After Sonoma County's abundant grape crop is crushed and safely in winery tanks, a lesser known but increasingly important harvest gets under way in Wine Country as farm workers turn from vibrant-hued vineyards to verdant olive groves.
Trading their hooked grape-harvest knives for long wooden sticks, workers in recent weeks have been coaxing the county's 600 acres of olive trees to release what growers say is shaping up to be a bumper crop of flavorful fruit.
"The harvest is really excellent this year," said Deborah Rogers, owner of the Olive Press in Sonoma. "It's abundant, the olives are beautiful and fresh and clean and the oil yields are high, so it's a good year."
That's good news for an industry that has seen some challenging harvests in recent years.
State and federal farm officials estimate the state's olive growers could produce 180,000 tons this year, roughly 2 times the 2011 harvest of 71,200 tons.
In Sonoma County, which boasts more olive oil producers than any other county in the state, the olive crop remains minuscule compared to the grape industry. In 2011, there were 567 acres of olives in the county, compared to the 60,000 acres of vineyards. The crop was valued at $100,000 versus $350 million for wine grapes.
But the industry is becoming an increasingly important one for the region, blending well with existing food-and-wine tourism.
The Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau promotes December through February as olive season, encouraging tourists to visit the area for a variety of events. The season begins with the Dec. 1 blessing of the olives at Sonoma's historic mission downtown.
Interest in high-end California olive oil has grown steadily as the young industry has won awards around the world, said Jill Lee, tour and events manager at McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma.
"So it's kind of like the wine industry was back in the 1970s," Lee said. "Each year, it seems like there are more and more producers out there."