The art of winemaking, along with olive oil production, was once thought best left to the Old World. That was until a few Californians took a gamble and started planting vineyards and olive groves with exceptional results that astonished both authoritative palates and the growers themselves.
For wine, the tide started to turn after the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, when California wines bested French wines in each category—in a blind competition with French judges, no less.
For olive oil, it wasn’t until the 1990s that a few pioneering landowners started importing large numbers of olive trees, along with equipment and experts, from Italy. The fruits of their labor rivaled Europe’s top labels in taste and quality, and now California’s artisan olive oil industry has taken off even faster than its wine industry did.
The demand for quality, traceable extra virgin olive oil is increasing as more Americans integrate it into their diets. Sales of U.S.-made olive oil, 99 percent of which is produced in California, has risen from less than one percent of the domestic marketplace up to six percent in the past five years alone.
Back in 1990, Nan McEvoy, a San Francisco philanthropist and heiress from the de Young family—founders of the San Francisco Chronicle and the de Young Museum—bought a 550-acre ranch in the rolling hills of Petaluma as a retreat for her grandchildren. When she was forced to retire shortly after the purchase, she turned her energy to the ranch. Never one to follow norms, she decided to plant olive trees instead of vineyards. Since she regularly traveled to Italy and adored Tuscan olive oil, she proceeded to research the best Italian olive varieties for her location and import seedlings from Tuscany, along with Italy’s top agricultural specialist, Dr. Maurizio Castelli.
Today, McEvoy is credited with pioneering the state’s olive oil industry. McEvoy Ranch is by far its largest producer of organic estate extra virgin olive oil, cultivating 18,000 trees over 80 acres and milling, blending and bottling on-site.
The ranch takes reservations for olive oil tastings—complemented by bites from its garden—that visitors relish inside the tasting room in view of the mill, outside at shaded picnic tables or on a walk around the sprawling property. The latter option explores olive groves, vineyards, lavender fields, ponds, palm trees, a lush flower and vegetable garden and chic entertaining areas where McEvoy hosted friends such as Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.
Long before McEvoy imported her trees, Frank Figone’s great-grandfather Egildo Franceschi packed along an olive tree sapling when he emigrated from Lucca, Italy, to California. Years later when Franceschi’s granddaughter inherited his asparagus farm, she planted a grove of Mission and Manzanillo trees in his memory and started selling the extra olives.
But it wasn’t until Figone, who grew up working summers at the family olive mill in Lucca, purchased a hydraulic press and started making olive oil in his great-grandfather’s shed in 1991 that the family’s extra virgin olive oil business took off. Since then, Figone’s of California Olive Oil Company has grown thousands of trees, developed innovative practices such as diversified farming and opened a busy custom crush facility in Sonoma where local growers drop off fruit. The company runs a tasting room and shop right on Sonoma Square, and Figone himself leads tours of his olive mill by appointment.
Up north in Napa Valley, the MacDonnell family bought what would become Round Pond Estate to make wine in the early 1980s. They started making olive oil as a hobby about a decade later, from olive trees that were over 100 years old. By 1998, olive oil evolved into a full-fledged business. The family imported Mediterranean olive trees and eventually set up their own state-of-the-art mill right next to the olive groves, where they use both a traditional, two-ton granite mill and a modern hammer mill to press olives within hours of harvest. The oil is blended in exceptionally small lots and bottled on demand.
Round Pond Estate plays host to daily olive oil tastings at its pristine boutique crushing facility in Rutherford. The mill is located up an olive tree-lined driveway that’s located directly across the road from the palm-tree-flanked winery and tasting room. The 90-minute experience starts by the olive orchard with an introduction to olive farming and proceeds to the mill for an explanation of the production process. It culminates with a seated tasting of the award-winning Italian and Spanish-style organic olive oils, in addition to the estate’s red wine vinegars, paired with bites delicately assembled by the estate chef.
Now visitors have more opportunities than ever to taste Northern California Wine Country’s second harvest, which follows the grape harvest from October to early December.
“The most exciting and tastiest time to visit is harvest season,” said Lisa Pollack of the California Olive Oil Council. “You can see the full production process and often even walk from the harvest site to the press to the tasting and try the oil right away. The fresher it is, the better.”
As with wine, many people prefer to sip and enjoy olive oil casually, but there is a preferred technique to appreciating olive oil’s tasting notes. It’s generally advised to cover the glass with one hand while simultaneously swirling it with the other for a moment before sniffing and slurping the oil. Experts recommend allowing the oil to coat your mouth and exhaling through your nose before swallowing and enjoying the subsequent (not unpleasant) burning sensation in your throat. Common descriptors include fruity, nutty, buttery, herbaceous, peppery and grassy.
“There’s more to olive oil than people realize. You’ll find a huge range of styles and flavor profiles,” Pollack said. “Tastings are an opportunity to tangibly appreciate the flavor nuances that come about with different production methods and olive varieties.”