26 Oct

Sonoma’s Olive Press offers olive-oil tasting in Wine Country

By Christine Delsol,

“Which one is the best?” the man asks, tiny plastic cup in hand, as he ponders six tall bottles on the tasting bar in Sonoma.

“They’re all the best you can get,” the host says.

It depends on whether you’re looking for fruity or peppery, delicate or pungent overtones. But no oak or musty flavors here – instead, he’s touting extra virgin, cold pressing and “burn.”

Even in the Wine Country, one cannot live by wine alone. When you pass through the heavy wooden doors of Jacuzzi Family Vineyards on Highway 12, you have a choice: Turn left for wine tasting or right for olive-oil tasting. The Olive Press, Sonoma County’s first olive mill, moved from homey quarters in Jack London Village in Glen Ellen to the castle-like winery compound in May.

Beyond the grand stone arch are tables laden with soaps, shampoo and candles made with olive oil (they smell fresh and earthy – nothing like a dinner ingredient). Then there are cookbooks, dinnerware, pottery and baskets. The nitty-gritty is on the shelves: battalions of tall, slender bottles holding elixirs ranging from herbal green to buttery yellow. At the tasting bar beyond, six to eight chrome pump bottles dispense samples of the day’s chosen oils.

On a recent visit, I found six to taste, as well as an ambrosial tapenade offered with crackers. Under the tutelage of the staff member behind the counter, I sampled the oils from left to right, beginning with the mildest. Koroneiki is a recent addition to the Olive Press lineup, made from an olive imported from Greece. Floral and fruity, it won two medals at this year’s Los Angeles International Olive Oil competition.

Then two more medal winners: the Arbequina, from olives prized in Spain’s Catalonia region and now widely grown in California, which was also light and fruity; and Storm Olive Ranch, the day’s featured oil, which was fruity but also peppery, made from the fruit of imported Italian trees growing on a Napa Valley ranch.

The peppery zest, I learned, reflects the olives’ maturity. With olive oil, aging is done on the tree. Green olives and black olives aren’t different varieties – they are different stages of ripeness. Local olives reach the Olive Press three hours after harvest and become oil two hours later, to be sold after only about a month of storage. Oil from less mature olives has a tinge of bitterness that produces a zing called the “burn.”

The Sonoma Valley Blend, from four Tuscan olive varieties grown locally, taught me about the burn. My first impression was a rich, fruity flavor, but before I picked up a fresh cup, a hot sensation spread through my mouth. Not like Tabasco, by any means, but distinct.

Another blend, the Olive Press Master Blend, combines three award-winning oils – Mission, Ascolano and Sevillano – and is one of the most versatile for marinades, pasta or sauteeing.

It was the last sip that hooked me. The Olive Press Blood Orange Oil is made in small batches from fresh oranges pressed with late-harvest Mission olives. The Olive Press suggests mixing it into a fennel, orange and olive salad, making a citrus marinade or drizzling it on grilled salmon or chicken. I suggest serving it as an aperitif.

At $14 to $18 a bottle, these aren’t the oils you use to grease your pizza pan. They demand attention, and they earn it.

California olive oils have a long history that parallels the wine industry. The first trees were planted by Franciscan missionaries along with the first wine grapes. Today, Napa and Sonoma counties support 150 olive-oil producers. While most olives grown in other parts of the state are packaged, Wine Country producers, often tending groves just behind the ubiquitous vineyards, press their best olives into artisanal oils that rival those of Europe.

Only in the past 10 years have boutique producers taken a cue from wine growers and opened tasting rooms. That’s good news for visitors, who can still sample olive oils free of charge. But you’ll be hard-pressed to walk away without buying a bottle.

The Olive Press is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, 24724 Arnold Drive, Sonoma. (800) 965-4839, (707) 939-8900, www. theolivepress.com.

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