feature 32 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY march 7-13, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com When guests accustomed to supermarket olive oil sample the line of extra virgin oils at 43 Ranch in San Ardo, owner Greg Traynor notes that the reaction is generally one of shock, even disbelief. “A lot of times they’ll say, ‘What have you added?’” he points out with a laugh. “Fresh olive oil has more flavor and complexity than grocery store olive oil.” Extra virgin olive oil—unprocessed liquid that first trickles from the mill— is much like wine. Each variety offers a distinct character on the palate that is subject to the whims of a growing season and farming practices. It also has a terminology, with grades and blends and phrases like cold-pressed that can be open to interpretation. While olives are more forgiving than grapes when it comes to harvest, the oil produced withers under light and heat. Unlike wine, it does not age well—one of the reasons for the gap between fresh oil and that languishing on a shelf. “It’s confusing,” admits Shaana Rahman, chair of the board for the California Olive Oil Council, who owns a ranch in San Luis Obispo County. “They buy a bottle of olive oil and it’s in no way, shape or form similar to that experience.” Yet since Americans rediscovered extra virgin olive oil in the late 1980s, demand has skyrocketed. In 1980, the U.S. imported 28,000 tons, largely from Italy and Spain. By 2015, that figure reached 315,000 tons—and the number continues to rise. In 2022, 375,000 tons reached U.S. shores, according to Statista. This demand is spurred perhaps as much by reports of olive oil’s health benefits and the popularity of the Mediterranean diet as by flavor. But it has revived California’s industry. Traynor planted his grove of Italian, Spanish and Greek cultivars 13 years ago. He’s part of a growing group of small producers in Monterey County taking note of the boom and crafting high-quality extra virgin oils. Charlotte Muia and her husband Carl of Frattoria Muia started their orchard not long after buying a house near Carmel Valley village in 1998. “I was going to do wine,” she recalls. “Then I talked to a woman who said, ‘Why don’t you plant olive trees? It’s a tree—what could go wrong?’ Not many people were doing olive oil. We were all learning at the same time.” Reid Norris, who bottles small batches in Carmel Valley under the Modern Times label, purchased land with trees planted around the year 2000. He has a day job, referring to his olive oil as a passion project. “I just got the bug for it,” Norris explains. “The first time I had good olive oil, it’s like your first good coffee—you’re never going back. It’s night and day.” The growth of California’s olive oil industry has been astounding. The year Muia moved into her Carmel Valley home, there were an estimated 900 acres dedicated to extra virgin olive oil in California, with the rest of the producers more interested in table olives. Last year, according to COOC data, some 400 orchards were growing 75 different cultivars on 37,000 acres, and the state accounts for more than 95 percent of all extra virgin olive oil milled in the U.S. “For the smaller producers, it’s less labor-intensive than a vineyard, and people are becoming more aware of craft extra virgin olive oil,” Traynor says. “And Central Coast quality is second to none in the state.” From Monterey County labels, one can find a wide variety of oils. There are blends and single variety bottlings. The mildly grassy mission olive has been grown in California since the 1700s. Spanish colonizers planted olive trees as they established missions. “People like the experience, knowing where their food comes from,” Rahman says of the advantage of a small producer. Much of that olive oil is pressed at the 43 Ranch mill, the only modern facility operating in Monterey County, and one of only 50 mills in the state. Traynor opened the mill seven years ago and now works with 150 different producers from a multi-county area. From the moment they are picked, olives begin to degrade. To receive extra virgin grade in California, the crop must be harvested and milled within a 24-hour span. In many areas, this means a crush on the mill, with many producers seeking to schedule its services within a short time, often a window of no more than 30 or 45 days. Traynor explains that the microclimates of the Central Coast ease this potential problem by extending the milling season closer to 90 days. Besides, adds Evan Loewy, who crafts Like Family olive oil from a grove planted by his parents in Carmel Valley, “Greg will mill through the night, if necessary.” Growing up, tending to the grove was like a summer job for Loewy, who also founded Other Brother Beer Co. in Seaside. After college, he worked in the corporate world for a time. But he and close friend Ben Herrmann decided to leave their jobs. “We thought, ‘What should we do?’” Loewy says. “We looked at the olive orchard and thought, ‘Oh.’” The origin stories behind Monterey County’s olive oil names tend to be like that, giving the growing industry an approachable appeal that Rahman shares. “California is the new player on the block,” she observes. “We produce a small portion of the world’s olive oil.” According to the World Population Review, the U.S.—essentially California—ranks 14th among global producers at 152,000 tons in 2023, in line with Peru and Libya. Spain, the world’s leader, pressed 6 million tons, with Italy (2.2 million) and Morocco (2 million) in the distance. Even with the growing number of groves in the state, 97 percent of the olive oil sold in this country is imported. And that is the biggest reason for the quality gap experienced by consumers. Many become trained to the taste of inferior olive oil, and there is a lot out there. Newspaper investigations have repeatedly revealed mislabeling and fraud. Ships carrying olive oil from Morocco or other locations will dock in Italy, where they will receive the Italian label. Even worse, vegetable oils have been doctored to simulate olive oil. In 2010, a UC Davis study reported that 69 percent of extra virgin olive oil found on grocery shelves fell short of trade standards. While the International Olive Council mandates acidity content and other marks, those rules unravel when the product is shipped overseas. “There are no standards for what’s imported to the U.S.,” Rahman explains. “But people buy it.” California has established strict rules for extra virgin olive oil. In addition to the 24-hour timeframe for milling, all oil destined for the extra virgin stamp is put through a chemical analysis then sampled by a sensory tasting panel. “There’s a lot of good oil in California,” Muia says. “You can visit the people who make it and get to know them. We’re fussy about our olive oil.” A Bit Extra Olive oil is booming in California, and Central Coast producers are among the best. By Dave Faries “The first time I had good olive oil, it’s like your first good coffee—you’re never going back.” Olive oil drips into a tasting bowl at Holman Ranch tasting room in Carmel Valley. The California Olive Oil Council comes to Monterey March 15-16 for its convention, where attendees can take part in a sensory tasting during one session. Daniel Dreifuss