Food & Drink

Olive oil in wine country

Olea Farm of Templeton offered samples of olive oil at the Olive Festival at  City Park in Paso Robles.
Olea Farm of Templeton offered samples of olive oil at the Olive Festival at City Park in Paso Robles. The Tribune

It’s been a cozy relationship for centuries: wine and olive oil, olives and grapes.

The combination is a natural one in the soil and at the table.

Olive trees are typically found at vineyards in Spain and Italy, where the climate is suited to both fruits. And as the wine industry has burgeoned on the Central Coast, olive oil production has blossomed here too.

“Where wine grows, olive trees grow,” said Clotilde Julien. She and husband Yves Julien make about 1,000 gallons of oil a year at Olea Farm in Templeton. “This area is perfect weather for olives.”

Indeed, olive trees are cropping up in the wine producing regions of Paso Robles and Edna Valley and the area is emerging as a top California source of extra virgin olive oil.

The state’s industry dates back to the late 18th century and the Spanish missionaries, according to the California Olive Oil Council. But as cheaper domestic oils hit American markets, olives fell out of favor. Some farmers in the state kept making olive oil for their own use. But most stores carried cheap, leftover products imported from Italy.

That has changed in the last decade. California producers began organizing and entering international tastings in the mid-1990s.

“They were treated the same way that early California wines were treated,” said Joeli Yaguda, who manages family-owned Pasolivo.

Ranging between 2,000 and 4,000 gallons per year, the Paso Robles producer is one of the largest in the county and has its own tasting room at the orchard.

“It was definitely a challenge at first to be taken seriously,” Yaguda added. “Now there’s hundreds of producers in California producing fantastic oils that do well when judged head-to-head with oils from Italy and Spain.”

Plus, magazines, cooking shows and channels like the Food Network — where Americans are turning to learn about food — have begun touting the health benefits of olive oil compared to butter.

That has boosted consumer interest in fresh, quality olive oils. With the number of California producers growing about 20 percent per year, the state is about to overtake France in oil production.

Olive trees are easier to grow than grapevines

“We only carry California olive oil,” said Gary Brown, who with wife DeeDee started We Olive in Paso Robles in 2003 as a retail outlet for local oil producers. “We put together an olive oil tasting bar so people can taste them all.”

They are about to open their second store in San Francisco. There are already We Olive franchises in San Luis Obispo, Fresno and Riverside; four more are planned for Ventura, El Dorado Hills, Walnut Creek and Long Beach.

Staff at all We Olive locations are trained in Paso Robles and at UC Davis. Each store adheres to the Browns’ approved list of oils, all of which are certified by the council.

“We’re definitely trying to be an educational experience,” said Brown. “We don’t just sell olive oil, you get to experience olive oil. It’s just like going wine tasting.”

The Browns also founded the Olive Oil Festival with the Paso Robles Main Street Association. The festival celebrated its fifth year in August.

“The nice thing about oil from a farmer’s standpoint: Olives are easier to grow than grapes are,” said Larry Smyth, owner of Carriage Vineyards in Templeton. “There are not many laws around it. Wine is a whole different story.”

And whereas winemaking involves considerable chemistry olives need tending only on the tree and during milling. Once the oil is pressed, it just needs a cool, shady spot to sit.

At Carriage Vineyards’ bed and breakfast, guests and others by appointment can taste oils from his three varieties of trees: Manzanilla, Arbequina and Mission. His first bottling was in 2005.When all 850 trees are producing, he hopes to bottle as much as 1,000 gallons a year.

“It will never have the (financial) impact the grape industry does,” Smyth said. “But it augments the vineyard industry.”

The Juliens didn’t even intend to sell their Olea Farm oil when they began. The French couple previously owned an antique shop and got tired of hauling large supplies of oil back from trips to Europe.

“When we moved here I couldn’t find a good olive oil at a good price,” said Clotilde Julien. They decided to plant a few trees and make enough for their own use.

But they discovered such a small crop must be mixed with other growers’ smaller crops to have enough to process.

“That’s when we decided to go bigger,” she said. “It’s too much just for yourself, so we went really bigger.”

Now they tend 1,200 trees and sell their oil through a tasting room.The couple also plants orchards for others who want landscaping or oil, often buying back excess oil.

“They’re making money just watching trees grow,” she laughed. “If they don’t want to do anything, we’ll come in with a crew.”

Phillip Hart, owner of Ambyth Estate in Paso Robles, has planted the trees between vines on his organic estate vineyard to promote healthy biodiversity.

“Olive trees are beautiful and they stay green,” he said.While olives thrive on water, they are also drought tolerant — a major attraction in an area where water access is often a concern. Plus, “deer don’t like them.”

Making his extra virgin olive oil for personal and commercial use is just a perk, Hart indicated. Boutique wine will continue to be his main focus, but he hopes his olive crop yields nice oils to sell to wine club members.

Paul and Patty Hoover, owners of Still Waters Vineyards, discovered five varieties of Spanish olives on their Paso Robles property. From them, they sell about 1,000 bottles of olive oil a year.

They’ll harvest again in November. Until then, StillWater’s oil is all sold out, said tasting room employee Nancy Pharis.

“Our oil is distinctively pungent,” she said. “Grassy, peppery — it sort of explodes in your mouth.”

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