04 Apr

Extra-virgin olive oil, one sip at a time

by Kathleen Jay,

Located west of Petaluma in Marin County, McEvoy Ranch offers guided tours of its 550-acre property, which includes more than 18,000 olive trees.

Heat, air and light. These are the three big no-nos when it comes to extra-virgin olive oil.

On a recent tour of three Bay Area olive oil makers — McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, Jordan Winery in Healdsburg and Round Pond Estates in Rutherford — I learned these steadfast rules: Never store olive oil anywhere that is above 82 degrees F; keep olive capped, corked or sealed when not in use; and never — ever — display it on your window sill, where direct light can degrade it.

As one of the most valued crops in history, olive oil has been used for food, fuel and in skin care products as well as in ceremonies and even as currency. Hence, as olive oil has become more widely used by Americans, it is no wonder that olive oil tours have also become popular.

Domestically, California is the No. 1 producer of olive oil. From San Diego to Sonoma, olive trees were first planted by Spanish missionaries during the late 18th century. By the 19th century, olive oil had become a thriving industry for the state — and still is.

A fun alternative to winery hopping, olive oil tasting — as well as learning about how olives are grown, harvested, milled, pressed and bottled — is highly accessible and can be enjoyed by just about everyone. And lucky for the Bay Area, Northern California produces some of the country’s best product.

From branch to table: McEvoy Ranch
Just an hour by car from San Francisco, a visit to McEvoy Ranch is like entering Beatrix Potter’s secret garden. Even when you drive up to the entrance, you’re immediately greeted by a cherubic bronze bunny perched on the property’s entrance.

Is on 550 pristine acres just west of Petaluma, the ranch is covered with rolling hills, lush pastures, an estate house, two green houses and a large organic garden of flowers and vegetables. There is also an area designated for the ranch’s honey bee colonies — as well as 82 acres used exclusively for olive orchards, and a stone farm house that is home to the ranch’s a state-of-the-art frantoio, or olive oil mill.

And like Ms. Potter’s magical gardens, don’t be surprised to see several friendly creatures — from a wild turkeys and a neighboring flock of sheep who mow the property’s pastures to bats, swallows and owls, all of whom keep the ranch’s predator population under control.

For the orchard tour, I made an appointment and was met at the ranch’s main building — a stone farm house — by Jill Lee, the ranch’s tour manager, who kicked off the tour with a brief history of the ranch.

The ranch was purchased in 1991 by San Francisco philanthropist Nan Tucker McEvoy, who originally purchased the ranch as a place where her grandchildren could run freely and enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings.

Strictly zoned agricultural use, McEvoy didn’t want to use it for livestock (the ranch had previously been a family-owned dairy farm). Instead, she wanted to grow olives — and make olive oil.

Everyone told her that it just couldn’t be done. The land had too much clay. It was too close to the ocean — just a short distance from Point Reyes National Seashore. The climate wasn’t optimal for olives — which thrive in a Mediterranean-like climate, such as in Sonoma and Napa — or Italy, Spain and Greece.

McEvoy, however, was not easily dissuaded.

She consulted a friend in Tuscany — olive oil expert Maurizio Castelli — who agreed to be her consultant. After surveying the property in person, he told her that olives could in fact be grown here — and began advising the ranch on planting 3,000 olive trees from Italy as well as importing the frantoio, which is used to crush and mill the olives. Fifteen years later, the ranch harvests more than 18,000 olive trees, and is one of the country’s largest producers of organic estate olive oil.

The tour then moved outside, where I checked out the six varietals used to make the ranch’s Tuscan-style olive oil: Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Maurino, Leccio del Corno, Coratina. (I learned than two of the varietals make up about 90 percent of the blend — Frantoio constitutes 75 percent of the blend and gives the oil its fruity notes; Leccino makes up 20 percent of the mix and gives the oil a peppery finish. The remaining varieties are added to give the oil softness and balance.)

Next, harvest and production. I learned how olives are picked by hand — and sometimes with the help of battery-operated pneumatic combs — and within 24 hours are milled and blended at the frantoio. Harvest, which lasts three to four weeks, usually happens in mid-November.

Lastly, the tour will end with a tasting. Here is where you can ask all kinds of questions — from the best way to enjoy the ranch’s extra-virgin olive oil — with bread, tossed with salad greens or as a finish to soup or grilled fish — as well as the best ways to determine if an olive oil is of high-quality.

First-time tasters, take note: After the olive oil is poured into a small glass, warm the glass with your palm. Taste just a tiny bit, and let it settle in the back of your throat — whereby you’ll experience a big finish. Since most of us don’t drink olive oil, the ranch then offers fresh bread and vegetables from the ranch’s organic garden.

» Before you go: Reservations are absolutely required. Tours are small and intimate — and will be open to the public this season starting April 12. The grounds are expansive — so be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. This is not a drive-to-the parking-lot and taste-some-olive-oil tour. You won’t be walking in mud — but there is a lot of walking involved. Be prepared to spend at least two hours here. Trust me, the time will fly by.

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