Where olives press grapes for real estate

Umberto Chironi comes from a long line of Italian olive-oil producers. So long, in fact, that they can be traced back to AD 778, says the native of Puglia in southern Italy. "Making olive oil in my home region is like growing corn in Nebraska," he says.

It was only natural for Mr. Chironi to stick with what he knows best. But instead of pursuing a career in his native Italy, home to one-third of the world's olive oils and many of its best, he opened shop six years ago in Napa Valley, Calif.

There, his expertise is hardly wasted. As manager of several olive groves, consultant to less-experienced growers, and one who blends his own product, Chironi has found his niche. "This is the land of opportunity for me," he says, smiling. "I predict that in 10 to 15 years, California will have olive oil that's as good as its wine, and in 30 years, the olive-oil industry here will be as big as it is in Greece."

Of course, wine is what Napa Valley is most known for, but it is fast becoming a serious hub of olive-oil production as well. "In the last five years," says Chironi, "30 new producers and 14 new presses have started up in this part of California."

At a nearby Dean & Deluca store, 20 of the 60 olive oils sold are made locally.

Cathy Leland, a buyer for the gourmet food store in St. Helena, says that's double the amount of local olive oils that were displayed on Dean & Deluca's shelves a year ago. "It's the thing to do for wineries that are bored, or for people who discover olive trees on their property and want to give it a whirl," she explains.

Ms. Leland adds, "Of course, we only sell extra-virgin olive oil." In a region renowned for its sophisticated culinary standards, demand is indeed high for such high-end products.

The term "extra virgin" refers to the acidity level, which must be no more than 1 gram per 100 grams of olive oil. This variety is prized for its delicate texture and aromatic flavor, and commands a higher price because it requires special care and can only be produced in smaller amounts. "If you want a really good bottle of olive oil," says Chironi, "don't pay less than $30 per liter." A 500-milliliter bottle of his own "Il Nobile" carries a price tag of $25.

Napa Valley's interest in olive oil is partly an outgrowth of Americans' infatuation with all things Mediterranean, especially its cuisines, known to be both delicious and diet-smart. The region's dry, temperate climate, which is ideally suited to cultivation of olives, is much like that of the Mediterranean.

The fruit itself, Olea europaea, has been an integral part of Mediterranean life for centuries. Ninety-three percent of the world's olive trees are grown in the Mediterranean, with the majority of them in Greece, Italy, Spain, and France. Only 0.3 percent of the world's olive trees grow in California.

Theories as to the olive's origins conflict, however, food scholar Edward Behr, considered a highly reliable source, says it was first cultivated in Turkey. In his newsletter, The Art of Eating, Mr. Behr writes, "The plant was carried west through the Mediterranean so long ago that no one can be certain who spread it and when. Fossils found in Spain go back 10,000 years, but the olive was probably introduced in each area more than once before cultivation became widespread."

Spanish Franciscan monks brought olive trees to California in the late 18th century when they imported large cuttings and seeds from their missions in Mexico. In addition to the state's plentiful Mission and Manzamillo olives, many Mediterranean varieties grow here as well. "But," says Chironi, "of the 2,200 varieties of olives in the world, only about 80 are considered top-quality."

Growers are forever searching for those top 80, and it's not uncommon for them to bring home a little bit of the Mediterranean from that vacation in Tuscany or Provence. Forget sunflower-splashed tablecloths or supple leather sandals. Olive-oil producers might spend their days in Europe in search of the perfect olive tree.

Lila Jaeger is one Napa Valley grower who imported European olive trees - 1,000 from France and 200 from Italy - to her sprawling, 400-acre property in the town of Napa. She also grows indigenous olives. "I am convinced," she says, "that the best olive oil comes from a blend of several varieties."

Unlike Chironi, Mrs. Jaeger doesn't rely on the humble fruit for her livelihood. "I guess you'd call me a hobbyist," she says. "People don't get into this business to make a profit. It's really a labor of love."

And a labor of patience. There's at least a three-year wait for the first harvest and a seven-year wait for a full harvest. Much of the tedium of harvesting, however, is eliminated by state-of-the-art mechanical harvesters, which gently vibrate trees to shake olives from the branches and into nets strewn on the ground so as not to bruise them.

Jaeger explains that her olive oil production started as a way to supplement business at the winery that she and her husband, Bill, have run since 1968. It was also an "experiment in excellence," she says. Mr. Behr considers that experiment quite successful. In his same scholarly newsletter on olive oil, the globe-trotting connoisseur of fine food writes that of a half-dozen California olive oils he and his tasting team sampled, Jaeger's fruity, buttery product was the favorite.

She attributes such praise to special care taken with her olives. "It's important to pick them when they are purple, the stage between green and black," she says. Mustard seed, which surrounds her groves, provides nitrogen to the soil in an organic form. She's also careful not to saturate the trees with water. "Too much water drains them of flavor," she explains. "They need to struggle a bit." And finally, Jaeger transports her olives to a Sonoma Valley press within 24 hours of harvesting, which is crucial for a quality product.

Jaeger is one of 12 partners at The Olive Press, a cooperative in the town of Glen Ellen, which was started in 1996 by a group of California growers inspired by cooperatives in northern Italy and southern France.

Olives are harvested most intensely from November through early January. After that, the season tapers off until early March. It's iffy whether a visit to The Olive Press in late February will provide a glimpse of the action.

Fortunately, press manager Michael Eukhanian was running the machines during my visit two months ago. "Early in the season," he says, "the olives are grassy and peppery. Later, they become smooth and buttery."

During the harvesting season, Mr. Eukhanian works 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Despite the lack of time with his wife and two children, however, he wouldn't trade his job for anything. "It's such an exciting time to be in this industry," he shouts over the roar of machines. "At first there was little interest, but then it just took off."

In addition to pressing olives for its partners, The Olive Press hosts two community days each year when families from the area who grow only a few trees can toss their olives together with everyone else's to reach the required 800-pound minimum for pressing.

"The parking lot packs with about 80 cars," says Eukhanian. "Families have a great time. They hang out and watch the action until the noise finally drives them away."

On the other side of the viewing window from Eukhanian's operation, Sally McCormick mans the gift shop and tasting room. She offers fresh-baked bread for dipping and talks knowledgeably about the oils made there from a variety of olives including Mission, Sevillano, Tuscan, and Ascalano. Going down the line, describing the background of each bottle, Ms. McCormick lingers a little longer over one labeled "Lunigiana."

"This bottle took seventh place out of 100,000 olive oils in a major competition held in, of all places, Italy," she says, adding with a broad smile: "You can't get a better sign that California olive oil has made it than that."

Olive Oil Dip

Olive oil dips are infinitely variable. Quality of the olive oil and bread makes, or breaks, this simple offering. Use whatever fresh herbs you like: basil, tarragon, chives, thyme, oregano, or combinations. It's a matter of your taste. You can, of course, omit the chili pepper. Olive oil dips are a very popular hors d'oeuvres in fine restaurants today.

Olive Oil Dip

1 cup finest extra-virgin olive oil

1 small red chili pepper, halved

1 6-inch sprig fresh rosemary, bruised

2 basil leaves, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

6 crushed peppercorns

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. (Looks particularly appetizing in a plain white bowl.)

Serve with fresh, top quality bread such as French baguettes - and plenty of cocktail napkins.

Have each diner tear off small pieces of bread and dip in oil.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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