Whether you like it green and grassy or butter-churn yellow, chances are you don't know quite as much about olive oil as you think you do. More than just a dip for bread or tasteless oil for heart-healthy sauteeing, true olive oil has as much depth, flavor and character as a fine wine. And can cost you just as much.
Sonoma County and neighboring Marin, Mendocino and Napa are at the heart of an artisan olive oil renaissance that goes back to the early 1990s. Inspired by the robust, peppery, fresh flavors of Tuscan olive oil, a handful of producers -- among them SoCo's own Bruce Cohn, Deborah Rogers, Ed Stolman, Ridgley Evers and Colleen McGlynn -- began producing award-winning small-production oils that tasted more like Italy and less like the bland, flavorless imported oils being dumped on the American market.
"There's fat and there's flavor," says DaVero Olive Oil's Ridgely Evers, one of Sonoma County's most outspoken advocates for buying fresh, local, extra-virgin olive oil. According to Evers, as well as UC Davis olive expert Paul Vossen, most of the cheap, imported olive oil on grocery shelves is old, substandard stuff.
"A little rancidity is normal. But olive oil just doesn't get better with time. You need to get it fresh to capture the essence and flavor," Vossen said.
Those flavors include things like green apple, green beans, grass, hay, butter, nettles, green banana or green tea. They shouldn't include flavors (or smells) like varnish, oil-based paint or old walnuts -- signs of rancidity. Extra-virgin simply means the oil is of the highest grade. Look for a certification on the bottle from the California Olive Oil Council.
Want to know how to get the good stuff? Go right to the source and be prepared to pay a pretty penny -- upwards of $20-$30 a bottle. This isn't cooking oil. Instead, use these high-quality oils for dipping, light dressings and finishing oils for meats and fish -- where you can truly appreciate their flavor. Save the cheap stuff for searing, frying or sauteeing.
The best time of year to get olive oil is straight from the presses in November/December (when it's called Olio Nuovo) or after it has settled, usually around March. Store in a cool, dark place for about a year. After that, treat yourself to a new bottle.
Where to go
The Olive Press: Located inside Jacuzzi Winery (and just down the street from the dip-and-nibble mecca, Viansa winery in Sonoma), it's easy to dismiss the raffia-ribboned, sample-bar charm of the Olive Press as tourist fodder. Which would be a mistake. Co-owner Deborah Rogers is one of the most lauded and respected olive oil producers in California and the Press is a bonanza of hard-to-find, small-production local oils made on-site.
Two of the earliest champions of Northern California's olive oil boom, Rogers and business partner Ed Stolman, recently relocated their milling operation from Glenn Ellen to the higher-trafficked Carneros region. Rogers continues to make her private label, Marquessa, a bold blend of old and new world olives and Stolman's, Lunigiana, has taken top prizes in Italy and Spain -- a bold oil with plenty of bitterness and throat-tickling pepper.
For olive oil enthusiasts, Rogers also bottles a handful of varietal olive oils, from the grassy, fruity Sevillano (one of the most approachable dipping oils we tasted), to the lusty Koroneiki, a Greek olive variety under the Olive Press label. Best-sellers, however, are her growing lineup of flavored oils -- clementine, Meyer lemon, jalape? and most recently, lime. Citrus zest is crushed along with the olives to infuse, rather than just flavor, the finished product. You can taste many of Rogers' oils, as well as offerings from her clients, including microproducers Beltane Ranch, Stone Edge and Napa's Cypress Hill. Go to the Olive Press in Sonoma (24724 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 800-965-4839) or the Oxbow Public Market (644 First St., Napa).