In the oil fields
A tour of Lucero Olive Oil’s groves and a tasting offer a glimpse of Corning’s most famous crop
On a recent Saturday, about a dozen people from as far away as San Francisco and Redding gathered at the Lucero Olive Oil Mill and Tasting Room in Corning for an opportunity to see the olive trees in full bloom for the first time this season. Many waited inside the tasting room, a modern, open space with a tasting bar and walls filled with dozens of varieties of olive oils. Others stood in the gravel parking lot chatting with Robert Crane and Liz Tagami, co-manager and general manager, respectively, and the group’s tour guides for the day.
After boarding a bus that would take the group to two of Lucero’s orchards, the guides informed us that Lucero Olive Oil is one of the biggest family-owned olive oil companies in Tehama County. It produces 16 olive varieties from more than 500 acres.
The first stop was the Love Orchard, named after the original family who owned it. Crane could’ve led this part of the tour with his eyes closed, he said, as he shared vivid memories of running around and working the 10-acre Sevillano orchard as a 12-year-old in the early 1960s, when his family purchased it. Crane is also an owner of Crane Mills, which owns Lucero.
“I really like these old trees,” he said, admiring the 100-year-old beauties. “I mean, I still have memories working here as a boy. At the time, I’m sure I didn’t think it was even fun. It was a different world back then—almost every kid in a town like this worked.”
Crane, who has undergraduate degrees in biology and forestry—from Chico State and Oregon State, respectively—described many of the technical aspects of managing an olive oil orchard as a way to show people the beginning of the process, while also describing their lifespan and maintenance.
“I enjoy relating to the people who are interested and giving them some understanding as to what the experience is like,” he said. “I still find these trees fascinating; you can see anything you want in these trees. It’s nice to give people a chance to see this stuff, especially people from urban areas who’ve never experienced it. It’s one thing driving by, but another thing to actually get in here.”
Corning calls itself The Olive City, and it’s easy to see why, as it is home to numerous olive-growing farms, mills and processors, including Bell Carter Olive Co., the United States’ largest olive processor. As the olive oil industry has grown in popularity, companies have begun to offer tastings and tours of their orchards. Tagami attributes this to people’s growing interest and taste for artisinal foods.
Tagami is an industry expert and a trained taster who has taken classes all over the world and judged olive oil competitions in Napa, Tokyo and Jerusalem. Northern California, specifically Tehama and Butte counties, are in a pristine location in the world for olives because of the Mediterranean climate—cool winter nights and warm summer days, she said.
Olive trees do well in low-water and drought conditions, because they don’t require a lot of water to survive. That’s why so many local olive oil companies—including Lucero, Corning Olive Oil Co. and The Olive Pit in Corning and Lodestar Farms, Butte View Olive Oil, Berkeley Olive Grove 1913 and others in Oroville—continue to find so much success, even winning international awards. In the late 1800s, when farmers discovered that the local climate was great for olives, they made a commitment and planted many of the orchards still used today, Tagami said. Now, outside investors and business people are looking to this part of the state to invest in olive orchards for those same reasons.
“Globally, there are only a few places in the world where olives will grow like this,” she said. “We have an olive culture here that you don’t see in America. You see it in Europe, you see it in the Middle East, but here it exists in a deeper way. People have olive trees in their yards; it’s a part of everyday life. As someone who travels and sees other cultures, seeing that gives me extra excitement. Here, it’s not just a commodity, it’s a way of life.”
After a small walk, visitors gathered around Tagami at a table in the middle of the orchard to taste some of the Lucero oils. Offering guided tastings is a way to expose people in a no-pressure, nonjudgmental way to different and more intricate flavors and varieties of olive oil, she said. Of the four oils on hand that day, three were single-olive varieties including the Sevillano, a small-batch oil with strong aromas; the Taggiasca, a floral and herby oil; and the Ascolano, which was sweet and more mellow than the others. The fourth was Lucero’s Woodson blend, which was made from a combination of robust and fruity oils.
“It goes back to discovery,” Tagami said. “It’s very easy in specialty food to have people feel like they don’t belong or that it’s not accessible to them. So in a small group, it’s nice to know everyone’s name and speak to their specific interests. We eat olive oil not because it’s a medicine and healthy—even though it is—we eat olive oil because it transforms food, it enhances things, it makes life taste better.”