Oil barons of Sacramento

By going back to the traditional ways of making olive oil, the Bariani family has found its future in the trendy foodie market

Enrico, Sebastian, Angelo and Santa Bariani watch oil and water being squeezed from their olives.

Enrico, Sebastian, Angelo and Santa Bariani watch oil and water being squeezed from their olives.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The Bariani Olive Oil property sits comfortably among thousands of dusty olive trees in south Sacramento. Though business is booming, visitors driving up the gravel path won’t find an office on the site or signs directing them where to go. Instead, the receiving area for visitors is the Bariani family house, where mother Santa Bariani serves up some Old World charm in the form of tiny cups of strong, Italian coffee.

Down the hill from the house is the olive mill, where the family works to grind and press the pungent olives of 17,000 Mission and Manzanillo trees. Outside the mill, lie dozens of crates of hard, bright-green olives. Inside, Enrico Bariani and his father, Angelo Bariani, often can be found working among hulking mechanical contraptions and occasionally shouting back and forth to each other in Italian. The entire place is saturated with the powerful smell of crushed olives. Enrico has described this season’s harvest as smelling like green apples, and it’s trueit does.

At this time of year, it is typical for the Barianis to work 18 hours a day, often starting by 4 a.m. Talk about a grind. Because the olives must be processed within a few days of being picked and because the family members do all the processing themselves, the work from mid-October to December is virtually nonstop.

Family members are visibly overworked and tired these days, but they can’t really complain. Their small operation has been far more successful than the family of immigrants imagined it could be. After coming to the United States from Voghera, a small town in Northern Italy, the Bariani family took over an aging olive-tree orchard about 10 years ago and began producing oil on a whim, just for home use and to give to family and friends. The Barianis had no professional experience making olive oil, but they have learned the trade through trial and error and annual pilgrimages back to Italy for training in traditional methods of extraction.

The Barianis slowly increased production, first to the point of selling at farmer’s markets and then expanding to supply gourmet food stores. Through word of mouth, the oil gained popularity and ultimately captured the attention of the media, including Martha Stewart, who focused on the family’s use of Old World tools and techniques. The Barianis’ business moved forward by going back to the basics.

The family’s process of olive-oil extraction is simple and not automated, which means it requires constant attention and serious labor. First, the olives are rolled into an open vat with two enormous stone wheels inside. The stone crusher creates a thick, lumpy, avocado-colored paste that is then slathered onto circular mats measuring about 2.5 feet across. Then, the mats are stacked in upright columns and are squeezed in a hydraulic press. First, vegetable water drips out, followed by the thicker olive oil, which is collected and eventually stored in huge vats in a temperature-controlled room.

Enrico described the early-season oil as peppery and a little bitter. Later in the season, the oil will have a milder taste. “The oil we’re making in October is completely different than the oil we’re making in December,” he said, “but we blend it all together, so, in the end, we get a very harmonious, very smooth olive oil.”

The family’s methods are not unlike those used by olive-oil makers centuries ago. For one thing, the Barianis’ olives are organic and picked by hand. Also, the extraction process is completely “cold,” unlike speedier modern methods that use water, heat and centrifugal force to extract the oil. “With the new systems,” Enrico said, “everything is automated. You just put the olives in on one side, and the oil comes out at the end of the line. There’s very little human contact.”

The Barianis’ process is different, he said, because “we are all involved in every step, so we can control everything that’s going on. We can control the finished product, and, in that way, we can keep the quality at the high level.” The Barianis also believe the more modern techniques reduce the antioxidants and other beneficial qualities of cold-pressed oils. “I like to make something that is good for your health. Otherwise, it will just be another olive oil on the shelf. … And there are so many already. And also, the flavor and fragrance also changes according to the system of extraction.”

These mats are slathered with olive paste before being squeezed by a hydraulic press.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The Barianis have good reason to be concerned with the distinctiveness of their brand. The shelves of gourmet food stores are now filled with dozens of olive oils, which is sometimes confusing for American consumers, who are relatively new to olive-oil consumption and appreciation. Though hesitant to generalize about such a complex subject, Enrico offered some guidance on how Italian oils vary by locale: Generally, he said, oils from the north of Italy are regarded as having more subtle flavors and fragrances, oils from Tuscany are more grassy and green, and those from the south of Italy are more peppery.

