Sebastopol olive oil farm gears up for the busy harvest season
In Wine Country, the grape harvest ended in October, but another star of the table is waiting in the wings for its golden moment: the Italian, French and Spanish varieties of olives that will be harvested beginning this month, when the small green fruits begin to ripen and turn purple.
At Gold Ridge Organic Farms, founded in 2001 by farmer Brooke Hazen in the western hills above Sebastopol, the coastal fog and sun that slowly ripens the region’s chardonnay and pinot noir grapes also create the ideal growing conditions for 88 acres of organically farmed olives, apples, citrus and herbs.
Hazen, who has blanketed 70 acres of the estate with 13,000 olive trees, started building his own olive mill 10 years ago, featuring a state-of-the-art Rapanelli olive press from Italy, so he could have more control over the quality of his olive oil. The mill also helps support the farm by providing milling services for about 150 clients all over California, from the flatlands of the Central Valley to the hillsides of the North Bay.
“Pressing olives is a romantic thing,” Haven said. “With the amount of olives I have, it would be really expensive otherwise. … And our customers can bring from 50 pounds up to 50 tons to be custom milled.”
Like other olive oil producers in the North Bay, Hazen is gearing up for mid-November harvest of his own olive trees, which include Spanish varieties like Arbequina, Picual and Manzanilla as well as French varieties like Picholine and Italian varieties such as Frantoio, Leccino and Minerva.
“I look at when the first killing frosts are coming, generally around Christmas, so I usually start picking in mid-November,” he said. “We finish the olive harvest in four weeks, by mid-December.”
All the olives are milled on-site within hours of harvest for peak freshness and flavor, including healthy, antioxidant boosting polyphenols concentrated in the bitter flesh of the fruit.
His organic line of olive oils have already won gold and silver awards from the New York International Olive Oil Competition as well as from the California Olive Oil Council, a nonprofit trade group that supports certified extra-virgin olive oil standards.
Hazen credits the climate of Sonoma County for helping nurture the complex flavors in olive oils grown and made here in the cool coastal hills.
“People wonder why olive oils vary so much,” he said. “Yes, farming is involved, but climate is the biggest factor. … The oil here is very robust. The reason is the cool fog we get here in NorCal. The flavors and colors have a longer time to develop nuances and do not get cooked out.”
When he first started planting olives back in 2000, Hazen sourced his Italian olive varieties from McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, one of the North Bay’s revered pioneers of high-end Italian-style olive oil production.
“But I also have 21 varieties,” Hazen said. “I wanted to diversify with the French and Spanish blends.”
Gold Ridge Organic Farms grows and mills four of its own olive oil blends: the Tuscan, Picholine, Arbequina and Minerva blends, each a mixture of four to six varieties of olives.
In the kitchen, the Arbequina blend is mild and perfect for salad dressings and marinades. The Tuscan blend, a favorite among chefs, is ideal for cooking. Minerva, another Italian blend, starts out robust and pungent, with the highest polyphenol count, but it mellows over time. Foodies love it for its buttery mouthfeel. The Picholine blend made from French varieties is delicious right out of the bottle.
“My favorite Picholine is when it’s new,” Hazen said. “It’s rare to find.”
Recently, Hazen started milling his olives together with some of the citrus he grows at the farm, a method that originated in Abruzzo region of Italy that is known as Agrumato. They started with a refreshing Meyer Lemon Agrumato and a Mandarin-Kumquat Agrumato.
“This is the first year making them,” Hazen said. “It’s made with a pure process — pure fruit, the peel and the juice.”
Edible cosmetic products coming
For the past few years, Gold Ridge also has been diversifying with a line of value-added products made from the organic apples, olive oil and herbs grown at the farm.
Director of Business Operations Andrea Lederle joined the sales and marketing team a few years ago to help raise the profile of the farm, then Naomi Ansbergs joined to head up sales and marketing.
The farm, which also grows 12,000 apple trees on 15 acres, is producing a Gravenstein Apple Syrup in collaboration with well-known preservationist Merrilee Olson of Preserve Farm Kitchens in Petaluma. The syrup is expected to be ready in time for the holiday season.