To make us feel better, she pointed out the differences between picking olives and picking grapes. Olives are picked singly, grapes in bunches; in one day a crew of a dozen or so workers can pick three tons of olives, but just one worker can harvest two and a half tons of grapes. "The return on grapes is sooo much better," McGlynn said. "Why do you think Sonoma and Napa are planted in grapes? The minute they don't pay for themselves, a house goes up." And any oil producer must face the consumption discrepancy between wine and oil. People often pay $35 to $40 for a bottle of wine and then finish it in an evening. The same buyers will balk at spending the same amount for a bottle of oil—one it would take them several months to finish. "It's very, very hard to make money on olives," McGlynn said, sighing. "Maybe someday."
Nonetheless, membership in the California Olive Oil Council has expanded from barely two dozen ten years ago to 350, as Albert Katz, one of the first sellers of California oil and now a producer himself, pointed out in a recent conversation. (The council uses international standards to certify oil as extra-virgin—a designation that guarantees careful processing and the absence of defects more than it guarantees flavor. The term as yet has no legal meaning here, but the council has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to define it.) The new producers expect to break even—and are learning from the previous generation's experience. The first lesson is to avoid wine country, where land often costs $20,000 to $30,000 an acre. Small producers like Katz are also leasing instead of buying land, keeping down production costs, and focusing their marketing efforts. Several large producers have consolidated, hoping to find economies of scale. The largest—California Olive Ranch, in the Central Valley—has adopted a Spanish system (the owners are Spanish) of trellised trees for easy mechanical harvesting.
Katz told me that next year the state's output will most likely surpass that of France. "Yes, they aren't one of the biggest producers," he said. "But we never thought we'd be a player." (Spain, Italy, and Greece are the world's largest producers, followed by Tunisia, whose oil is often bottled in other countries and labeled as if it had been made there—something unscrupulous Californians have been caught doing too. Chile and New Zealand are the news in quality oil. As for bulk oil, the word in California is that China has planted 1.5 million trees, and though even California has almost double that number, any move the Chinese make worries the rest of the world.) Katz points to California Olive Ranch as an example of a California producer aiming to compete on the world market. "You can get a half liter at Trader Joe's for five dollars," he said. "And that's decent oil! It's certainly better than ninety-nine percent of imports, which probably aren't extra-virgin anyway. Ten years ago you couldn't have found a half liter of California oil for fifteen dollars."
Tastes have changed too. Tuscany will ever be popular, and the green antioxidant polyphenols that Tuscan-style oils contain will probably be found year by year to be yet more healthful. But even if they are lower in antioxidants, the milder, golden oils that traditional California table olives produce are perfectly good too—especially if the olives are harvested earlier and more carefully, as Tuscan producers have shown longtime California producers how to do. Regions with climates warmer than Tuscany's, such as Puglia and Sicily, can pick much later, and historically they have, because riper olives produce more oil. For the same reason, growers in California's Central Valley, which has a warmer climate than Sonoma or Napa, historically picked late too. But earlier harvest makes for a brighter-tasting oil, even with varieties that will never have that Tuscan pungency.
"The American consumer prefers oils that are not bitter or pungent," says Darrell Corti, of Corti Brothers, in Sacramento, an authority on all foods and wines, especially those of California and Italy. He points out that after years of Tuscan experimentation, Californians interested in Italian olives are turning to southern varieties that might be better suited to the dry local climates (it rains in summer in Tuscany). As McEvoy Ranch and DaVero continue to take on Tuscany, fine-tuning vividly flavored "finishing" oils that are best drizzled on salads or thick soups (or, as Shari DeJoseph recommends, fried and poached eggs), other Californians are taking on much of the rest of Europe—and potentially satisfying the many Americans who like soft, easy oils.
Freshness, and a dash of patriotism, will sell California oil. So will the greatly improved overall quality I found on my recent trip, in a wide variety of styles and prices. But nothing sells oil better than olio nuovo, "new oil," and now is the time to order the last of this season's. As much a sauce as an oil, olio nuovo is unfiltered and contains bits of crushed fruit. It is irresistible on rustic bread that has been toasted and rubbed with a cut garlic clove to make the Tuscan fettunta, a celebratory seasonal snack. The flavors of olio nuovo are so lively and changeable that Ridgely Evers compares it to a teenager.