. A Spanish business conglomerate, Agromillora, based in Catalonia, took a strategic view and started trying to rationalize and mechanize production. They had three goals: increased yield; shorter time to first harvest; and reduced labor costs. (Prior to SHD production, anywhere between 40 and 60 percent of olive oil production costs were labor related.)

Agromillora’s fourth goal is to become a worldwide player. They have achieved this by setting up SHD nurseries in Spain, Australia, Chile, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and, of course, California. Agromillora set up their first SHD nursery in Oregon in 1997 and opened NursTech, Inc., in Gridley, California, in 2000. UC Davis, the University of California Cooperative Extension program (UCCE), and NursTech have been instrumental in bringing SHD to the state.

California Olive Ranch is the first and largest olive business in the state to adopt SHD practices and is NursTech’s largest customer. This has led to a certain amount of suspicion and grumbling among other California growers, particularly since one of COR’s boardmembers is an Agromillora employee. COR president Kelly sighed when presented with queries about Agromillora having a stake in his company: “We have seen these questions many times before. I can understand where the concern comes from, but there is no ownership by Agromillora.”

He was more blunt in an email. “Any press reports or correspondence indicating the ownership of COR by Agromillora are FACTUALLY FALSE.” COR, wrote Kelly, is owned by a group of “private, independent financial investors” who have no other interests in the olive sector. He explained the Agromillora employee was invited to join the board “to provide COR with a strategic advantage in understanding how best to utilize the SHD system of growing olives.”

Using olive trees obtained from IRTA, an agricultural research institute operated by the Catalonian government, Agromillora selected plants with less vigor and high precocity, which translates into lay speak as slow-growing trees that respond to overcrowding by fruiting significantly earlier, because their energy goes to fruit rather than growth.  These trees were then relentlessly selected and reselected (cloned) using Arbequina, Arbosana, and Koroneiki cuttings. The end result is ‘trees’ that can be grown in dense hedgerows that can be mechanically harvested.

SHD hedgerows produce their first olives at three years and hit peak productivity at five, versus HD/I’s waits of five years for first crop and eight years to reach maturity, similar to traditional methods. Of course, there is a price: SHD ramp-up costs are high, from $4,300 to $6,000 per acre, compared with $3,000 per acre for HD/I olive farming.  “There is a rapid return on investment,” says Paul Vossen, UCCE Sonoma County. “The disadvantage is that it costs two to three times as much to install. The intensive system is cheaper, but you have to wait.” Both methods yield four to five tons of olives an acre.

There is also a question about SHD longevity and productivity. Chris Little, general manager of NursTech, says that with good management “you should be able to keep a healthy, producing orchard in excess of 20 years.”

IRTA data suggest, however, that SHD trees need rejuvenation or replanting after 15 years, while HD/I plantings could remain productive for up to 30 years, making it a more sustainable method. Other commentators, citing sharp politics in the industry for their desire to be off the record, say that they find the short life span “very strange” in a crop where individual trees can produce fruit for 100 to 1,000 years. “I view it as the wrong model,” grumbles Mike Bradley, president of Veronica Foods Co., a respected olive oil purveyor and critic. “The trees are too close together and you have to fertilize the crap out of this.”

Such doubts have no impact on Corto. About seven years ago, Cortopassi, who at the time was growing olives only for his family’s consumption, noticed the increasing domestic interest in olive oil, and got wind of what COR and the Catalans were up to. “In Andalusia dry-land farming, they get one ton per acre. With the one million acres that are irrigated they get three tons per acre. With super high density, the yield goes up to five tons per acre,” says Cortopassi, explaining his “ah ha!” moment.

The Corto Oil Mill was built under Whitlow’s direction in 2006, and shortly thereafter milled its first 100 tons of olives. According to Fran Gage, Corto’s first run produced 3,000 gallons of oil. Output for 2008, she writes, was projected at 40,000 gallons, and an eventual goal of 600,000 gallons was set. Corto is now in a perfect position to launch an assault on the domestic market.

