California olive oil is a tough sell. As made in the wine country north of San Francisco, it's in the Tuscan style, meaning pungent and bitter. Even cooks and eaters who have come to prize these qualities—who realize that both mean freshness, and that both are considered positive attributes—often balk at the Tuscan-style price, choosing instead a Spanish or a moderately priced Italian oil. Why pay so much for locally made oil?
One answer to my question presented itself beside a row of olive trees on the high hillsides of McEvoy Ranch, in Marin County near the border with Sonoma, an especially beautiful part of a famously beautiful area. It was early November, just as the harvest was getting under way, and the orchards were in a mild frenzy; the farm workers were checking trees every day to decide when to start picking. Following the suggestion of Shari DeJoseph, the orchard manager, I picked an olive, crushed it between my fingers, and rubbed the oil, juice, and reddish-green pulp over the back of my hand. The fragrance was grassy and fresh but rich, too. The oil and pulp felt marvelously emollient on my hands, and also a bit sticky from the sugars that fresh olives contain, along with the very bitter substances that surprise first-time pickers who pop the berrylike fruit into their mouths. I licked off a bit of the oil (I like bitterness). This incomparable freshness is the best reason to buy California oil, and you'll be supporting an industry that after a decade of baby steps is taking its first strides.
The arrival of these very trees—now taller than I, with pert, tiny, glinting silver-green leaves and firm fruit almost ready to be picked—had been foretold in the early nineties, when I visited Tuscany's poshest olive-oil consultant, Maurizio Castelli, at one of the grand wineries he worked with. Castelli was instructing me on the olive varieties and harvesting methods that produce Tuscan oil's characteristic rasping catch in the back of the throat, often heralded by an emerald-green tinge to the familiar gold. The Tuscan style of oil—powerfully fruity, challenging, and a bit rough—was then all the rage, and Tuscany was pushing Provence off the map of Edens for the well-heeled (could it be incidental that Provençal oil is mild and smooth?). Proponents of the Mediterranean diet were urging people to look for that bright green, which indicates the presence of chlorophyll and other artery-clearing antioxidants. If olives were part of the beautiful life of Tuscan winemakers, why shouldn't Californians in their own paradise plant olives where grapes grew?
Castelli guided me through a tasting he had carefully designed to show peppery Tuscan oils to maximum advantage, and to make me see non-green oils as dull, flaccid, and wimpy. At the end he told me he was very excited about one forward-looking Californian: "We've sent a woman in San Francisco a lot of plants, and we'll go over and produce oil for her." Tuscan oil made right in California, he said, would be the breakthrough that would educate American palates acculturated to wan, rancid oil.
The Californian was Nan McEvoy, a San Francisco newspaperwoman looking for her next adventure. The land on the Marin ranch she had bought was restricted to agricultural use. Rather than buy more of the cows the previous owners had grazed on the hillsides, she thought of the Tuscan oils she had long loved, and ordered olive trees of the varieties Castelli recommended. She installed a crushing-and-processing mill right on the property: ideally, olives should be pressed immediately after being picked, before they can oxidize and begin to turn rancid.
Other landowners were trying to revive California's flagging industry, which began producing oil in the 1870s but had long ago turned mostly to curing and canning table olives. The chief exponents of Tuscan oil were McEvoy and Ridgely Evers. At the same time that McEvoy's trees were arriving in containers from Italian nurseries, Evers, who had done quite well as a software developer, was planting Tuscan varieties at DaVero, his property an hour or so north in Healdsburg, a Sonoma County town that was then still free of the Italianate gloss of Napa County. (It has since succumbed. Clothing and ceramics boutiques and gourmet markets outnumber the seventies-vintage general stores and barbershops that long persisted in Healdsburg's main square. But a few of its businesses are independent and even funky. You can still get what might be the country's best-made cappuccino at the Flying Goat, and my favorite muffin—really a cake doughnut, baked rather than fried—at the Downtown Bakery and Creamery.)
Planting and pressing olives requires very deep pockets. Several of the high-level hobbyists whose oils I tasted and admired in the first wave of the olive-oil revival (including my favorite of the time, Harrison Vineyards) have either gone out of business or gone back to growing the grapes they'd grown before. The industry is changing hands, from well-to-do dreamers with vision and taste to businesspeople intent on making oil pay.
I heard more about the economics when I joined the annual pick-your-own fest at DaVero, where dozens of guests meet on a November Sunday to strap on plastic buckets and try to fill them with olives. I was of course laughably slow compared with professional pickers, but even they can go only so fast. Unless trees are spaced and pruned to be mechanically harvested, as Colleen McGlynn, Evers's wife and partner, explained while we searched branches for hidden fruit, labor costs are prohibitive anywhere in this country. DaVero does not use machines to shake the trees, as many European growers do; the most mechanical help its crews get comes from vibrating combs on long broom handles, which they use to rake fruit off the branches and onto tarps spread on the ground. A pro working as we did would presumably fill a half-gallon bucket—the size we amateurs were using—in a fraction of the forty-five minutes it took me and two visiting San Francisco chefs to fill ours. (The buckets were a bit of Marie Antoinette milkmaidery; pros empty the tarps into big plastic crates.) Our forty-five minutes of labor would result at best, McGlynn estimated, in a tablespoon of oil.