The typical olive oil company would probably employ a decent-sized staff, compete for gold medals at olive oil tastings, sell their product in a glass bottle, and try to get into the biggest stores possible.
By those standards, Nena Talcott and Bonnie Storm’s Grove 45 is not your typical olive oil company – and that’s just fine with them.
“It doesn’t sit on a ship coming across the ocean,” Talcott said. “It’s not sitting in big vats until it’s bottled in a warehouse on the East Coast. It just goes from our trees to our hands to you. I think that’s what sets us apart.”
For a company with an in-house, hands-on approach to marketing, Grove 45 tends to get the kind of attention you’d expect of a large producer with a lavish marketing budget. In March, Grove 45 made Bon Appetit’s list of “3 Small-Batch, American-Made Olive Oils to Rival Italy’s Finest.”
The article praises the oil’s “fresh and peppery finish,” but Talcott and Storm suspect the marketing plug, like others Grove 45 has attracted from the likes of Fortune and the New York Times, has just as much to do with their distinctive extruded aluminum bottle and pewter label.
The stark packaging has won design awards, but it’s also practical. The aluminum bottle is recyclable and keeps out the ultraviolet light, heat and oxygen which over time cause the oil to spoil.
“Even the darkest glass will allow UV rays to get in there,” Talcott said.
The bottle’s no-frills aesthetic also reflects the company’s do-it-yourself identity.
“You’re looking at the entire company,” Storm said. “I do all the farming. Nena does all the marketing. At this time of year I’m in the grove every single day, whether I’m irrigating or suckering.”
Storm said she has an ace pruner in Bev Lincoln, and the milling is done off-site, but she and Talcott do as much as they can themselves, right down to affixing the labels onto the bottles.
Talcott and Storm had been friends for years, and they teamed up as business partners in 2009. Talcott had gotten divorced and left the wine business and was “looking for something to do,” and Storm, who’d imported some olive trees from Italy but wasn’t making much money off them, was tired of being in the olive oil business by herself.
They came up with the name Grove 45 in honor of the year they were born and released their first 60 cases in early 2010, from olives harvested the previous year on Storm’s 240-acre Chiles Valley ranch. They sold out in a month, and by July Travel and Leisure had named Grove 45 one of “Our Favorite Olive Oils” – the only American brand to make the list.
Their trees consist of five varieties: the Tuscan varieties Frantoio, Leccino, Maurino and Pendolino, and the Sicilian-style Noccelara de Belice. Storm said they thrive “like weeds,” enjoying the same latitude as their Mediterranean homeland, a high water table, and the same good soil and climate that produces world-class winegrapes.
“It’s just like wine,” she said. “Everything plays a part.”
Talcott and Storm use a roughly 60/40 blend of black and green olives to produce a medium-robust extra-virgin oil that has the bite of a Tuscan oil without getting too bitter. Storm said it’s much milder and more broadly appealing than the oil she used to make under the Storm Olive Ranch brand.
“There’s a pungency and bitterness to it that is normal for this style and these olives,” Talcott said. “As people become educated about olive oil, just like they have about wine, they’ve really taken to this oil because it’s a great flavor enhancer on foods. It’s not one you cook with.”
Despite being confident about the oil’s quality, Talcott and Storm avoid olive oil competitions. For one thing, entry fees are expensive. But more important, they don’t like the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality of large tastings.
“They give out 20 to 30 gold medals, 30 or 40 silver medals, 30 or 40 bronze, and then five best in show,” Talcott said. “What does that even mean?”
This year’s harvest looks promising, and should produce the usual 300-400 cases. The water table on the ranch is so high that the trees have always had easy access to the aquifer, so the rainy winter shouldn’t make a huge difference.
You’ll find Grove 45 at high-end stores like Murray’s Cheese in New York City’s Grand Central Station and St. Helena businesses like Acres, Erin Martin Showroom, Dean and DeLuca, Oakville Grocery and Sunshine Foods. But don’t look for it at a supermarket. Its artisanal appeal makes it most suitable for small specialty stores, where knowledgeable merchants can recommend it to customers and explain its high price point ($40).
“It’s a hand process,” Talcott said. “We’re not a big mechanized farm. We’re a small farm with 500 trees and it’s all done by hand, which is an expensive process.”