Food & Drink

For Robbins Family Farm, success is ripe for the picking

Robbins Family Farm in Arroyo Grande produces olive oils, on the left, and imports balsamic vinegars, on the right, from Italy.
Robbins Family Farm in Arroyo Grande produces olive oils, on the left, and imports balsamic vinegars, on the right, from Italy.

What a difference a few harvests make. When Robbins Family Farm started out making its olive oils about a decade ago, “we couldn’t give it away,” remembered owners Robbie and Patti Robbins. Now, thanks to “the evolution of food interests,” some major competitions are giving the Robbinses’ olive oils some major kudos.

Among the most recent came from the Central Coast Olive Oil Competition sponsored by the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles. Over 100 oils from more than 40 labels were judged, and all the winners will be available for tasting and purchase during the fair’s run from July 16 to 27.

While several local oils placed very well, Robbins Family Farm was the only one to receive a combo Gold/Best in Show. Those awards, in the “medium intensity” category, were garnered by its Ascolano oil, and three of its other oils also won medals: a gold for the Manzanillo and a silver for the Taggiasca, both also medium oils, plus a bronze in the “delicate intensity” category for their orange-flavored Mission varietal.

If the competition also included a label design category, Robbins Family Farm would likely do well there too. Patti is an accomplished painter, and all the company’s products are graced with her boldly colorful portraits, landscapes and still lifes.

As with many such family businesses, making olive oil started out as a hobby. Already enamored with olive oil thanks to a honeymoon trip to Spain, the Robbinses decided to attend a meeting of the Central Coast Olive Growers and fell in love with the idea of making olive oil, Robbie said.

In addition to planting their own hobby orchard, “we talked some friends into planting some trees for us, but they didn’t want to harvest the olives,” Robbie said.

As a result, the business model evolved to include the maintenance and harvest of those trees, so now “we’ve become a small farming company plus an olive oil company.”

The Robbinses have since added importer to the mix by bringing in gourmet balsamic vinegars and olive wood accessories from Italy.

The various orchards range in size from 20 trees to 200, and all are located in southern San Luis Obispo County. After being harvested by hand, the olives go to one of three mills depending on location so that the transit time from the orchard is never more than a couple hours, usually less.

The oils milled for the Robbins Family Farm brand are certified as extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council, widely considered the strictest certification process in the olive world.

To be granted the COOC seal of approval, the oils must undergo both objective chemical and subjective taste testing. The former measures such factors as acidity and light absorption, while the latter looks for positive aspects of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency.

Though at least some of those last two characteristics are necessary in every extra virgin olive oil, the extent of them varies greatly depending on the olive variety and the growing conditions. Not all extra virgin olive oils pack that grassy, peppery punch that people either love or hate.

“Sometimes our harvest can go into January or February,” said Robbie, “so we tend to have soft oils.”

Indeed, though a couple of them — Tuscan Blend and even the Manzanilla — will give you that punch, most of the Robbins Family Farm olive oils tend to offer rounder, fruitier notes.

As such, they’re not only great dipping oils but can be easily used in everything from marinades to salad dressings to olive oil cakes — combined with the balsamic vinegars, it’s a full palette of gourmet possibilities from Robbins Family Farm.