Chris Gilmore’s slurping his oil again — three strong pulls, like he’s sucking saliva off the back of his throat. We’re sitting in a courtyard surrounded by neo-Tuscan architecture, all rounded arches and calm beige stones. A fountain trickles. The sun’s slow to rise. The morning fog that creeps in from the coast to blanket the Sonoma Valley is still burning off, giving us speckled light in the summer sky. I’m cupping a cobalt blue, stemless mini-tulip glass that holds a shot’s worth of yellow liquid. Gilmore coughs, twice.
“That’s the polyphenols”, he says, referring to the antioxidants that linger at the back of the throat. He raises his glass and tells me to give it a try.
I flash back to the first beer, first cigar, and the long litany of first substances that contain some sort of excitement that what you’re about to imbibe is going to alter your understanding of the world. A bead of oil from the edge of the cup mixes with the sweat in my palm. The glass is warm. I sniff deeply, then tip back. Swirl. Slurp. Swallow. Then I breathe through the nostrils, and the silky coating of fatty oil turns to a peppery sensation that tantalizes the back of my throat. It lingers for a few seconds, then fades away. “I taste peaches,” Gilmore says.
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I taste nothing. It’s my first foray into extra virgin olive oil consumption, and the buds are untrained. I sip again, do the strippaggio — that unsexy slurping that aerates the oil and coats the taste buds — and swallow. I taste a faint hint of peaches. Gilmore rocks back in his chair. He’s got some gray hairs sprinkled at his temples, but his features are youthful and his skin holds a warm glow. He’s casual in a black V-neck, jeans, fitting attire for a miller’s life, which falls into the category of working-class aficionado, like a brewmaster or chef. It’s far from the ego found in celebrity vintners, the guys down the road selling bottles of cabernet sauvignon for $200. Gilmore sells his award-winning oils (one of which won best of show at the New York International Olive Oil Competition) for about $30 a bottle.
Two more blue tulip glasses sit on a mat, one an Arbequina, the other Picual. I set down the Ascolano, scribble down “peaches (delicate)”. Gilmore starts telling me about the Picual — which is what we’re working up to today. It’s an olive brought to California from Andalusia, Spain. Made right, it’s a delicacy. Made wrong, it reeks of cat piss. I’m in no rush to try it.
There are over 700 varietals of olive oil, and each has its own flavor. Here are some of the most commonly seen in the US:
Ascolano: hints of peaches and mango, with a mild pepper finish.
Mission: smooth and buttery fruit flavor with a delicate pepper finish.
Arbequina: grassy and nutty with a peppery finish.
Picual: a strong fruitiness with notes of black pepper, walnut and almond.
Koroneiki: a food-friendly oil. Floral, with hints of green banana and a pungent finish.
Manzanillo: heavy olive flavors and a big pepper finish.
Before Gilmore and I sat down to slurp olive oil, he walked me through some new machinery. His mill, The Olive Press, just revamped their set up, increasing oil production to four tons per hour at top capacity. In high season, this speed is essential, as the quality of olive oil all depends on freshness of production. As soon as the olives leave the trees, oxidization begins and the fruit starts to break down. The faster the olives turn to oil and enter into stainless steel bins to rack, the fresher the product and better the flavor.
For now, the machinery sits dormant; but in September, when grapes come to harvest, the olive mill begins its deep cleaning. Once the grapevines are picked, workers move to the olive harvest, beginning as early as November and, in some years, as late as February. Chris Hall, the Proprietor (along with his parents) of Long Meadow Ranch, says this cycle is one of the essential elements of his family’s farming life. He employs field workers year round; the labor moves from grape harvest, to olive harvest, to vine pruning, to orchard pruning and back again. Olive orchards grow in more clay-like soil, where vines don’t thrive. In addition to picking up the slack ground, they also provide sansa: a nitrogen-rich by-product of olive oil production that goes into the compost. Hall’s farm makes 400 tons of compost each year, and without the olive orchards, it wouldn’t be possible. Olives and grapes enjoy a friendly symbiotic relationship, and it’s no surprise that in most great grape-growing regions (Italy, Chile, Spain, California), olives also flourish.
I pick up the Arbequina. On first smell, it hints at things more herbal than fruity. Fresh-cut grass. Wood. It’s a single varietal, so the bottle contains only one cultivar of Spanish olive. There are over 700 olive cultivars; like any good wine, each has distinct flavors that are further differentiated by where and when they’re grown, the weather that year, and the ripeness of the olives.
1. Separate out (with a fan) the leaves and twigs from the olives.
2. Gently rinse the olives.
3. Crush olives, with either a hammer mill or a stone mill (depending on the ripeness and the varietal).
4. Cold press in a malaxer, which provides a soft agitation to release the olive oil.
5. Enter the horizontal decanter — a 3,500-rpm centrifuge that separates the oil from the remains (the “sansa”).
6. Pass to the polishing centrifuge, rotating at 6500 rpm, which separates the oil from the remaining water.
7. Send to stainless steel tanks and rack for six to eight weeks.
8. Pull out the dregs from the tanks (called “pomace”, this is used for soaps and lotions), and bottle the oil.
I swirl, slurp, and swallow. The oil burns a touch in the back of my neck, the peppery tickle giving a touch of causticity to the lush herbal notes. I try to verbalize the thought, and Gilmore nods knowingly. He talks about olive oil with aplomb. Of plain pasta sauces, he says: “Before, it’s lifeless. It doesn’t have a soul.” He pauses. “Olive oil adds the soul.”
