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A taste for olive oil


Olive oil producer Arden Kremer of Sonoma warms a small blue cup of olive oil in her hand, then sips it, coating her tastebuds with one quick, noisy slurp.

"This one is bitter and buttery, with a hint of stone fruit," she said. "It's mild, but a lot of consumers don't like things that are too strong."

She cleanses her palate with a slice of green apple and warms another cup in her hands.

"This one is much more bitter," she said. "It's peppery and grassy, with a hint of cinnamon."

Kremer's impromptu olive-oil tasting illustrated an important point: Not all olive oils are created equal.

"People don't realize that, like wine, oils will have different flavors from the different olives," she said. "And that's part of the education process."

Every year, the North Bay olive season starts in mid-November and runs through December. For more than a decade, Kremer has been educating her own palate to detect the flavors of olive oil and the tiny defects that would prevent it from becoming certified as extra-virgin in California.

The 57-year-old has served as a member of the California Olive Oil Council's Tasting Panel since its inception in 1998. The COOC panel's certification program helps consumers identify olive oils that are guaranteed to be extra virgin.

"All of the tastings are blind, to protect the consumer and producer," Kremer said. "We taste in blue glasses so you can't see the color of the oil. ... We use a scoring sheet for negative attributes and positive attributes."

Some negative attributes may include rancid (tastes like old nuts), fusty (barnyard), musty (mildew) or wine-y (vinegary.)

"We're trained to find those in small, minute amounts," Kremer said. "You really develop a palate memory."

In 2005, Olive Oil Council sent Kremer to Italy to train as an olive-oil taste panel leader. She also serves on the tasting panel for the UC Davis Olive Center and a research panel run by farm consultant and olive expert Paul Vossen in Santa Rosa.

Her love affair with olives started back in the early 1990s after she and her husband, Phil Coturri, built a home in the hills overlooking the Sonoma Valley. Kremer and Coturri — a long-time, organic grape grower in the Sonoma Valley — planted an olive grove at their home with trees imported from Italy.

Along with pioneers such as Nan McEvoy of McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, Ridgely Evers of DaVero in Healdsburg and Lila Jaeger of Jaeger Family Estate in Napa Valley, Coturri was among the first in California to bring in trees from Italy, including such varietals as Pendolino, Leccino, Frantoio and Coratina.

The idea originated in 1991 with Lorenzo Petroni, a San Francisco restaurateur (founder of North Beach Restaurant) who owned a Sonoma vineyard managed by Coturri. Together with organic farmer Robert Cannard, Coturri and Petroni imported thousands of tiny Italian olive trees, then propagated them.

"They brought in trees twice, in large quantities," Kremer said. "Now everybody has trees."

In 1997, Kremer took a course in the sensory evaluation of olive oil through the UC Davis Cooperative Extension in Santa Rosa.

"My kids were grown, and it was harvest, so they sent me," she said. "I learned all about flavor profiles and what's needed to make good and bad olive oil."

Kremer did so well in the sensory tests that she was invited to train to be on an olive oil taster.

"We trained twice a month for a good year," she said. "In 1998, they finally had enough people for a tasting panel."

In 2001, Kremer and Coturri started producing their own olive oil under the "Poggiolo in Sonoma" label. It was a steep learning curve.

"We had no idea what we were doing," Kremer recalled. "It was a nascent industry."

Over the years, the couple have refined their technique. These days, they bring their olives to The Olive Press at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in Sonoma within 24 hours of picking.

"We produce 30 to 60 gallons a year," she said. "We do it for friends and family, and we sell a little bit to people who buy our wine brand."

When she's not tasting and producing olive oil, Kremer runs a swim school, Swim America, from April through August at the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma.

"My goal is to teach people to be safe in the water," she said. "Fifty percent of our students are Latinos on scholarship."

Kremer started swimming competitively while growing up on the New Jersey shore. So how did a nice girl from Rumson, N.J., get mixed up with olives and grapes?

It started back in 1973, when she lived temporarily on a commune in Rohnert Park. Kremer eventually moved across country for good, studying graphic design at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.

In 1976, the self-confessed "hippie chick" moved to Glen Ellen and got a job picking grapes in Kenwood with Coturri. They worked all day and only picked two boxes of grapes, but launched a lifetime of locavore eating.

"We wanted to seek a new life and new way to think about food," she said. "And to get away from the Birds Eye vegetables."

Coturri grew up in San Francisco, making wine in the cellar with his grandfather, an immigrant from Lucca, Italy. He launched his own management business, Enterprise Vineyards, in 1982. He now farms 600 acres for 40 clients.

Meanwhile, Kremer devoted herself to gardening, cooking and raising the couple's two sons: Sam, now 27; and Max, now 23.

"It was the beginning of the back-to-the-land movement," she said. "I love to cook, and my art and creativity come out in my cooking."

During the olive harvest, Kremer goes out before the crew arrives and picks her own olives to cure. She likes to throw them into a braised rabbit or chicken dish.

After the olives are pressed into oil each fall, the couple rush home and start drizzling the peppery oil over everything, from pizza to steak.

"Olive oil evolves, but it isn't enhanced by age," she said. "We can't wait for the new oil."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.