Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

Sonoma’s Olive Press

At the Slow Food Nation event held in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend I visited the olive oil pavilion. It olive-press-2awas sponsored by the COOC (California Olive Oil Council). Professional tasters stood behind a long tasting table cluttered with oils ranging from pale to golden to deep moss green. They poured a teaspoon of oil into small paper cups for those interested in learning what it takes to be a pro taster.

Olives farmed for oil is the fastest growing crop in California. There are roughly 200 producers in the state and 175 are certified by the COOC. The Slow Food tasting table rotated samples from 130 of those producers and packagers.

I tasted oils from olive varieties that originated in Greece, Spain, Italy and France. In one flight of oils we tasted 4 different California producers growing the Spanish Arbequina olive. “This olive type is grown all over the state in tiny blocks of just a few acres to large holdings” explained our professional taster. “See how different the aromas and flavors are. The differences come from many factors such as the timing and technique of harvesting. Let’s start with a mild, grassy style that I think of as a good everyday table oil. Going stronger we start to find richer flavors and more of the pepperiness of polyphenols”.

As I tasted toward the stronger oils there was a familiar harsh string in the back of my throat that I usually try to avoid when selecting oil. “That pepperiness comes from polyphenols and it is actually an irritation to your tissues. On the positive side it is a compound also found in ibuprofen and acts as an anti-inflammatory”.

I asked if acreage formerly used for other purposes, such as growing almonds, might add a flavor component to oils. “We haven’t identified that yet. But if there are roses, rosemary or eucalyptus growing in the same plots the olives seem to pick up those flavors.”

Sonoma has a noted olive oil company and I decided to pay them a visit. The Olive Press has their industrial equipment as well as a beautifully appointed tasting room in the Tuscan style villa of Jacuzzi Winery. They produce only extra virgin olive oil from local olives.

If you are here during the milling season, which runs late October through the end of January, you can watch the presses through broad windows. At other times a video shows visitors the selection and pressing process. The video showed the mixing of under-ripe green olives with the ripe black ones. “There is usually about 30% green olives mixed into the crush. They help define the flavor profile the olive oil master is looking for. Green olives also have more polyphenol. It serves as a preservative and keeps the oil fresher. If you don’t care for the sharp after taste you can wait a few months and the oil will mellow as it ages.”

At the tasting bar you are encouraged to sniff and taste to evaluate the weight of the oil, the flavors and the after taste. There were four single variety oils. “We buy olives from farms within a 300 mile radius of here. The same variety, say Arbequina, are brought in from various farms and crushed together to give us a single varietal oil.”

“Our master blender also makes oils that combine different varieties. Our Italian blend is particularly popular. It is made from four Italian varieties and has strong green fruit flavors and a really pungent finish.”

“Our workhorse olive is the Mission. These olive trees are descendants of those originally brought to California from Spain during the mission period several hundred years ago. This is the base for our citrus infused oils… you have to try these.”
I sampled four citrus oils, clementine, blood orange, limonato and lime, each with bright and passionate citrus flavors. “Aren’t they great?” Yes, they are.

There are also herbed oils, imported vinegars, olive oil body butter, gift collections, olive plates, books, olive vine candle sticks… all manner of olivey things to entice. Late fall and winter is a wonderful time to visit The Olive Press…surrounding vineyards are quiet, the country roads empty and each bottle of oil is like a golden splash of sunlight waiting to warm you.

California Olive Oil Council

The Olive Press
24724 Arnold Dr/Hwy 121
Sonoma, CA 95476

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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