That freshness means volatility, so olio nuovo should be used fast—by the first flowering of spring, when the season's full-fledged oil, filtered and allowed to settle for a few months, appears. By that time the sediment in olio nuovo will have begun to oxidize in a dark pool at the bottom of the bottle, and the oil will become rancid. Some producers resist selling olio nuovo for fear that customers will open a bottle after May and wonder what went wrong. But a number of the state's most notable producers take the risk, and it's worth calling (see box) to see who still has some available. Olio nuovo is like an instant snapshot of the season's oil; the first of the season's oil is like a fresh finished portrait. I plan to order bottles of each kind from DaVero: I intend to taste that tablespoon I picked.
Suggestions for keeping it all Californian
On the theory that things that grow together taste good together, I asked Darrell Corti what wine would go well with a dish that features olive oil prominently—say, braised fennel with lemon and chicken stock, a dish that always brightens my winters, from the recipe in Barbara Kafka's encyclopedic new Vegetable Love, a book rich in olive-oil suggestions.
Corti recommended one from the foothills of the Sierras in the San Joaquin Valley, near olive orchards: President's Reserve Primitivo, made from the grape that is the genetic ancestor of Zinfandel. The name refers to the president of California State University at Fresno, the only four-year university with a commercial winery that operates as a teaching laboratory. Unlike the better-known teaching winery at the University of California at Davis, Fresno can sell its wine—which is made entirely by (supervised) students. They're doing well in their studies, as both Corti and Ken Fugelsang, a professor and the Fresno "winemaster," told me recently. The Primitivo won best of class in the Italian-varietals division of the 2002 LA County Fair, whose prizes carry weight for both wine and olive oil.
Fugelsang describes Primitivo as a subtler, better-integrated version of the familiar, powerfully fruity California Zinfandel. It's also much cheaper, at about $10 a bottle (call 559-278-9463 to order it). Corti also highly recommends Fresno's "magisterial" Barbera, a usually expensive Piedmontese wine that sells for only $13 a bottle. It would go well with the osso buco from Kafka's book—cooked, of course, with olive oil.
California Olive Ranch
Oroville, CA, 530-846-8000, www.californiaoliveranch.com. The state's largest producer, it uses mechanical harvesting to compete with bulk oils in price—and still guarantee freshness.
Healdsburg, CA, 888-431-8008, www.davero.com. Carefully made Tuscan-style oils from Sonoma, including practically the only tolerable flavored oil, pressed with Meyer lemons.
Petaluma, CA, 866-617-6779, www.mcevoyranch.com. Especially peppery Tuscan-style oil, pressed at perhaps the state's most sophisticated olive mill.
Nick Sciabica & Sons
Modesto, CA, 800-551-9612, www.sciabica.com. A San Joaquin Valley family firm that kept the olive-oil business alive almost single-handedly for decades, making mostly mild oils from traditional California varieties.
Berkeley, CA, 800-865-4836, www.stonehouseoliveoil.com. Central Valley oil made from mostly traditional California varieties; the "house oil" is blended to be smooth and mild but not dull.