Extra Virgin Olive Oil

“This buzz that is happening is real,” said Mike Bradley, an Oakland-based importer of high quality olive oils from around the world.

Mike was talking about a growing consumer interest in olive oil, and a growing public awareness of the difference between the stale oils that line the supermarket shelves and the fresh, flavorful oils that you can buy directly from a producer or small specialty retailer.

But as appreciation of quality olive oil has grown, so too has concern about the lesser-quality stuff that’s out there — oil made from subpar olives, oil that has been refined, oil that is old and rancid, or oil that is downright fraudulent, and made from something other than olives (nuts? seeds?).

“What we really have is a shortage of quality olive oil, and a glut of junk,” Bradley said.

Bradley spoke at a recent conference at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America, about a mile up the road from our store in downtown St. Helena. The conference attracted some of the top names in the field of olive oil — growers, millers, tasters, writers, chefs — all of whom share an interest in helping people differentiate good olive oil from bad.

So how can you tell the difference? We see many customers at our store who are curious about what makes a quality extra virgin olive oil, and we enjoy sharing our local, organic, small production oils with them. These are oils that, to varying degrees, will exhibit all of the positive characteristics of fresh extra virgins: fruitiness, bitterness and a peppery finish or “pungency” that might make you cough.

While extra virgin olive oils must hew to certain technical standards (low levels of free acidity and guidelines governing how they are made), traditionally they must also pass a taste test showing that they have no defects before they can be called “extra virgin.” Olive oils are one of the few foods in the world (along with balsamic vinegar) whose quality designation depends on how they taste, not just where or how they are made.

“The good stuff is truly luminous,” said Tom Mueller, another speaker at the CIA and author of a book called “Extra Virginity” that has helped to expose fraud within the olive oil industry. “The bad stuff is dumbed-down industrial food of the worst kind.”

Freshness is critical when shopping for extra virgin olive oil. Unlike wine or vinegar, olive oil does not age and even high-quality oils will start to taste stale after several months. Mueller recommends thinking of olive oil as “fresh fruit juice” — if it doesn’t taste fresh, then it’s probably not worth buying.

It is true that top-notch olive oil will be more expensive. As with most artisanal products (from food to clothes to furniture), you are paying for the hard work and talent of the producer, as well as quality. Industrially-made oil is less expensive, sure, but there are no guarantees that corners aren’t being cut.

“Making second-rate olive oil is a lot cheaper… than making world class oil,” Bradley said.

In the end, we support knowing the producers you’re buying from, and being able to ask them questions about their practices. Without transparency, there will never be trust.

“Consumer-producer connection is so so important,” said Alexandra Devarenne, a Sonoma-based olive oil consultant. “You want to know these people.”

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The Restaurant at Meadowood

by admin on July 17, 2012

A returned phone call, availability for an immediate meeting and true interest in the happenings at St. Helena Olive Oil Co.  are not things that I would expect from one of the youngest three Michelin star chefs in the Country.   Christopher Kostow, chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood, is a breath of fresh air.

On Friday…yes as in four days ago…I decided that one of our posts should be on The Restaurant.  I am going to feature a different venue in the Napa Valley with every newsletter and thought whom better to start with then a customer who inspires us to be the very best.  I knew the chances were slim that I could get pictures or a meeting at this late date but I never have time to contemplate odds.  I reached out to Ben Nerenhausen, sous chef, as he had been our  contact.  He said he would forward it to Christopher and they would see what they could do.  In the same note, he asked for more olive oil….hmm…perhaps a delivery I would make myself..with iphone camera in hand.

The following morning Kaelin and I headed out to make the delivery and perhaps have lunch at The Grill.  Christopher had left me a message that morning so I returned his call as we drove past the Meadowood gates.  I had no expectation of meeting him that day but after the conversation turned to olive oil and his passion was apparent, I let him know we were right outside his front door…with olive oil.  He did not defer to his receiving person but rather came up and let us in himself.  He went on to give us a tour of the remodeled restaurant and kitchen…his pride in every detail was on his sleeve.

After our tour, we sat down to discuss how we could work together this harvest.  I brought him up to speed on our estates, varietals, etc… and we discussed the characteristics he was looking for in an extra virgin olive oil.  It was apparent that a tasting would be in order so we could match descriptors and I could really understand what flavor profiles he was looking for.  The conversation was so inspiring as it gave me more to shoot for this year…I know it’s going to be a big harvest so I’ll have fruit to work with…and to create something that will please his pallet is a challenge that I am looking forward to.

I knew at this point that I could take a little risk and talk to him about the products that we make for our Napa Valley Bath Co.  We talked about our organic Napa Valley lavender essential oil, hydrosols, and the calendula oil that I just made…after all, calendula flowers are edible and used in salads.  He was curious…and was interested in samples to get a better understanding of the flavor profiles.  His open mindedness and sense of wonderment was refreshing…and inspiring.

As we prepared to say good-bye, Christopher invited us to The Restaurant for dinner…so we could understand what they do.  It was the mix of emotion from his overwhelming hospitality, sense of connection, and generosity that left me speechless…but only for a second.  I graciously accepted his invitation….Tuesday the 17th at 7:30pm….dinner for three at The Restaurant at Meadowood.

