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Napa Journal: Harvesting Napa olives

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Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

I don’t exactly dislike olives, but I don’t go out of my way to eat one.

Yet there I was last Saturday, clad in four layers of clothing, a bucket suspended around my neck, ready for a morning of olive picking.

Joining Cheryl and me were several dozen folks from across the North Bay, all of us ecstatic to be invited again to one of Chris Craiker’s annual olive picking parties.

I say “party” because Chris, a Napa architect, has managed to turn a morning of grunt labor into a festive event.

How is this possible?

For starters, Chris feeds his volunteers well. A breakfast buffet at 8, then a bigger feed at mid-day when the picking is done. And throughout, plenty of high-spirited chatter.

I don’t know Chris’ friends and they don’t know me, but we talk as if drunk on camaraderie. All of life’s interpersonal encounters should be like this.

Or not.

For me, an introvert, a little bonhomie goes a long way. I get enough at these olive picking parties to last the entire month of November.

These events bring out my journalist’s persona. I get to ask questions: where are you from, what do you do? This is second nature to reporters, even retired ones. Questioning is their social bread and butter.

Cheryl is less programmed in her chitchat but still gets quality results. At lunch, she had our entire table talking about divorces, second marriages and quality child care in France.

Chris was bitten by the olive bug 20 years ago. He planted the slope below his west Napa house with young trees. Picking parties started 14 years ago. Our invites started coming five years ago after we hired Chris to design an addition to our house.

My relationship with Chris goes back farther than that. Years ago I took a spin with Chris in his new electric car – one of the very first in Napa – and wrote about it.

It’s not so strange that non-farmers would drop everything to pick an esteemed agricultural product. Wineries recruit enophiles all the time for recreational grape picking. They even charge them for the experience. For a few hours anyway, those of in Chris’ picking crew were viscerally tied to the land, not to computers and streaming TV.

I didn’t see my first olive tree until the Army sent me to Greece. Magnificently gnarled ancient specimens dot the Hellenic landscape, giving the countryside a Biblical vibe.

Olive trees didn’t have much cachet when I came to Napa Valley in the ‘70s. But now? Wineries and estate homes line their driveways with olives. City homes do too.

Chis turns his fruit into small bottles of organic, unfiltered, extra virgin oil that carries his “Corleone’s Olive Oyl” label. He gives it all away to friends and charitable causes.

Carrying this year’s gift bottle, we got home mid-afternoon from picking and socializing and eating. I admitted to being bloated from too much food and tired from the relentless activity. Not Cheryl. She professed to feeling just fine.

A short time later I peeked into our living room. There she was, sacked out under two robes on the couch.

“Social energy is hard,” she said later.

We knew what to do with our new gift bottle. We hid it in a cool dark place next to a gift bottle from a previous year.

Will we ever use it for drizzling or dipping?

Possibly, but possibly not. It will depend on whether we ever have an occasion that we think is special enough.

What is for sure is that we had fun picking and left with wonderful memories.

Students at Napa's Vichy Elementary School revived their school jogathon after it was cancelled last year due to COVID-19. The kids ran like crazy on Wednesday morning. Take a look here.

Kevin can be reached at kfcourtney@yahoo.com.

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