The Picual is still waiting for us on the table, portending sublimity or cat piss. Before we sniff, Gilmore affirms that “this is the good stuff”. I cup my hand, warm the oil, and sniff: a peppery sweetness. I swirl, slurp, and swallow. Going down there’s a euphony of flavors, some harmony between sweetness and bitterness, grasses and fruits. Everything I’d tasted in notes on other oils seems to stand alone and together, all at once. The polyphenols rise on the exhale, accentuating, layering the flavor. Like a good Scotch, I can sense it’s good, and yet, I know I know too little to truly enjoy. I’m a rookie trying an aficionado’s oil. I cough, three times; the burn’s a bit too much. Gilmore sits and savors.
Before we’re done for with the tasting, we try two more oils, a co-milled lime and a jalapeño. Co-milling — in which produce like limes and peppers are added with the olives to be cold pressed — adds in flavor and cuts the sting of the polyphenols. These are olive oils with starter wheels. Places like Round Pond Estate, another mill nearby, bank on the introductory flavors. They have an Italian and Spanish blend of EVOO, but then mix up lots of concoctions (including a garlic infusion, which is damn tasty) to give variety to the straight olive oils. It’s a good way of starting out. “These are the gateway,” Gilmore says, pointing to the co-milled oils. The entry point. Then he looks to the single-varietals. “Eventually, though, we want people to move to the harder stuff.”
I ask him if he hates salad dressing, a product that takes the role olive oil should naturally fulfill (along with some balsamic) and bastardizes it into thousands of fatty, processed oils. He shakes his head no.
“I hate bad oil,” he says.
It’s a remark I hear repeatedly, and all the growers that meet me on their land, show me their trees, equipment, and processes — people who believe in their process, take pride in what they sell, and believe in the integrity of their oils — they all hate one thing: big oil. Imitator EVOOs are destroying the market.
“The $6 bottle of ‘extra virgin’ olive oil”, Gilmore says, “that’s co-cultivated oils, undercut with other oils.” It’s not extra virgin. It’s slutty oil, pigs with the pearl label of Extra Virgin. An imitation taking advantage of the fact that labeling essentially has no standards. As odd as it sounds, regulation on olive oil is sparse.
Tom Mueller knocked the lid off this scandalous side of olive oil in a New York Times best-seller, Extra Virginity. One of the first treatises on one of the oldest products around, the book highlights the good, bad, and ugly of olive oil production. Distilled down, Mueller finds that there’s not much regulation, and of those that regulate, some are corrupt. Stats vary, but UC Davis, a force in olive oil quality control, says, “A high percentage of olive oil sold to consumers is mislabeled as extra virgin, and in some cases is not even olive oil.” High percentage means up to 69 percent. The true, local makers, who spend at least $6 in producing a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, can’t compete with a corrupt market selling cheap, adulterated oil. But, an undereducated public, who believes they’re buying the same product — same name, same product, right? — continues to be bamboozled by impostor oil. True EVOO must pass both chemical testing standards and a sensory evaluation (a taste test); but if it doesn’t, and is still labelled as EVOO, there are few consequences for the crime.
Sean McEntire, the Olive Oil Maker at Long Meadow Ranch (LMR), says this lax approach has led to a business full of shysters. We’re standing in the large hall of the LMR frantoio (oil mill), carved into the hillside overlooking the Napa Valley. The sun’s slowly setting, turning hillsides a deep amber-orange. He wants me to understand the difference on an essential, sensory level. He takes a large, stainless steel container and dribbles out some old, rotten olive oil. It’s the extras in a bin that’s been sitting aside for about 10 months (once exposed to air, olive oil goes bad in about 3 months). He holds out a tulip glass. I smell. “Smell like socks?” he says. It does. It’s fusty, rancid. “That’s lampante,” McEntire says. “Lamp oil.” It’s miller-speak for olive oil that doesn’t meet taste standards. It’s mostly what you find on supermarket shelves, something McEntire would never drink nor sell. He scowls at the glass, then turns back to the good stuff, a bottle of LMR’s Prato Lungo, selling for $49.00/500ml. It’s from LMR’s prized olive trees, the oldest orchard in Napa Valley.
I warm the Prato Lungo, wash my palate, strappaggio, then swallow. A slow tingle of polyphenols creeps up the throat. It’s light, delicate, with a buttery viscosity. It’s has the same faint fruitiness I’ve found in my favorite oils from the day. It’s a true finishing olive oil, something that’ll add bring life out of any dish. We set the glasses down. McEntire savors the taste on his tongue. He seems relieved to once again be in the sensory wash of something delicious, something made right and with flavors that have culinary clout. He regains his normal exuberance, the confidence and joy of someone who knows that quality always trumps convenience and cheap costs.
“Once you’ve had the good stuff”, he says, giving a last glance down at the cup in his hand, “you just can’t go back.”
Like bourbon, different uses call for oils of different qualities. You’re not going to bake with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, and you’re probably not sipping your Jim Beam neat. Having a few bottles around is essential for any home cook.
Everyday Oil: Your go-to for cooking or frying. It works as a butter replacement, and it’s a healthy alternative that also adds flavor to your cooking. Pick of the Day: Trader Joe’s Premium 100% Greek Kalamata EVOO – $9/liter.
Dressing Oil: The choice for mixing salad dressings, baking, marinades, or pastas. Pick of the Day: Lucero’s Miller’s Blend Certified EVOO – $16/500ml.
Finishing Oil: This is the crème de la crème, a single varietal to drizzle over vegetables, bruschetta, grilled fish, or serve plain with bread. Pick of the Day: The Olive Press Arbequina EVOO – $28/500 ml.