Pressing issue

Sacramento Valley olive-oil producers get the most out of their fruit

Where’s the extra virgins? Most olive orchards may look the same, but the variables involved in harvesting and pressing the fruit yield a wide range of results.

Where’s the extra virgins? Most olive orchards may look the same, but the variables involved in harvesting and pressing the fruit yield a wide range of results.

The crush has begun in the Sacramento Valley, the heart of the state’s young but exploding olive-oil industry. Specialized machines have been rolling through the orchards since October, stripping the olives from thousands of acres of trees as advanced hammer mills nearby pulp the fruits into paste, from which the oil is pressed. Unlike aged wines, young fresh oils are considered best, and from the moment the olives leave the branch, oil makers are engaged in a race against time, oxidation and spoilage, with many oils bottled mere hours after harvest.

Some 90 percent of the olive oil now produced in California is mechanically harvested from a handful of huge, densely planted groves of clonelike trees, but several hundred small artisan growers—like Sciabica’s in Modesto, Bariani in Sacramento and Pietra Santa near Hollister—constitute the balance.

Sciabica’s is a small family-run production in Modesto, founded in 1936. With 15 acres on the estate and 150 more near Orland, the Sciabica family, with hired crews, handpick their crop each year and mill it on-site in Modesto. Sciabica’s “fresh-pressed unfiltered” oil, of Manzanillo and Sevillano olives, is already bottled and should be available through December at $40 per 750 milliliters.

“The idea of this oil is that it’s straight from the tree,” says Jonathan Sciabica, a third-generation co-manager of the farm. The fresh-pressed unfiltered oil delivers a peppery bite that may induce throat-raking coughs in olive-oil rookies—but just remember: It’s supposed to taste like that.

Sciabica’s Mission olives hit the press much later—in April. Olives allowed to hang for so long will ripen and ripen, says Sciabica, their tannins and peppery zest breaking down and softening as the oil content builds through the winter. By crush time, these extra-ripe, juicy olives produce oils as smooth as butter—excellent, says Sciabica, as “gateway” oils for beginners.

And most Californians are beginners. Most of us have no idea what “extra virgin” means (it’s actually a measure of an oil’s purity and quality based upon strictly defined criteria), and many of us have never tasted truly well-made olive oil. The vast majority of what we consume is cheap, poor-quality, falsely labeled oil imported from Italy, where industry pirates are known to press rancid fruit and send it our way at impossibly low prices. As Joe Bozzano of Bozzano Olive Ranch in Stockton once told me, “The bottom line is you just can’t get really good extra virgin olive oil for $4.99 or $5.99 per bottle. If someone offers you a diamond for $100, you say, ‘Oh, man! What a deal!’ It looks good and it shines, but it’s probably not a diamond.”

But California’s oil is mostly bona fide extra virgin, safeguarded by the smallness of the industry. But the industry’s acreage and volume is growing fast. In 2008, 22,000 acres of trees produced about a million gallons of oil, and experts guess that by 2020, California’s groves will generate 20 million gallons of green and gold oil. Roughly 95 percent of this oil will come from megafarms in the Sacramento Valley, harvested with machines that shake each tree clean of its fruit in a blur of two seconds.

Small operations grow trees at 100 to 150 per acre. Here, growers have the time (and desire) to handpick their fruit and make the oil in small batches, often in special blends crafted to taste. Only from small operations, many aficionados believe, will you find unique oils, of brilliant fragrance, over-the-top pungency and the essence of local terroir. And just remember: If it shines, it might be a diamond—but if it’s under $9 per liter, it’s definitely not extra virgin.