06 Nov

Olive harvest underway for artisan growers in California

Article by Christopher Chung,

Workers are hand-picking olives to be turned into high-priced oil as the harvest season begins for a specialty North Coast crop that has much of the artisan appeal of fine wines.

But the crop is small, and the region’s olive-growing pioneers are closely watching the mechanization that is transforming their fledgling industry elsewhere in California.

A crew of 15 workers at the DaVero orchard in the hills west of Healdsburg painstakingly stripped olives from delicate branches and allowed them to fall onto black fabric tarps for eventual collection into huge bins.

The yield is lighter this year, mostly because of the trees’ typical alternation of light and heavy production, and also because of possible other factors including frost and heavy winds last spring.

California’s olive oil business has grown steadily since 1991 when a few North Coast enthusiasts planted different varieties of Italian trees.

Today the region has more small-scale producers than anywhere else in California. Sonoma County’s estimated 150 growers outnumber those of any other county in the state.

But the industry’s booming growth is happening in the Central Valley, where plantings have quadrupled in the past four years. The Valley now has 17,000 acres of orchards for olive oil, compared to about 2,000 on the North Coast, according to University of California Cooperative Extension.

The growth is due to “super-high-density” orchards and mechanical harvesters that greatly reduce labor costs. Growers there plant 650 to 900 trees per acre, compared to no more than 300 per acre here.

Such techniques make olive oil production profitable on a large scale, said Paul Vossen, the UC Cooperative’s olive oil expert. In contrast, he said, the artisan producers on the North Coast mostly “are doing it for the love of it.”

The number of bottles is relatively small, and the price can be high. A bottle of the DaVero oil, about half the volume of a typical wine bottle, sells for $28.

Ninety-nine percent of the olive oil consumed in the United States comes from abroad. Most of the remaining 1 percent comes from California.

To help the industry grow, UC Davis this year launched the first university-based olive research and education center in North America. The center is part of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

And producers this year won legislation requiring olive oil to be labeled according to definitions that meet international standards. State Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, author of the legislation, has predicted that olive oil production will grow dramatically within the next five years.

On the North Coast, two of the largest producers are the 22-acre DaVero property and the 80-acre McEvoy Ranch in Marin County southwest of Petaluma. Both planted their first trees 17 years ago.

McEvoy Ranch has a retail outlet in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and DaVero is seeking to build a tasting room for its olive oil and wine across Westside Road from Madrona Manor.

McEvoy operates its own olive press. Besides handpicking, the workers use hand-held mechanical combs to gently slap together to harvest the fruit.

This year’s harvest will begin a little later and produce a lighter crop, said Jeff Creque, who supervises McEvoy’s mill operations. He expects the harvest to “probably start in earnest next week” and to take about two weeks to complete.

The region’s other producers rely on olive presses operating in Sonoma, Glen Ellen, Dry Creek and Hopland. Many also feature community press days where backyard growers can turn their meager crop of olives into a joint batch of oil.

Deborah Rogers, managing partner at the Olive Press, located south of Sonoma on Arnold Drive, said many of her customers are wineries that enjoy two advantages: extra sections of land on which to plant trees and existing tasting rooms for selling their oils.

Even so, she said, for many growers the effort is a labor of love. A key reason is that “harvest costs in Sonoma County are, to me, off the charts.”

The future here will focus on high-end, artisan oils and possibly include attempts to mix different approaches, for example a Spanish-style oil made with Tuscan olives.

“We are really just getting started on the experimentation,” said Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, a olive oil consultant and former UC Cooperative Extension staff member.

At DaVero, owner Colleen McGlynn Thursday joked that her husband, NetBooks founder Ridgely Evers, got into the olive oil business due to “faulty math,” namely a calculation based on unusually high Italian oil prices and abnormally low grape prices.

Nonetheless, she said they are making money on their olive oil sales.

Standing on a hilltop with views of Fitch Mountain and Mount St. Helena, McGlynn told how the couple’s first harvest in 1994 yielded 25 gallons. Next came the first-hand lesson that “establishing a brand is really difficult.”

She said she spent hundreds of hours in supermarkets, handing out samples in what proved “a lot of missionary work.”

In olive oil, she explained, you have to take the long view.

Said McGlynn, “You plant grapes for your kids and olives for your grandkids.”

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