A small crowd gathered inside the chapel of Sonoma's historic downtown mission Saturday to pay tribute to the olive, Sonoma County's stalwart but lesser known fruit crop.

A priest presiding over the ceremony to kick off an annual two-month celebration of all things olive even paired it with the region's dominant wine grape, calling them both "ancient fruits of the earth."

"Sometimes we look at the olive and think it's a lowly fruit," said the Rev. Michael Kelly of St. Francis Solano Catholic Church. "Really, it is a very noble and very high fruit."

The morning ceremony marked the start of the Sonoma Valley Olive Season, a string of events stretching into mid-February that includes olive-curing workshops, oil tastings, a martini competition and olive-themed menus prepared by local chefs.

Now in its 13th year, the festival has been used by tourism promoters to bolster wintertime business in what are typically the slowest months of the year for the area's restaurants and hotels.

The celebration has coincided with what is normally the completion of the olive harvest around the end of the calender year.

"This is part of our way of honoring what happens right here in our community and sharing it with the rest of the world," said Wendy Peterson, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, which organizes the series of events.

For olive aficionados, the celebration shines a spotlight on the area's extensive heritage in olive production, stretching back to the days of Spanish missions in California.

Custom olive oil producers have spurred a revival of late, with new tasting and milling spots boosting the area covered by olive orchards in the county by more than 20 percent since 2011, to more than 700 acres.

That won't displace wine grapes, which dominate local farming, spanning more than 58,000 acres. Apples rank in second place above olives, covering about 2,200 acres in the county.

Still, the oldest trees in local olive groves have been around for a century or more. Many have seen longer droughts than the one currently gripping the state.

"There is so much history. It's one of the truest connections to the earth," said Gary Edwards, a Sonoma cheesemaker who has a small olive oil brand that sells locally.

Sonoma Councilman Ken Brown, one of the several dozen people who attended the Blessing of the Olives ceremony Saturday, said the festival was a natural fit for Sonoma. Olive trees shade the mission's grounds as well as the homestead of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, who founded the city in 1835.

Then there is area's reputation as food and wine destination.

"This is a food-centric town, and olive oil is the base of that," Brown said. "It brings together the history, the spirituality and the core values of what it means to live in Sonoma and visit Sonoma."

Olive growers and oil vendors set up tasting tables outside the mission that drew a long line of complimentary eaters.

Chris Gilmore, press master at The Olive Press, a Sonoma-based custom processing facility for olive growers, was serving up various samples of the shop's own Olio Nuovo, or "new oil," drawn from recently pressed fruit. It has a creamy texture with a lively, robust feel, Gilmore said.

"That feel only lasts about 45 days, so it's a very special time," he said. "It's a great way to mark the harvest."

Earlier in the day, those paying homage to the olive crop inside the chapel took in the blessing ceremony from plastic seats that served as makeshift pews.

Olive Jane Anderson, 2, of Sonoma, served as honorary mascot from her front row seat with her grandparents. She was presented with a branch from her namesake tree and beamed after being sprinkled with holy water during the blessing.

Kelly, the priest, opened his remarks with a short history of the olive's association with the Catholic Church, including the use of oil to consecrate religious figures and monarchs and in anointments for parishioners at the beginning and end of life.

"The olive in both cases is a recognition of the sacredness of the human person," he said.

Then he paused before delivering a segue in his native Irish accent that earned a hearty laugh from the crowd. "And, of course, the other more joyful use of the olive is its use in drink, in martinis," he said. Grinning, he added, "Whether they're shaken or stirred."

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)