Rich, aromatic olive oils are produced throughout Napa County, most pressed from the fruit of trees planted by Italian immigrants in the 1800s. Local residents can find Napa olive oils online and at a number of local stores and wineries. Each taste is a reminder of that olives are part of the valley’s agricultural past.
Only a few olive oils are available to the public. Many oils are only available to winery or private club members. Estate-grown olive oils are produced by Aurajo Estate Wines in Calistoga, Pine Ridge Vineyard in Napa, Longmeadow Ranch Winery in St. Helena, and Round Pond Estate and Rutherford Hill Winery, both in Rutherford. Other oils are grown on land where there are no vineyards, including the ranches of Napa Valley Olive Oil Company and Grove 45 Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), both in St. Helena.
Grove 45, located at the ranch of co-owner Bonnie Storm, shows it takes an experienced hand to create a premium product. Storm imported her trees from Italy in 1994.
“I had a love affair with Italy, so I brought these trees to Napa. We grow the four types of olives from which you make a Tuscan blend, Tuscany, Frantoio, Pendolino, Leccino, and Moraiolo. We also grow Nocellara del Belice olives from Sicily,” said Grove 45 co-owner Nena Talcott.
Talcott said when the Tuscan olives are blended together, they produce an oil with a medium to robust flavor. This oil has a lot of fruit in the front of the mouth.
“The Tuscan blend has that bitterness, that heat in the back of the taste. It has a peppery, artichoke-like, fresh green olive aroma. It can be very bold,” said Talcott.
Storm said she strives to create olive oil with a “certain bitterness.”
“You need to balance the percentage of ripe to unripe olives, with about 60 percent ripe, purple to black, to about 40 percent green. The green olives give the oil a more robust flavor. You have to get the ratio right because you can’t manipulate the taste. Every year, you pray for consistency in your flavor,” said Storm.
At Darioush Winery in Napa, certified olive oil sensory evaluation expert Orietta Gianjorio leads groups in sensory sessions of olive oil for quality standards and pairing. The olive oil that Gianjorio pairs with food and wine comes from a collaboration between Darioush Kaledi, the owner of the winery, and an olive orchard north of Sacramento.
Gianjorio also helps olive oil growers throughout Napa Valley, including Mark Griffin, blend olive oil.
“Mark grows the olives from which you create a Tuscan blend, which are Moraiolo, Maurino, Leccino, and Pendoliono,” said Gianjorio.
Gianjorio’s and Talcott’s statements show a Tuscan blend can be created from a variety of Tuscan olives.
Gianjorio said the high-quality trees in the Napa Valley make an outstanding olive oil.
“The oil (Mark creates) has an intense and persistent aroma. It’s grassy with notes of artichoke. (It has) a mild bitterness and a long-lasting spiciness that makes it memorable,” said Gianjorio.
In 2019, California olive oil producers are expected to make about 4 million gallons of olive oil. This is far more than last year’s 1.6 to 1.8 million gallons.
“This year, the oil should be excellent,” said Gianjorio.
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Lars Kronmark, professor of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, said he thinks the flavor of Napa Valley Olive Oil Company’s products is usually outstanding.
“It’s very green, with a grassy, green apple flavor. It has a powerful, thick consistency. It’s incredibly viscous,” said Kronmark.
Kronmark recommends adding high-quality olive oils in drizzles so they “float” on top of hummus, bean, and vegetable dishes.
“The taste of some local olive oils is so strong you can’t make aioli or mayonnaise with them. You may even need to cut the stronger oil down with a bit of neutral oil. But these local oils are super tasty,” said Kronmark.
Teresa Hernando, general manager of The Olive Press in Sonoma, said extra virgin olive oils made from Sonoma County fruit can be found at The Olive Press store in the Oxbow Market in Napa.
Customers who know a local olive grower may be able to get olive oil from Napa fruit or a mixture of Napa and Sonoma fruit.
“There are between 8 and 10 olive growers throughout Napa Valley that we press for individually. In addition, some people who have olive trees on their property bring their olives to be added on the community press day for Napa and Sonoma growers. The Napa-Sonoma community press takes place twice a year, at the end of October and the end of November,” said Hernando.
Hernando said the typical olives she sees delivered to the community press are Italian blend olives, very aromatic and robust olives. These include the Leccino, Frantoio, Caratina, and Pendolino varieties.
“We usually mill between 7 and 10 tons of olive oil on a work day. Growers pay 85 cents a pound for the oil. They usually buy an amount proportionate to the weight of olives they bring,” said Hernando.
The taste of the extra virgin olive oil varies every year depending on the weather during the olive’s growing season and the types of varietals that are pressed.
Hernando said community press oil is not sold to the public.
“(The Olive Press’s store in Oxbow Market) sells extra virgin olive oil (made from olives) grown on our estate in Sonoma and contracted orchards in California. Our oils have a variety of flavors. Some are fruity, while others taste like a green leaf, almost like that of a tomato plant. I enjoy Koroneiki extra virgin olive oil. It has the sweetness and a hint of green almonds. More robust olive oils taste like artichokes and pepper. The delicate oils are soft and creamy, like butter, with a hint of pepper on the finish,” said Hernando.
Hernando recommends adding extra virgin olive oil to any meal or dessert.
“Drizzle it on top of ice cream with a bit of sea salt. The flavors are amazing,” said Hernando.
Paolo Colavita, vice president of California operations for Colavita Olive Oil, said the company recognizes Napa Valley’s history of olive oil production. This is one of the reasons the company chooses to showcase its olive oils at two local Culinary Institute of America (CIA) centers, Copia in Napa and Greystone in St. Helena.
Colavita said the Napa Valley has some potential to grow olive trees to make olive oil.
“It already does so to a certain limited degree, but land is more expensive than in other areas. That makes it unappealing for larger growth. We also see a slightly lower average yield per square foot than in other areas, such as the stretch between Sacramento and Chico,” said Colavita.
The company is still interested in having a presence in Napa.
“Colavita is on the lookout for possible investments on the agricultural and farm side all over California, which includes Napa and Sonoma counties. But since (Napa) is a distance from our brand-new plant and distribution center in Dixon, as well as major olive tree orchard areas, it’s not that likely to happen,” said Colavita.
Colavita said even if California represents only one percent of the world production of olive oil, the state still has a big potential for growth in its selection of extra virgin olive oils.
“Napa Valley offers an opportunity to build something stable and solid in terms of image and appeal. It’s a brand recognized all over the world and has done an incredible job advertising and promoting the region. That’s something the Italian olive oil industry and government definitely need to take notes on,” said Colavita.