28 Mar

Each blend of UC Davis Olive Oil contains different combinations of olive types

By: Maia Bradley,

Bike accidents are the pits – olive pits, that is, from the more than 1,500 olive trees growing around the UC Davis campus. Strewn and smashed all over the university’s bike lanes in past years, the oily fruit posed a problem to cyclists and grounds keepers. With some creativity, though, that problem was transformed into a popular line of local olive oils that is now sold on campus.

Earlier this month, the campus released its 2007 lineup of UC Davis Olive Oil, with three different-tasting blends called Wolfskill, Gunrock and The Silo, priced at $12 per bottle. A wine vinegar was also made available this year, named Wickson, for the department of agriculture’s first dean.

Now in its third generation of production, the condiment with Aggie pride has won numerous awards in past years, including gold-medal honors at the 2006 Los Angeles County Fair, the largest olive oil competition in the nation.

Legend has it that the idea to make oil from campus olives came to UC Davis Grounds Manager Sal Genito one day in November 2004. While at the scene of a bike accident, one of many accidents blamed on a slippery layer of olives dropped from nearby trees, Genito noticed the scent of olive oil in the air. That, according to several accounts, was the inspiration for UC Davis Olive Oil.

While the anecdote is actually true, it was the repetition of those accidents that had grounds staff searching desperately for a safer and more sustainable method of maintaining the scenic olive trees, according to Katie Hetrick, communications manager for the UC Davis Division of Buildings and Grounds.

“It turned out to be a really good idea because we were not only covering the costs [of production], but we were also saving the university money in lawsuits,” Hetrick said.

In addition to devoting large amounts of time and money to clearing olives and residue from bicycle paths, the university was also paying up to $50,000 each year in liability claims for accidents related to the slick pavement, she said. The department had been trying for some time to find a solution to those problems, when Genito suggested that the olives be harvested and turned into olive oil, Hetrick said.

The UC Davis Olive Oil program is now in its third year of walking through the production steps, which include four to five weeks of winter harvesting and up to two months of processing, according the program’s website. Under the guidance of Genito and several campus experts, the effort has seen rapid expansion.

“This is [Sal Genito’s] brainchild; he still oversees the whole process,” Hetrick said. “We also hire contract workers to help with harvesting.”

Once the olives have been harvested using an Italian “tree shaker” mounted on a tractor, they are transported to a mill in Oroville, Calif. within 24 hours. The speedy turnover from tree to press ensures purity, earning the UC Davis olive oils the status of extra-virgin, according to the group’s website. The freshly extracted oil is then left to settle in large vats for up to two months.

Approximately 10 pounds of olives are required to make a pint of oil, the website says.

Olives from different types of trees, with differences similar to those among different varieties of apples, are combined to create unique blends. The 2007 Gunrock olive oil, named for the university’s mustang mascot, contains ingredients from eight distinct olive types.

Though different tree varieties originate from different regions in the world, many of them can be found lining bike paths on campus. According to a 2005 article written by UC Davis olive oil expert Alexandra Devarenne, the most common types found on campus are Mission and Manzanillo, from Spain, and Ascolano, from Italy.

Nearly 100 additional kinds can be found at the department of pomology’s Wolfskill Experimental Orchard in Winters, Calif. Originally a Mexican land grant, part of the property was donated to UC Davis by the Wolfskill family in 1934. An orchard technician there in the 1940s worked to incorporate foreign varieties into the original Mission rootstock.

One 2007 blend, named for the Wolfskill orchard, contains 18 such varieties.

The blends can be purchased only at the UC Davis Bookstore. A tasting table planned for this year’s Picnic Day will be located on the south patio of the Memorial Union.

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