My family spent the better part of the summer of 1998 living in southern France, a time that produced a number of wonderful memories for me. More than anything, I remember the food. Trust me when I tell you that, had you grown up on the cuisine of mid-Michigan in the 1990s, the soft cheese and brilliant flavors of the French Riviera were mind-blowing. After that trip, my family started seriously changing the way that we ate.
The most notable change? My parents started making a point of purchasing a large can of extra virgin olive oil which we would use to refill a smaller bottle with a spout that would be present on the table for every meal. Where we would once smear margarine on our bread, we were now dipping in olive oil like we had learned to do in France.
And it was glorious. To this day, I use olive oil in almost any application where it makes any sense and then even a few more where most people would say it doesn’t (I’m telling you, a grilled cheese sandwich cooked in olive oil is marvelous).
Olive Oil Capitalizing on a More Sophisticated American Palate
The Anderson clan might have been a little ahead of the field because of our trip to France, but in recent years, adoption of olive oil in the United States has been happening broadly at a rapid rate. While nations on the Mediterranean, where the vast majority of the world’s olive oil is both produced and consumed, have seen negative growth, the United States remains a massive growth market, gaining ground in leaps and bounds, with a lot of room left to expand.
Along with this food revolution, we’re also seeing the beginnings of a domestic olive oil market in California. It’s an industry that’s just started to get its footing, but one that’s also mirroring the development of the California wine industry. Like wine, California’s entry has been scoffed at by European traditionalists who bring with them a centuries-long tradition of excellence. And like wine, California growers are quickly showing that the climate and soil in California, combined with some plucky farmers ready to make their mark, produce a product that can absolutely rival the old guard.1
In fact, recent scandals regarding labeling of extra virgin olive oil seem to point towards European olive oil companies taking advantage of a less-sophisticated American palate and sending along a distinctly inferior product. There’s evidence that some of what’s labeled “extra virgin” is in fact just “virgin,” or could even be diluted with cheaper vegetable oils or stored in poor conditions.
California’s Most Promising Olive Oil Plays
So, not only is California olive oil in line with buying locally, it’s also providing a product that’s on par with some of the top tier European offerings in terms of quality. With that in mind, here’s a quick look at some of the major players that are trying to put American olive oil on the map.
California Olive Ranch
California Olive Ranch is the largest American producer of olive oil, selling nearly $30 million of its olive oil in 2015. That was good enough to crack the top ten in US sales, the only American brand to do so. It’s also fared well in taste tests, stacking up against some of the top tier brands available from European producers. Founded in 1998, California Olive Ranch operates a 2,200-acre orchard near Sacramento, CA. They have improved yields by growing shorter arbequina trees that resemble bushes. Not only can these trees be planted in much higher density, about 900 per acre, compared to about 100 for other varietals, but their lower height allows for mechanical harvesters and improved efficiency.
The end result is an olive oil that’s high in quality but still affordable, available everywhere from Whole Foods (WFM) to Wal-Mart (WMT). Gregory Kelley, the company’s CEO who was hired by the initial Spanish investors in 2006, has also become an advocate for California and a figure of controversy for aggressively calling out old world growers trying to pass off a low-quality product.
Corto Olive Oil of Lodi, CA is less critical of the old world, using its Italian connection as a selling point. The company’s website tells the story of how Amerigo Cortopassi came to California from Italy in the 1920s, and how his son, Dino, would develop new planting and harvesting techniques that would allow the family to make high quality olive oil.
Like California Olive Ranch, the company utilizes high density farming and mechanical harvesters, but still produces a high quality product.
The Olive Press
Hailing itself as the first olive mill in Sonoma, CA, The Olive Press produces a top quality olive oil that has won an impressive array of awards in recent years. Founded by Edward Stolman after he moved to Sonoma from Nashville. He would then convince friends Fred and Nancy Cline to purchase the company, a transaction completed in April of 2013. The company leaves their mill open to local growers who can bring their harvests to the mill to make use of the state-of-the-art Pieralisi olive mill.
Apollo Olive Oil
Apollo Olive Oil was founded in 1999, and claims to be one of the only growers in California producing a product certified both organic and extra virgin. The family-owned orchard in Oregon House, CA has produced award-winning and internationally recognized olive oil, scoring gold medals all over the world and being named one of the top ten olive oil producers in the world by the Mastri Oleari Golden Lion international competition.
A Small Market with Plenty of Potential
California olive oil is an upstart in an industry steeped in tradition. Even in the US, American growers account for a mere 2.00% of sales. However, as American growers continue to rack up wins at international competitions and challenge the status quo, it may not be long before those same Americans flocking to olive oil are eschewing the Italian brands in favor of something from closer to home.
1 For anyone who met the tragic passing of actor Alan Rickman with a desire to revisit his best work, he is excellent in the film “Bottle Shock,” in which he plays British wine expert Steve Spurrier who brought California wines to the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” where they would beat the top French white wines in blind taste tests. I would highly suggest it, even though the actual Steve Spurrier was highly critical of the film’s accuracy.
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