By Tina Caputo,
California olive oil history dates back hundreds of years to the late 1700s, when the first olive trees were brought over from Spain. As the industry grew, olive trees became a common sight in Northern California and the Central Valley, and olive oil processing mills began opening to meet demand for the golden nectar.
According to Paul Vossen, UCCE farm advisor for Marin and Sonoma counties, California is now home to 11 olive oil processing mills, ranging in annual production size from 4,000 to 150,000 gallons each, as well as several smaller mills. “Production has been steadily increasing each year, except for 2000-01 when there was a very small crop,” Vossen said. Since 1996-97, California olive oil production has increased from 123,000 gallons to 400,000 gallons in 2002-03.
This growth caught the attention of California wineries during the 1990s, and dozens began planting olive trees with oil production in mind. “Wineries account for about 12-15% of the state’s annual extra virgin olive oil production,” said Patricia Darragh, executive director of the Berkeley-based California Olive Oil Council (COOC).
Though she couldn’t confirm the total number of wineries that are currently producing olive oil, Darragh said that more than two dozen have been certified by the COOC. “There is a dramatic increase in production by wineries, year over year,” she said. “The industry overall is growing dramatically and many more wineries are becoming involved.”
Thanks to the efforts of wineries like B.R. Cohn, Preston Vineyards, Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Wente Vineyards, high-end California olive oil is making a name for itself on the national gourmet food scene. But is producing olive oil worth the effort?
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