12 Dec

Where Olive Oil Flows

By Michael Van Cassell,

Allesio Carli, wearing a flannel shirt and heavy construction ear protection, stood in the doorway between two seemingly different worlds.

Behind him sat casks full of maturing Pietra Santa wine stacked ceiling high. In front of him, two growers from Carmel Valley dipped their fingers into their inaugural batch of green extra virgin olive oil, which streamed from a loud Pieralisi centrifuge into a blue container.

Carli, head wine and olive oil maker at Pietra Santa Winery in Cienega Valley and a native of Tuscany, has been producing wine at Pietra Santa for 16 years. In 1999, Carli helped then-owner Joseph Gimelli import and plant 5,000 Tuscan variety olive trees on the Pietra Santa estate grounds.

For Carli, grapes and olives go hand-in-hand.

“A winery will have an olive mill in Tuscany, most likely,” said Carli, recalling his roots.

In 2001, the men harvested and pressed their first olives – around six tons – making ‘Olivita,’ a 100 percent Tuscan variety extra virgin olive oil.

As the trees have aged, Carli and Pietra Santa have reaped the benefits. In 2005 the trees produced 10 tons of olives. In November, Carli saw a record harvest bring in 20 tons, enough to produce 1,200 gallons of olive oil, or 9,000 half-liter bottles.

Carli custom-crushes olives with Pietra Santa’s state-of-the-art Pieralisi crushing system, imported from Italy and one of on;y a few in California. Carli estimated he crushes for 30 people from San Benito County, the Carmel Valley and as far away as San Luis Obispo. The number means a significant percentage of the olive oil produced in California is crushed on Cienega Road.

Malcolm and Deanna Cleary, of Carmel Valley, hauled crates of their first olive harvest from their property for a custom crush at Pietra Santa Wednesday morning.

The Clearys began contemplating growing trees four years ago, Deanna Cleary said.

“We liked the idea of the trees and the healthy product at the end,” Malcolm Cleary said.

Three years ago the Clearys imported and planted 850 olive trees from France. The French variety are rare in California and produce a different olive oil, Malcolm Cleary said.

“It’s still spicy but it’s a little smoother than the Italian oils,” Malcolm Cleary said.

French variety, Spanish variety and Italian variety olives all differ in flavor, Carli said.

“There is a difference,” Carli said. “Like in winemaking, each varietal has its own flavor.”

The majority of olive trees in California are “mission olives,” brought by the padres to the Spanish missions in the 19th century. Varieties include Sevilliano and Manzanilla, both Spanish varieties, Carli said.

But the majority of California’s olive oil making tradition came to a halt approximately 50 years ago, Carli said. European oils became the standard, made cheaper by European subsidization and estates’ cost-cutting payment of labor with the olive oil itself, Carli said.

In the mid-1990s California olive oil came back to life through a handful of people, Carli said.

And as the recently imported, mostly Italian variety olive trees mature, California olive oil gains in volume.

“San Benito is coming to life,” Carli said. “Because they were planted just a few years ago.”

San Juan Oaks and Oils of Paicines are just two of the companies producing olive oil in San Benito, Carli said.

The Clearys decided three years after their planting to give the press a try.

“We thought we’d go through the process and have something to taste,” Deanna Cleary said.

Wednesday morning half of the Cleary property’s olives were dumped into the brick-lined hopper outside Pietra Santa’s olive crushing room. The olives then tumbled up a conveyor belt and into a crusher, where two large stone wheels rolled over the olives, pits and all.

The olive mush was then mixed for half an hour before being sent into a centrifuge to separate the olives’ pumice from their natural liquids. The liquid was sent into another high-speed centrifuge, which Carli called a “separatore,” to separate the olives’ oil from the water.

The Clearys were pleased with their first attempt. The other half of their crop can be crushed at a later time.

Tuscan olive oils are spicy and peppery, Carli said. “Other varietals, or if you pick them late, they tend to be sweeter,” he said.

Carli said the California consumer has yet to fully grasp the olive oil market. He said the consumer needs to understand why they are paying for a quality product.

“If you like good food, you pay for good food. If you like good wine, you pay for good wine,” Carli said. “And it’s the same with olive oil.”

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