An Innovative Advertising Strategy: Honesty

There is, however, more to expanding California’s olive oil sector than just increasing production. The key is marketing. Cortopassi’s marketing strategy for California olive oil and Corto is unusual, and was pioneered in his tomato-canning days: truth in advertising and labeling.  Cortopassi successfully created a homespun family brand that extolled the virtues of fresh-packed vs. the reconstituted canned tomatoes of his East Coast competitors. With olive oil, what he sees (and what is also being widely reported) is widespread adulteration and mislabeling of olive oil by both importers and domestic competitors.

“For California to succeed we have to expose the cheaters,” says Cortopassi, because “in supermarkets, bad product drives out good product.” Cheap and shoddy offerings drive expensive high-quality alternatives off the shelves. For a product to succeed, consumers have to be given a reason to spend more. If they can be convinced they are being swindled with counterfeit adulterated oil and that California/ Corto Olive Oil is the genuine article, a brilliant marketing strategy is unleashed.

“We had been getting reports from trained olive oil tasters for years that when they taste oil off the shelf, something in the range of seventy percent of the time it does not meet the extra-virgin sensory standards,” says Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. A July 2010 report from the center concluded that some “69 percent of imported olive oil samples and 10 percent of California olive oil samples labeled as extra-virgin olive oil failed to meet the IOC/ USDA [International Olive Council/U.S. Dept. of Agriculture] sensory . . . standards for extra-virgin olive oil.”

Conveniently enough, many of the brands failing the test happen to be some of Corto’s primary competitors. The study has already been cited in a lawsuit, filed this August in Orange County, alleging deliberate misrepresentation by importers, retailers, and manufacturers.  Among the defendants in what attorney Daniel Callahan describes as a “systematic scam,” are Rachael Ray Digital (yes, that Rachael Ray), Safeway Select, Associated British Foods, Bariani Olive Oil, Pompeian, and Unilever United States.

Not surprisingly, the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), the primary trade group representing large-scale import ers, takes a dim view of both study and lawsuit, and vehemently disputes the idea there is widespread fraud. Bob Bauer, NAOOA’s president, says that only 1 percent of olive oil coming into the country is problematic, making it a serious “but not widespread” issue.

Bauer goes on the attack and says there are numerous problems with the UCD study. “It is based on unproven and rejected test methods and small sample size.” He also says the study is open to charges of selfdealing: “The study was done by the UCD olive oil center, UC Davis says its mission is to promote and grow California Olive Oil, so they conduct a study funded by California producers and they pick and choose about following international guidelines and turn the numbers around to make it look like there is an issue when there is not.”

While such criticism can be expected from its targets, it is noteworthy that big importers are not the only critics. Mike Bradley of Veronica Foods, no friend of NAOOA, can best be described as irate about both the study and the prevalence of adulterated olive oil. He takes issue with three elements of the study: funding, methodology, and accuracy.

Regarding the funding, “You don’t take money to fund a report from the people you are studying. You just don’t do that,” Bradley in sists. As for methodology, he says that the study was poorly constructed, because it placed artisanal quality California olive oil against bulk imported oil: “It’s like comparing Gallo jug generic wine . . . to estate wine.” Finally, he charges that the UCD study misread the raw data and drew inaccurate conclusions as a result. “California had an opportunity to strike a blow for all good producers, instead they chose to be jingoistic, chauvinistic, and provincial.”

“It is just one study,” responded Dan Flynn. “The point of the study was not to compare quality. It was simply to assess if the oil met the extra-virgin standard.” He argues the study is “on solid ground” looking at high-volume production and brands that have been around a long time, “using IOC criteria and tests proven effective in Germany and Australia, what we were simply testing is what it says on the label of the bottle.”

Flynn added, “We are interested in working with NAOOA and IOC on assessing olive oil quality in the United States.”

False Flags

Despite the criticism, the UCD study is not the only source suggesting that there are significant incidences of adulteration and mislabeling of imported olive oil. Alexandra Devarenne, a Sonoma County–based olive oil consultant and educator, says the UCD study “brought the issue of quality to the fore. As an olive oil taster—I have been saying this for years—if I go into a supermarket and taste every bottle of extravirgin I will be lucky if ten percent are extra-virgin.”