And what about California olive oils? After a long pause, Enrico laughed, a little embarrassed, and said, “I would say they are bad.” He went on to explain: “It’s not just my opinion. I brought some of these oils to Italy, and some of the best olive-oil tasters in Italy said they are just terrible.”

Given how unimpressed they are with their California competitors, the Barianis have opted not to join the California Olive Oil Council. “I got a feeling they hate me,” Enrico said, “because I’m probably the only one who doesn’t belong, but there is nothing to learn there. For that, I go to Italy.”

In addition to ordering all their equipment (down to the bottling machine) from Italy, Enrico also travels back to his homeland every year specifically to take courses on making olive oil, to participate in tastings and to meet with other makers of extra virgin olive oil. And, though Enrico takes pains to describe the authentic Italian origins of his family’s process, he wants to make sure he distinguishes the Bariani strategy from that of others who try to replicate Italian olive oils by importing foreign varieties of olives and slapping fancy labels on the bottles.

Ultimately, Enrico said, importing Italian varieties of olives just results in poor imitations of Italian olive oil. “To me, it’s a big mistake.” Instead, the Barianis use techniques developed in Italy but insist on using their own California varieties of olives that are suited to the local climate and conditions. “We’re just using what’s available. We’re not doing a replica of what’s already out there,” Enrico said.

Ironically, the Barianis’ old-school methods and ideology have put them on the cutting edge of today’s food trends. Like other “artisan” food products, Bariani Olive Oil appeals to the palates of a growing population of knowledgeable, health-conscious eaters who have money to spend on high-quality products. These foodies want goods that are authentic and untainted by the shortcuts and byproducts of mass production. To this group, the more a product resembles something an 18th-century peasant would eat, the more value it has.

Bariani Olive Oil fits this niche market perfectly. Even Martha Stewart, the exemplar of upper-crust devotion to authenticity, has discovered the oil and given it her stamp of approval. In 1999, Stewart canvassed California in search of an olive oil to feature on her television show. She chose the Bariani brand over many others and focused on the Barianis’ traditional methods, their use of fresh-picked local olives and the oil’s flavor. The show and subsequent reruns led to multiple jumps in the number of orders for the oil—not to mention increased attention from other media and even strangers around town, who now recognize the family members. Amazed, Enrico said that even a man who delivered their lost luggage from the airport recently asked them, “Hey, weren’t you on TV?”

In 10 years’ time, the Barianis have gone from producing about 130 liters of olive oil for family and friends to producing nearly 50,000 liters and filling orders from all over the county and as far away as Japan and China. Once just a hobby, the company now supports the entire family: Enrico’s brother Sebastian also works in the mill, and another brother, Luigi, flies in from Europe to help during the harvest. A third brother, Emanuele, lives in San Francisco and helps with the business end of the company.

Locally, Bariani Olive Oil (and Bariani Balsamic Vinegar, a new product) can be found in specialty grocery stores or can be ordered directly from the company. And, despite their widespread success, the Barianis still sell at the same local farmer’s markets where they found their first customers.

Back in the company’s cool holding room, eight of nine gigantic metal vats sit empty; it’s still early in the harvest, and all of last year’s stock has sold out. The ninth vat is about a third full, holding the first product of this year’s harvest.

Enrico pours a bottle of oil directly from the tap on the vat. Then, he fires up the bottling machine and runs it through to add a cap and label, complete with a date stamp to indicate the day the oil was bottled.

The oil has a green, cloudy appearance and a strikingly raw flavor. It tastes just like the entire Bariani operation smells. It also tastes like it was squeezed out of the fruit just a few days ago—and it was. Even a casual consumer of olive oil could recognize that this is quite distinct from the stuff you can pick up at Safeway. It’s apparent why those bourgeois food lovers think they’ve struck real oil with the throwback product.