Whether searching for Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth through superior nutrition or looking for an alternative to wine tasting, the Round PondEstate Olive Mill tour and tasting in Rutherford provides a rich experience for health and flavor aficionados alike.
Visitors can explore the estate’s handcrafted olive oils and red wine vinegars in addition to learning about olive cultivation, harvest, and their artisan methods of olive oil production. Round PondEstate olive oils have received gold medal awards from the Los Angeles Olive Oil competition four years in a row.
“Our olive mill, one of only two operating in the Napa Valley, is equipped with state-of-the art technology, but blending is done by hand in small lots to maintain the highest levels of freshness and quality. Combining the best of the old and the best of the new, Round Pond has created a modern classic,” says Ryan MacDonnell.
MacDonnell and her brother, Miles MacDonnell, own and manage Round Pond Estate. She is responsible for the olive portion; he the wine.
Olive crops follow a two-year cycle. Last year was an abundant year so a lean yield was expected this year. In addition, the rain knocked off many blossoms that would have become fruit.
“We were lucky to get 12 tons this year. Last year, we had the biggest yield we have ever seen – 86 tons. Our average is 35 tons,” said MacDonnell, referring to November’s harvest.
MacDonnell explained there are eight separate pickings — one for each varietal, and sometimes more depending on the location and what is ripe and what is not.
“Eight olive pickers gently pull the olives from the branches. They use specially made mechanical fingers to harvest the olives, without damaging the new growth, which provides for next year’s crop,” MacDonnell said. “The olives drop onto a tarp on the ground. The tarp is pulled from tree to tree. The olives then go into an aerated bin, enabling the fruit to stay cold and fresh.”
The olives come into the mill, straight from the orchard, right after they have been picked. The olives travel up an elevator and into either the “old stone Frantoio,” the traditional method of milling, or into “the Hammermill, a more modern approach.” Both yield different results.
The olive is then “kneaded” for roughly 45 minutes until the oil begins to come out of the paste. From there, the paste goes through a centrifuge, where the oil is separated from the paste. The paste is then used as compost for the gardens around the property. The oil goes through one final separator to remove any water from the olive oil, MacDonnell explained.
Picked by varietal, each oil is kept in a separate stainless steel tank at 55 degrees to ensure it stays fresh. “Come March, we blend the oils into our final Spanish Varietal blend and Italian Varietal blend. We also produce two citrus oils, Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon, which we mill by crushing the olives with the peel of the citrus fruit in the stone Frantoio,” MacDonnell said.
“We are then able to bottle on demand, meaning we bottle our first lot, keeping the remaining oil in the tanks. We bottle more oil as it is demanded,” MacDonnell continued. “This process enables us to guarantee the freshest oil possible for our customers.”
MacDonnell explained that olives for Italian varietals are picked before becoming fully ripe because green olives provide a peppery, grassy, green tomato flavor profile, typical of Tuscan oils. “The Spanish we pick when they are very ripe because we want a buttery, soft, smooth and rich profile,” she said.
Health minded people know that olive oil is good for them but unwittingly destroy much of the flavor and nutrients during cooking. “The smoke point for olive oils is where the oil breaks down, becomes more bitter and perhaps loses its health benefits. The smoke point can be anywhere from 260 to 360 degrees depending on what or how you are cooking,” MacDonnell explained.
“The Polyphenols in oil are at their best when the oil is fresh,” MacDonnell said.
Polyphenols are a group of chemicals found in many fruits, vegetables, and other plants such as berries, walnuts, olives, tea leaves and grapes. They as classified as antioxidants, meaning they remove free radicals from the body. Free radicals are chemicals that have the potential to cause damage to cells and tissues in the body. Polyphenols have been found to possess a variety of potential health benefits, including cancer prevention and reducing the risk of getting heart disease. Some studies have also found that polyphenols lower LDL cholesterol or “bad” cholesterol in the body.
“I would always recommend looking for a press date,” she continued. “The most recent harvest is the best oil and anything older than that will not be as fresh or flavorful.”
To keep oil fresh for six months to a year MacDonnell recommends “a cool, dark place away from heat.”
After the tour visitors enter the tasting room. Empty blue glasses await samples of olive oil on a table arrayed with fresh seasonal ingredients from the garden, cheeses and breads.
Olive oil tasters are told to warm, sniff and taste. Olive oil educator Julie Bath advises visitors to pour a sample of Italian Varietal, then to cup their hands around the glass to raise the oil temperature to around 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sniff — The subtle aroma hints of fresh cut grass, green tomato and pepper.
Taste — Put a few drops on the front of the tongue then slurp it to the back by sucking in air, Bath advises.
The Italian Varietal captures the fresh and lively Tuscan flavors of the olives. Assertive and robust, it is the perfect finishing oil for salads and vegetables. An apple slice between tasting refreshes the pallet for the Spanish Varietal, which is crafted from the fruit of 100-year old Spanish olive trees. With olives allowed to ripen longer, this fruit produces a full-bodied flavor with a buttery richness ideal for sautéing and baking. Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon, intensely fragrant and deliciously smooth, embellish any sauce or marinade.
Most visitors cough. “The oil tickles the back of your throat when it has a nice peppery or pungent profile. This is considered very high quality. A good oil will always be a three cough oil, they say,” MacDonnell explained.