Devarenne is glad the UCD Olive Center confirmed her suspicions, but she is concerned people are misinterpreting the study. She says it is an us vs. them situation, but people are getting the ‘us’ and ‘them’ wrong. ‘Us’ is not all domestic products vs. a ‘them’ of all imports. The contest is between quality olive oil from anywhere vs. “an industrial repackaging industry” that sources from anywhere and repackages oil purely for “expedient and financial reasons.” Industrial producers have “no real regard for quality, and attempt to meet the minimum standards just to come in under the wire.”

It is an open secret that a lot of fake and adulterated oils are being sold in the United States as extra-virgin. Some so-called Italian extravirgin olive oils are neither Italian nor virginal. Ersatz oil can come from anywhere around the Mediterranean, and can be anything from low-quality olive oil to olive oil deemed unfit for human consumption.  It can contain sunflower, soy, hazelnut, or other oils that have been treated or blended to look and taste like real olive oil.

“The new method is soft column deodorizing. They have plants in Spain and Italy,” says Whitlow. “They take the oil that is off-flavor, heat the oil to get rid of the off flavor as well as much of the beneficial qualities of the oil.” A small amount of genuine oil is added. Whitlow says, “It does not take much extra-virgin to infuse a huge slug of oil.”

The process is not dissimilar to catalytic cracking in oil refineries, which uses heat to separate crude oil into kerosene, gasoline, and bunker oil. “The refining process renders the oil completely flavorless,” asserts author Fran Gage. “It becomes a manufactured product, bearing no resemblance to the fruit that produced it.”

A 2007 article in the New Yorker entitled “Slippery Business” detailed nefarious and corrupt activities among the highest levels of the Italian olive oil industry. One expert quoted said, “Fraud is so widespread that few growers can make an honest living.” Demand is greater than Italian growers can provide, hence international olive oil manufacturers will use whatever olive sources they can find and call it Italian olive oil for the American market.

In 2008, Cook’s Illustrated detailed inferior olive oils sold as extravirgin olive oil. The subhead made the point succinctly: “You get what you pay for with most supermarket extra-virgin olive oils: bland, bottom of the barrel.” This is possible—the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act notwithstanding—because up until October 2010 the United States had no real standards governing olive oil labeling. Even now that the USDA has adopted standards close to those of the International Olive Council, they remain voluntary, not mandatory. As one cynical observer put it, the FDA and the federal government are not going to get involved until someone dies from adulterated olive oil.

The new USDA/IOC ratings are insufficient, asserts Bradley. “These standards are set to allow marginal product into the marketplace.” In a recent email Bradley called the IOC standards “inadequate, self serving [and] deceptive.” He charges that the IOC/USDA markers used to test olive oil “that can be objectively tested are so absurdly low that oils that are clearly and obviously defective routinely pass the chemical test as extra-virgin.”

Environmental and Human Consequences and Implications

Other elements need to be taken into account before a judgment can be made about California’s newest cash crop. What is the impact on the environment? What is the carbon footprint? How will this affect farmworkers both in terms of employment and health? Finally, is the SHD-HD/I debate an either/or proposition or just two sides of a single coin?

One thing is certain, olive oil makes “a great organic crop,” says UCCE’s Vossen. “[The trees] don’t have very many diseases. The pests we do have can be controlled with organic methods. The main difficulty would be weed control.” NursTech’s Chris Little agrees, saying both SHD and HD/I can be accomplished organically, so long as soilmanagement practices are well thought out.

Precious little research has been done on the impact of SHD or HD/I on labor. Interviews and other research indicate reducing labor costs is a primary motivator in adopting intensive olive farming.  “Twenty workers will take a day to harvest one acre: three tons,” notes Whitlow. “In a twelve-hour day with machines, I can harvest 240 tons versus three tons. We couldn’t do this if we did not have mechanical harvesting and we wouldn’t have a new industry.”