With next steps in place, we said our goodbyes and headed back to the car.  As we walked out the door,  Kaelin giggled and said, “Wow, mom, I love this part of your job! “.

Stay tuned for next weeks newsletter where we reveal how Christopher and his staff fed a vegan, a vegetarian and a carnivore.

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As many of you know, the olive harvest in California was off by more then 30%. Although our harvest was down significantly, we’d like to honor Mother Earth on her day by celebrating what she did give us! The only property that we could harvest this year was Twin Sisters in the Suisun Valley. This is our second year harvesting Twin Sisters and we are grateful for the partnership we have formed with the Smith Family…a fifth generation Napa Valley family.

We let the crop hang a little longer this year as the cold weather slowed the ripening process…it got a little precarious at the end because the olives were still very green but allowing them to stay on the trees any longer would put them at risk of frost damage…so I finally called the pick. Because our crop was small….9 tons vs. 30….I decided to bring a mill to the property so we could produce the freshest oil possible. The magic of the extra virgin olive oil being bottled while the crop was coming in was indescribable….I wish you could have been there! For the next best thing, check out this video of the Twin Sisters harvest created by one of our staffers.

In honor of Mother Earth, we would like to openly thank her for the crop that we did get this year. A little tough love reminds us to continue to take care of the planet. A very dear Peruvian Shaman recently told me …  “NOTHING on earth is yours but all of it is here for YOU” … we need to remember not to take things for granted and that the Earth does need care, consideration, reverence and love so it can continue to bring goodness to our future generations.

Happy Earth Day!

Peggy

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A New Harvest from the Talcotts

by Emily Shartin on January 31, 2012

The whirlwind of December’s olive harvest is done, and now all that’s left to do is wait.

We wait while our new crop of olive oils takes a breather. They need this time — usually a couple of months after they been pressed — to rest. The natural olive sediment settles out, leaving a clearer, more stable oil that is then bottled as the year’s vintage.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have any new oils to share. If you follow our newsletter, you know that we released our own “olio nuovo” just after it was pressed in December. It was made from olives grown at Twin Sisters Ranch in Suisun Valley, and had a thick, meaty texture and a bold finish — a perfect, delicious way to celebrate the olive harvest.

We have none of our nuovo left, but we do still have few precious bottles of new oil from Napa olive grower Jim Talcott. Like us, Jim bottled a small quantity of his oil, which was pressed in mid-December, and is allowing the remainder to settle before he releases it this winter.

Jim and his wife, Patricia, moved to southernmost Napa to grow olives about seven years ago. Surrounded by the famed vineyards of Carneros, they now tend about 3,000 olive trees, mostly Italian varietals. When Jim gives directions to their home, there is no street address involved. Instead, there is a series of landmarks — wineries, a pond, mailboxes, a gravel road. So when you do find your way to the secluded house — and to the magnificent olive grove that surrounds it — you feel almost like you’ve stumbled into some kind of secret.

But this beautiful landscape takes some seriously hard work to maintain. A surgeon by trade, Jim spent several years as a grape grower in St. Helena before making olives his primary focus. As organic growers, the Talcotts must be exacting about the methods they use to control mold and ward off pests, such as voles, which eat bark and destroyed half of the couple’s trees during their first year. After rebounding from that setback, Jim now spends much of the growing season pruning his trees to ensure all of their energy is going into producing fruit.

This year, the result is an new oil that is fresh and green with strong fruity flavors, and just a hint of the pepperiness that often characterizes Italian olive varietals. Jim proudly declares it “the best oil we’ve produced so far.”

The Talcotts were lucky to have a bountiful harvest this year. Many local orchards were affected by springtime rains, which stripped trees of the flowers that are necessary to produce fruit, leaving many with limited or non-existent harvests. While the Talcotts’ harvest was somewhat smaller than anticipated, Jim believes the relative youth of their trees kept it from being severely hampered.

Jim, like many of his fellow growers, is happy to keep the momentum going in favor of quality oil. He sees an increasing number of consumers turning toward fresh, small production, extra virgin oils both for their flavor and health benefits.

“I do think that more and more people are using good olive oil,” he said.

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Never Say Never

by admin on November 18, 2011

100ml bottles
For those of you who followed our journey in Italy, you will remember the crazy Italian glass distributor that I met in Certaldo. Well, for months after my return to the States, Mr. Cervantes and I tried to work together to import the 100ml bottle that stole my heart. Time passed, things got busier and I decided to shelve the project. I gradually lost touch with Mr. Cervantes, and all that remained of the memory was this really sleek, sexy 100ml bottle that was the baby to our 375ml. [click to continue…]

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How To Taste Olive Oil

by admin on November 11, 2011

I was planning on writing a post on tasting olive oil until I came across this article written by a very respectable individual in our industry, Nancy Ash. It was written for another entity that I also have great respect for…The Olive Oil Source. When I read the article, I realized that I really couldn’t improve much on the information…it’s well written, on point, and all I will add is “bravo!” [click to continue…]

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What Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

August 10, 2011

Extra Virgin Olive Oil?  You can see the answer in our pictures above.  It comes from caring for your trees from birth….harvesting with reverence and care……processing in a top flight facility……storing properly……honoring the earth.    It’s always great to know the technical aspects but just as important is to know the heart and soul…so for all [...]

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