23 May

Pure delight

California’s emerging olive-oil industry hears a call for quality surpassing “extra-virgin” that will stand out in a troubled, competitive market.

By Jim Downing,
Picture by Florence Low,

Will American consumers pay more for olive oil that claims to be even more pristine than extra-virgin? Will they even be able to tell the difference?

With the value of the “extra-virgin” designation diluted by fraud and dozens of new California labels looking for a way to stand out in a tight market, some in the olive-oil business think it’s time for a higher standard.

This week, Claudio Peri, a food science professor at the University of Milan and the founder of a movement he calls “Beyond Extra Virgin,” is at the University of California, Davis, to sell his idea to California’s emerging olive oil industry. A two-day conference wraps up today.

The problem, say Peri and many in the California olive oil industry, is that much — if not most — of the extra-virgin oil on the U.S. market doesn’t deserve the label. Extra-virgin oil requires a strict harvest and processing regimen that yields certain flavor qualities recognizable to expert tasters. Many of the major label extra-virgin brands don’t make the cut, they say.

“The globalization of the olive oil industry is homogenizing the market. It really depletes the average quality,” said Peri, 69, in an interview Tuesday.

But policing quality in the international olive oil market isn’t practical, so Peri on Tuesday challenged California producers to adopt a new, higher set of standards for themselves — and perhaps take on the task of teaching chefs and consumers what extra-virgin oil ought to taste like. He has signed up 30 labels in Italy already and hopes to make his organization global.

The keys to top-quality oil: Get olives from the orchard to the press in less than 24 hours, so they don’t have a chance to go bad. Bottle only fresh oil and don’t blend it with anything inferior.

Extra-virgin or not, olive oil has become a hot item in U.S. supermarkets, with sales volume doubling from 1996 to 2006, to roughly 60 million gallons. The average American consumes just under a quart of olive oil a year; consumption in several Mediterranean countries is more than 12 times greater.

While those with refined palates say many of the big-selling brands taste moldy or rancid, U.S. consumers seem to like them. The familiar flavors of major-label oils tend to rate better with non-experts than do the fruitier, more pungent flavors of oils that win extra-virgin tasting competitions, said Paul Vossen, a UC Davis extension specialist who is an expert on olive oil.

Whether America is ready for the real extra-virgin oil will have major implications for the future of California’s olive oil industry, which is counting on strong growth in demand at the premium end of the market.

More than 200 California labels are now in stores, with prices often twice those of imports, a difference producers attribute in part to high land and labor costs, as well as to adherence to strict extra-virgin processing standards. In an interview last year, Vossen said that it’s very difficult to produce a half-liter of true extra-virgin olive oil for less than $9 — whether in Italy or California.

This year, the state’s olive oil production is expected to be as much as 700,000 gallons, up nearly threefold since 2001. The Sacramento Valley is California’s leading olive oil region; there’s even an oil from the fruit of the trees on the UC Davis campus.

Still, California brands accounted for less than 1 percent of U.S. olive oil consumption in 2006. Imports from Italy account for 74 percent.

Extra-virgin oil dominates most supermarket displays, though many import brands also offer a plain “olive oil” or an “extra-light” oil for a dollar or two less.

International standards dictate what sort of oil ought to carry what label. But U.S. food law doesn’t recognize those standards, so their enforcement effectively is left to importers and grocers.

Claims of oil fraud are tough to validate, since there’s no industrywide testing program. But impostors show up even in prestigious competitions, said Darrell Corti, who runs Corti Brothers Market in Sacramento and is the chief judge of the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, the nation’s biggest olive oil event.

In this year’s contest, held last week, 118 of the 396 entrants didn’t meet the extra-virgin grade’s basic standards, Corti said.

At Tuesday’s conference at UC Davis, which drew 200 attendees from Italy and the domestic olive oil industry, Vossen led a tasting of oils from around the world.

Olive oil is tasted in small cobalt-blue glasses, to hide color differences. The taster sniffs, slurps the oil and then lets it slide down the throat. Green apple slices cleanse the palate between tastings.

The audience, apparently including many experienced tasters, quickly voiced its disapproval of an oil revealed later to be a major Italian import. One loud voice compared it to window cleaner.

The third oil, a premium variety from Greece, produced a soft chorus of coughs. Many good oils are valued for their cough- inducing pungency, Corti said. As in: “That’s a nice two-cough oil.”

California olive oil producers in the audience seemed open to Peri’s proposal. Amy Bridge, a new Placerville-area olive grower who plans to launch her Mad Dog Mesa label after this year’s harvest, said she’d favor a designation that would help distinguish her artisan product from mass-market alternatives.

But Corti was a bit skeptical that a new set of rules would drive a general improvement in the olive oil on the market.

“You can’t legislate good quality,” he said.

Corti urges customers to try a range of oils and simply use what tastes good. He carries more than 40 different olive oils in his store. In his home kitchen, Corti uses five different brands, includes a light Ligurian oil for his endive and kumquat salad.

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