Does this mean the new industry will shed farmworkers? Edible East Bay tried contacting the UFW to no avail. California Rural Legal Assistance has not followed the issue. “Olives are such a small part of California agriculture,” says Prof. Philip Martin of the UC Davis department of Agriculture & Resource Economics, adding, “I cannot imagine olives having much of an impact.” But no one really knows.

SHD requires fewer employees for harvesting, but more for pruning. HD/I uses more employees for harvesting, but fewer for pruning.  Olive trees thrive in soil where few other crops can grow, so if that acreage can be devoted to olives groves, there could be a need for more workers. But Vossen suspects ultimately the impact will be “a wash.” Asked about unionization Whitlow responded, “I don’t think so, we are too small at this stage.”

The environmental impact is equally uncertain. It too may be a wash in terms of pesticide and water use when compared with crops like corn and alfalfa that olives could replace. Drip-feed irrigation for olives uses less water than almonds and other high-value crops, but if olives wind up being farmed where nothing had been farmed before, water use might go up. If olives replace grapes it would be a wash in terms of water consumption, says Cortopassi, because the two crops have the same water intensity.

Almost everyone contacted indicated that even conventional SHD farming uses comparatively few chemical inputs. When asked, Whitlow says, “We really don’t use that much fertilizer; a little bit of nitrogen, standard fertilizers, potassium, basic inputs; we spray copper right after the harvest.” Again the question is: Does this increase the overall use of chemicals or not? It all depends on what level of crop substitution occurs and what additional inputs are needed.

Roundup (a glyphosate-based herbicide) is used to suppress weed growth, and again its impact is relative, says Michael Dimock of Roots of Change, a progressive group working on food sustainability issues.  “It is relatively benign compared to pre-emergent herbicides such as 2,4-D that are longer-lasting with more collateral damage.” Indeed, Dimock says agriculture is moving toward using Roundup because it is less dangerous than other products. “I know growers who are moving in the organic direction who will use it.”

At the same time studies have shown that Roundup is toxic to human placental cells and increases the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and even increases the chances of inter-sex frogs. Another input used in olive ranching is copper, a metal that affects amphibians and fish. If unchelated copper—a toxic soluble form of the metal—gets into water, it attacks the gills of fish and frogs, suffocating them. That potential risk is related to both weather and the amount used. A sudden downpour can wash soluble copper into the watershed, says Alex Horne, a professor of ecological engineering at UC Berkeley.  Finally there is the issue of carbon footprints. On this point California olive oil wins hands down. “I am always aware of the origin of my food,” says Devarenne. “I prefer to get food that has less mileage on it. That is a huge advantage to California olive oil.”

The California olive oil industry is tiny, but has big dreams. Of the state’s 9 million acres under crops, only 50,000 are used for growing olives.  Olive oil production accounts for 23,000 of those acres, most of it (17,000 acres) using SHD methods. The California almond industry started small too, but is now the largest in the world.

“My first job is to prove to growers we can make a good return,” says Whitlow. “We are trying to create a new industry and are going up against this huge industry with money and clout and all we have is the truth and honesty on our side.” Whitlow promptly laughs at his own hyperbole, saying melodramatically, “I’m going to cry.” But he does have a point.

“The dawn of a new industry is here. California has grown olives for over 100 years,” says Slaughter. He compares the quality and production capability of California olive oil operations to those of the early days of California wines, saying, “This is something like the breakthrough of Mondavi and the other Napa Valley wines onto the world scene for quality years ago . . . Olives can just flat out rock, and their time has come, there is no question in my mind.” 1

Tim Kingston is a veteran journalist who likes playing in the kitchen, playing with firearms, and playing with his food and friends. He now reads all olive oil labeling with care and deep suspicion, particularly when it religiously claims extra-virginity. The more he learns about food systems the more he needs to learn. Comments, criticisms, and rants can be addressed to timwhitsedkingston@gmail.com.

To hear Tim Kinsgton talking about all he learned while writing this article, visit the website for Talk Shoe https://www.talkshoe.com/talkshoe/web/talkCast.jsp?masterId=29493&cmd=tc and scroll down to the November 14, 2010 entry, show #103.

