15 Nov

A different harvest, South County crop earns high marks

By Kerana Todorov,

The two Napa Valley chefs — Fox works at Napa’s Ubuntu and Cognetti is executive chef at St. Helena’s Tra Vigne — will receive a delivery of freshly-pressed “olio nuovo” this week from the Dickson Napa Ranch, a hillside property high above Jamieson Canyon Road.

olive harvester“I love it,” said Cognetti, who uses the freshly-pressed oil on everything from beef, pizzas, pasta and fresh mushrooms.

“It’s great with eggs,” the chef added.

Olives are not what made the Napa Valley famous, of course, but the Dickson Napa Ranch is among the increasing number of olive oil producers in Napa.

More than 200 acres produce olives in Napa County, making olives the second-most important crop — even if it is a distant second — in the county.

The Dicksons’ oversee 1,200 Taggiasca olive trees they planted seven years ago, a decade after the couple moved from Orinda to a property that Lillian Dickson inherited from her mother.

Last weekend, crews handpicked close to 5 tons of olives and transported them to a mill in Marin County.

While this is only the Dicksons’ fourth commercial harvest, their oil, Regina Extra Virgin Olive Oil, is already making a name among aficionados.

Named for Richard Dickson’s mother, Regina olive oil was selected from close to 400 entries to win a gold medal at the 2007 Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Oil Competition.

The olive oil is described as complex, fruity and well balanced, and one that mellows with time.

“It’s a delightful oil,” said Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, olive oil consultant and educator who helped organized the Los Angeles competition in May.

Lillian Dickson, who grew up on a ranch near Sacramento, said she and her husband, a retired Tri Valley Growers executive, also grow grapes on the property. They planted the olive trees on the steeper areas of the 80-acre site, in part for erosion control.

The land formerly belonged to her grandfather, Manuel Candido “M.C.” Almada, who purchased the property in the 1940s after his dairy ranch was sold to make room for the Napa County Airport.

Devarenne said the growth of the olive oil industry only makes sense.

After all, the late Lila Jaeger of Rutherford formed the Northern California Olive Oil Council with about 10 members in the early 1990s, her daughter-in-law, Kris Jaeger recalled this week. Its successor, the California Olive Oil Council, estimates there are now more than 200 producers of world-class olives in the state.

Jaeger, whose family owns 550 French, Spanish and Italian olive trees on Big Ranch Road in north Napa, said her family’s olive harvest took place late last month.

Long Meadow Ranch’s Ted Hall, one of the main olive oil producers in Napa County, wrote in an e-mail this week that harvest began Tuesday.

“There is a growing interest in high-quality olive oil because of the health benefits (as opposed to vegetable oils) and the use of olive oil by many popular contemporary chefs,” wrote Hall, who is also an organic farmer, winemaker and a cattle rancher.

Olives are a very natural complement to a winery business, Devarenne said.

Winery owners, she noted, already have the marketing, direct sales and the outlet network to sell the oil.

And, of course, the climate that is good for grapes also is right for olive trees, she said.

Dickson said grapes and olives seem to be a natural fit, right down to the live harvest coming close on the heels of the grape harvest.

“We start all over again,” Dickson said. “It’s ideal for the labor.”

This year’s harvest was just as Richard and Lillian Dickson wanted it, with different degree of ripeness — one third green, one third purple and one third black.

“It’s a delicious, beautiful oil,” said San Francisco Chef Annie Somerville at Greens, a vegetarian restaurant at Fort Mason Center.

Lillian Dickson is grateful for the praise. “I really enjoy selling to the chefs because, they really appreciate it.”

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