The falling olives clattered onto plastic tarps like rain hitting tin roofs, knocked loose by workers with long wooden shafts that seemed fit for pole vaulting.
The olive harvest has begun at B.R. Cohn Winery near Glen Ellen and at a number of other North Bay orchards. The olives, which will be pressed into artisan cooking and tasting oils, make up a small but growing crop with a premium cachet.
Growers say the harvest has begun a few weeks earlier than usual. "Just like the grapes, the olives are coming in earlier this year," said Samantha Dorsey, the farming manager for McEvoy Ranch outside Petaluma. It appears to be due to warmer summer days.
Olives often are found at wineries. The two crops not only prefer the same climate, growers said, but their harvests occur at different times. And most wineries have the means to get the olive oils into consumers hands.
"If you have a tasting room, you can do direct sales," said Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, an olive oil consultant and educators. "Plus the fact that they taste great together."
In 2002, agriculture officials estimated that Sonoma County had 77 acres of bearing olive trees. Five years later, that number had grown to 285 acres. And by last year, olives took up 705 acres. Still, the olive harvest's estimated farm value of $165,000 represents a sliver of the county's $821 million total for all crops last year. Of that total, winegrapes comprised nearly $583 million.
At B.R. Cohn Winery, many of the nearly 500 olive trees are believed to have been planted in the 1870s and were well established when the winery opened there nearly 40 years ago.
The harvest is done by hand.
"It's so labor intensive," said Daniel Cohn, a principal at the family-owned winery. The production costs make the olive oil akin to "liquid gold," Cohn said. A 200 milliliter bottle sells for $25.
Across the valley, on a hill near Jack London State Park, Chris Benziger and a crew of workers were gathered around a handful of the 800 olive trees planted at Benziger Winery. He said the olive harvest requires a lot of interaction among the crew.
"It's super sociable," he said. "I look forward to it."
The winery is planning to plant a few hundred more trees in a low spot where grapes never did very well. He looked it over, pointing to a few sheep fenced off from existing olive trees and grapevines and said, "You can almost think you're in Greece or Italy."
Outside Healdsburg, the DaVero farm has just started harvesting, said Colleen McGlynn, an owner with her husband Ridgely Evers. The farm has 4,500 olive trees.
"The crop looks light again this year, McGlynn said. The harvest normally would be closer to Thanksgiving, she said.
Olives are a cyclical crop, said Devarenne. A bumper crop is often followed by a lighter one. "In general, this year's yields seem to be considerably down," Devarenne said.
Dorsey said many farms this year have been hit by an infestation of the olive fruit fly.
The 80 acres of olives at McEvoy Ranch have escaped harm, she said. But the ranch presses olives for about 100 growers and Dorsey has heard complaints of significant crop damage on farms from Santa Barbara to Ukiah. Still, those interviewed said the county will continue to produce premium olive oils.