More Info :

Corto Olive Oil: www.corto-olive.com

Bozzano Olive Ranch: www.bozzanoranch.com

California Olive Oil Council: www.cooc.com

California Olive Ranch: www.californiaoliveranch.com

Veronica Foods: www.evoliveoil.com

North American Olive Oil Association: naooa.mytradeassociation.org UC Davis Olive Center: www.olivecenter.ucdavis.edu New Yorker “Slippery Business” article:


NursTech, Inc.: www.nurstech.com

“Understanding the USDA Olive Oil Standards” by Alexandra Devarenne and Paul Vossen: www.cesonoma.ucdavis.edu/files/48283.pdf

University of California  Cooperative Extension of Sonoma County: www.cesonoma.ucdavis.edu/SpecialtyCrops/OLIVES/

What is EVOO? (Part I)

The primary criterion in grading an olive oil is free acidity, which is determined by measuring the oleic acid content. To qualify as extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), a 100-gram sample must contain no more than 0.8 grams of free acidity. The other edible grades of olive oil on the market are virgin, which can have free acidity up to 2 grams per 100, and ordinary, with no more than 3.3 grams of free acidity per 100 grams. Do not even think of eating lampante (literally lamp) oil, which is not designated for human consumption, or olive pomace oil, which is destined for industrial use and refinery blending. —TK

What is EVOO? (Part II)

Laboratory tests can determine the chemical makeup of an olive oil, and also detect if it’s been doctored for taste. But to be certified as EVOO, an olive oil must also pass through sensory evaluation by a tasting panel. Panel members look for the positive attributes of fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency, and a long list of negative attributes that point, to such things as oxidation and anaerobic fermentation caused by faults in production and storage.

To become a member of an olive oil tasting panel, applicants first attend lengthy seminars where they are schooled on the principles of sensory assessment. After that, they go through a series of arrangement tests to discern whether they have an innate ability to make very fine distinctions in olfactory characteristics.

At that point, the applicant who passes would be invited to become an apprentice taster and may spend several years in training before becoming a full taste-panel member. —CK

EVOO reading and eating

In the past decade, as extra-virgin olive oil has grown in importance both as an agricultural product in California and as a component of regional cuisine, quite a few local authors have written cookbooks with olive oil as a singular focus.

All of these books have their merits, but there is one that bears the distinction of being penned by a former pastry chef who sits on two of the testing panels that evaluate the state’s extravirgin olive oils for certification.

That author is Fran Gage, one of the many experts Tim Kingston interviewed for his article. In the introductory material to her book, The New American Olive Oil: Profiles of 

Artisan Producers and 75 Recipes (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2009), Fran gives background on olive oil history and production, as well as explanations about the classification and labeling that can help consumers understand what distinguishes good product from bad. Her advice on how to read labels and what to do with your “good” olive oil once you get it home are essential reading for anyone who wants to gain both the health benefits and enjoyment of extra-virgin olive oil. Her 75 recipes (one of which is reproduced below) reflect the traditional cuisines of the Mediterranean, where olive oil has been an important part of the human diet for thousands of years. —CK


Aïoli is mayonnaise made with fresh garlic. It is traditionally served with Provençal fish stews but is equally good on potatoes—especially French fries—and grilled vegetables.

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

2 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature

1 tablespoon lemon juice, more to taste

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon cool water

Put the garlic, egg yolks, lemon juice, salt, and 4 grindings of pepper in a small bowl of a food processor.

With the machine running, drizzle the extra-virgin olive oil through the feed tube, starting with a few drops at a time and gradually increasing to a thin stream. Make sure all the oil is emulsified, not floating on top, before adding more. The sound will change to a splat as the mayonnaise thickens. After adding about a third of the oil, stop the processor and scrape down the sides to make sure that the garlic is being incorporated. Add the remaining oil, then the water. Stop the machine and taste for acidity and salt, adding more if necessary.  If you are not using the aioli immediately, transfer it to a small covered container. It will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator.

Yield: about 1. cups

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