Here Comes the Olive
Experience wine country’s second harvest.
IT IS ONE of the oldest known cultivated trees in the world, grown before written language was invented. It is a symbol of peace, power and purity, steeped in history and mythology. Goddess Athena brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift and planted the original tree at the Acropolis. A dove delivered an olive leaf to Noah, symbolizing the end of the flood. Homer refers to it in The Odyssey. Its leafy branches were found in Tutankhamun’s lavish tomb. Its oil has anointed kings and athletes in ancient Greece and fueled the “eternal flame” in the first Olympic Games, its leaves woven into victory crowns. As a sacred holy oil, it’s been integrated into religious ceremonies from baptisms to blessings.
The olive is a drupe — a fruit with a thick skin, meaty pulp and single central stone, like the cherry and peach, yet it is the only such fruit that doesn’t sweeten on the tree. Ever. Native to Asia Minor, olive trees spread to the Mediterranean basin some 6,000 years ago and today can be found in countries across the globe. Some trees on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives are believed to be more than 2,000 years old. In California, the Franciscan monks planted olive trees in the 1800s as they built their string of missions, using the olive for both food and ceremony. And while olive trees and orchards have popped up all over California for the past 150 years, most of the older groves are in Northern California.
Olive trees are ideal for drought-stricken California, as they require no irrigation and go dormant when water is scarce. While the domestic olive oil industry, compared to Europe’s, is in its infancy, it’s rapidly growing. “There’s 10 times more California-grown olive oil than we had 10 years ago,” says Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. “And olive oil consumption in the United States has gone up maybe tenfold in the last 30 years.”
Sadly, most U.S. consumers still buy European products that are purported to be fancy extra-virgin olive oil, but are often lowgrade and adulterated. Today’s California growers are determined to raise the bar and produce high-quality oils with clear standards and labeling.
The town of Sonoma, in particular, has a long history with the olive; trees were planted at the local mission circa 1823. Today the area’s artisan producers sing the praises of the fruit and its oil each winter in an extended annual Sonoma Valley Olive Season festival. After the grapes are harvested and the vines are ablaze with a golden hue, the farming community turns its attention to a second harvest, continuing the celebration of the area’s agricultural roots. Some olive growers may commence harvesting as early as November, depending on Mother Nature, and it can last through January.
A cast of characters in Sonoma town have fallen under the drupes’ spell, growing and curing them and pressing them into oils, including Don “the Olive King” Landis. Refrigeration technician by day and olive Merlin by night, Landis leads workshops for interested folk who want to learn how to de-bitter the famed local drupe. “It’s a nasty trick to entice someone to taste an olive off the tree,” he says. “To make a table olive, you gotta beat them up to make them edible. Harvest time is anywhere from four to six weeks after maturity (which falls usually in August or September) to just before they drop off the trees, depending on the recipe and plan for the olive.
“No other fruit is harvested over such a wide spectrum of time,” he adds. “People harvest according to color, and that makes for the different textures in the final product.”
Several Sonoma wineries grow olives and welcome visitors to wander through their groves and experience the harvest, in which old-fashioned methods, like using rakes to pull down olives from the trees, are employed. Interested parties can also see the olives being pressed and taste the spoils of the hard work at Jacuzzi Family Winery, an olive mecca and the location of The Olive Press.
Fun for Everyone “In 1996, The Olive Press was the first company to bring a community press to Sonoma Valley,” says co-owner Nancy Cline. “We do two free community pressing days in November and December. Small farms, neighbors or friends join together and blend their backyard olives to get beautiful oil back in return. It truly brings the community together. It’s a wonderful time to be in Sonoma.”
The Olive Press also offers tours and tastings. “For the consumer, our motto is to approach olives like just we approach wine — to offer an educational experience,” Cline says. “Discovering the delicate flavors of a Mission olive oil versus the robust flavors of a Picual is very similar to tasting the difference between sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer. Tasting our varietals helps create the ability for discernment so customers can modify their purchases to suit their preferences.”
In 2014, The Olive Press’ Picual Extra- Virgin Olive Oil was one of two North American producers to win Best of Class at the New York International Olive Oil Competition. “It was a worldwide competition so it was extremely exciting for us,” says Cline. “To compete with Greece, Italy and Israel, places that have produced oil for thousands of years, and to be recognized is a huge accomplishment. California belongs on the world olive oil map.”
Celebrate the Season
On the first Saturday in January, Sonoma Valley kicks off Olive Season with a blessing of the olives by a priest in the historic mission, in the town plaza. Many locals who have harvested olives bring them to the altar in this old-fashioned ritual. A stream of olive-centric activities follows throughout January and February, from tastings at Figone’s Olive Oil Company and The Olive Press to de-bittering and curing seminars to gourmet dining about town, with olive-infused menus and a Martini Madness competition between local bartenders. Hotels, restaurants and spas get into the spirit with special menus, drinks and olive-oil spa treatments.
During the Feast of the Olive at the Ramekin Culinary School on January 31, top local chefs come together to create a spectacular five-course dinner paying homage to the drupe. The season’s grand finale falls mid-February with a full-on sensory chance to get up close and personal with the fruit: a grand tasting and epicurean event, VinOlivo, features olive bars, oils and wine tastings, gourmet food and live entertainment, along with a daily market, activities and workshops. Don Landis headlines Olive Odyssey at Jacuzzi Vineyards February 14–15, a free two-day affair with curing and de-bittering seminars, preservation techniques, sampling and recipe sharing. Tastings, tours, olive oil ice cream and olive inspired art round out the weekend.
While the Season of the Olive may be a tad quieter than summer in Sonoma, it’s a unique chance to meet and interact with the artisan community — the olive oil producers, bakers, chefs, cheese makers and artists. And while you might not run into Athena, the celebration is an authentic small-town experience, rife with good food and drink. theolivefestival.com
IF YOU GO
STAY The lovely Beltane Ranch, a six-generationowned ranch that dates back to 1936, has been producing olive oil since 1990 from its two orchards, where Mission, Sevillano, Manzanillo, Lucca, Arbequina, Frantoio and Piqual olives are grown organically and hand-harvested in late November or early December. Guests can stay on property in the five-bedroom farmhouse built in 1892 or in a private cottage and enjoy strolling through the olive orchards and tasting the estate olive with meals served at the ranch. beltaneranch.com
SKIN CARE A celebrated producer of high-quality estate-grown, certified-organic olive oil, McEvoy Ranch also has a body care line called 80 Acres, named for the property’s olive tree acreage. The products — balms, body wash and butters that hydrate the skin along with scrubs, salts and soaps — contain the award-winning oil.
PRODUCTS WE LOVE
• 3 Sisters Grove Blood Orange Olive Oil Hand & Body Lotion, $18, Figone Olive Oil Company, figoneoliveoil.com
• McEvoy Ranch Body Butter, $38, mcevoyranch.com
• Olive Hill Estate Picholine Olive Oil, $25, B.R. Cohn, brcohn.com
• Picual Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $30, The Olive Press, theolivepress.com
• Rosemary and Barley Grass Olive Oil Soap, $6, MacArthur Place Spa, macarthurplace.com/spa