My left hand covers a small plastic container of pungent Italian Blend olive oil to capture the aromas while I gently swirl it in my right palm. With the pale green-gold contents now sufficiently warm. I sip, swallow, and erupt in a coughing fit as the peppery liquid coats my throat.
“That’s delicious!” I sputter.
I’m in the tasting room of The Olive Press in Sonoma, CA, during a private tour with Jean Louis, tasting room and retail manager. The Olive Press is the first large scale commercial olive oil producer in the state, home of the first olive mill in Sonoma County. Opened in 1996, The Olive Press is the most highly awarded olive oil producer in North America and internationally recognized as the best in the U.S.
Amid the animated chatter of a couple clamoring for a what’s certain to be a cough-inducing pairing of the spicy jalapeno olive oil and peach balsamic vinegar, Jean guides me through the correct tasting technique.
Professional judges, she says, use specialized equipment to heat olive oil to the ideal temperature of 82 degrees to release the bouquet. My amateur, manual process is a fine substitute.
The coughing, she continues, comes from receptors in the throat for anti-inflammatories. High quality olive oil like my sample has naturally occurring anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, making it both nutritious and medicinal.
“Italians talk about olive oil falling into one cough, two cough, and three cough categories,” Jean adds.
Olive oil tasting in the heart of California wine country? Absolutely
The olive oil industry here is a mere 20 years old vs. the long-established wine industry. Both liquids go hand-in-hand with a lifestyle focused on artisan food. Wine may claim more exalted status as an economic heavyweight, but the business of olive oil is an ever-growing cousin to the fruit of the vine – albeit unlikely to catch up in yield. Every olive is just 3% oil. It takes one thousand pounds of olives to produce 15 gallons of olive oil, while one thousand pounds of grapes produce 60 gallons of wine. Mother Nature conveniently abuts their harvest times – August to October for grapes, and October to December for olives.
The Olive Press was the brainchild of Ed Stolman, one of a group of locals interested in producing something other than wine. Having tasted olive oils in Italy, where the arid Mediterranean climate is similar to Sonoma County’s, he brought 1,000 Italian olive trees to the nearby town of Glen Ellen and opened the first mill in 1996.
Fred and Nancy Cline of Cline Cellars Winery purchased their friend Ed’s company in 2013. The Clines situated the mill (and a subsequent upgraded one) at their Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in Sonoma. Two 95-year-old olive trees flank the driveway of the rustic stone tasting room, with an ancient granite olive oil mill aside the front door. Considered sacred, olive trees can live to be thousands of years old, so these were in their infancy.
Although my visit is not during pressing season, I can visualize the process thanks to Jean’s vivid description as we walk beside the now-idle state-of-the-art Italian olive mill.
Huge truckloads arrive day and night, dispensing olives into a hopper. The ideal mix is a balance of green to impart pungent, robust, peppery flavors, and riper, purple olives for fruity butteriness. Olives move onto a conveyor belt, where a blower removes leaves and twigs, and into a water bath. The cooler the temperature (86 degrees is optimal), the higher the extra virgin quality. The Olive Press crushes olives within 24 hours of harvest for maximum flavor. A hammer mill grinds both pulp and pits, with further churning by a four-chamber malaxer. Centrifuges separate out the pure olive oil. The liquid goes into blue barrels for sediment to settle (called racking), and then into holding tanks.
From olive to olive oil is one hour and 15 minutes.
More olive oil, trees, and tastings
Flush with newfound olive oil lowdown, I drive north on Hwy. 12, Sonoma Valley’s two-lane, vineyard-lined main road. I’m headed to B.R. Cohn Winery for a private olive oil tasting highlighting their signature, limited-production Olive Hill Estate Picholine Extra Virgin Olive Oil. No need to play the radio for entertainment, for my favorite Doobie Brothers’ song, “It Keeps You Runnin’’, is playing on a loop in my head.
Founder Bruce Richard Cohn is the one and only manager of the legendary Doobie Brothers. He bought the property, 90 acres in total (he lives on the back 21), in 1974.
Bruce held the property for 10 years before founding the winery, selling grapes to local vintners who produced award-winning wines. He decided in 1984 to make wines under his own label and the cachet of his music history came along for the ride.
Sharon, Bruce’s former wife, provided the impetus to make olive oil in 1990. The property contains 469 French picholine olive oil trees dating from the mid 1800s. When trees drop their fruit, the ground gets messy. The Cohn children would track in olive-crusted footprints on the white carpet of the family home. Sharon issued an ultimatum – do something with the olives or get rid of the trees.
Hence, olive oil. Nowadays, the picholine olive trees produce on average 400 gallons of olive oil per year.
Michael Coats, Jr., sales and marketing, and Kelly Johnson, procurement & accounts manager, are seated with me in a richly appointed reception room. They share B.R. Cohn’s storied history and details about the winery’s award-winning gourmet olive oils and hand-crafted, barrel-aged vinegars.
Honestly, I make every effort to pay attention, but I can’t help being distracted. The walls are plastered with Doobie Brothers’ memorabilia: framed gold and platinum albums, celebrity photos, and autographed guitars. Also featured are posters from the charity rock and roll music festivals Bruce has held for 29 years with music’s royalty –Willie Nelson, Kenny Loggins, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Heart, and, of course, the Doobie Brothers, among many others.
I redirect my gaze to the tempting samples set before me. “Listen to the Music” plays from a music festival promotional video as I savor California blend, Meyer lemon, blood orange, and basil garlic olive oils. The picholine oil, my favorite, is fresh, full, and smooth. Next, I try the champagne and syrah vinegars, finishing with the sweet, thick, and candy-like 15- and 25-year aged balsamic vinegars.
B.R. Cohn, Kelly notes, is rare as both winery and olive oil producer, and unique as a national distributor of olive oils and vinegars.
Accompanied by Kona, the frisky resident herding dog, the three of us go outside. We peruse the gourmet shop, and stroll through an olive grove strung with white Japanese paper lanterns, a romantic event space for weddings.
Farther on, we stand upon a large wooden platform at the base of a sloping hill, the former center stage for the music festival (now relocated to Sonoma). It overlooks the winery’s money shot – regimented, undulating rows of vines that seem to extend all the way to the base of the Sonoma Mountains.
A warm breeze picks up as we reach a narrow, dusty road that snakes between some willowy olive trees and the 40-year-old vines used to produce B.R. Cohn’s flagship Olive Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
I pluck a still-maturing olive from a tree and take a bite. Pitooie, I spit, for it’s hard and bitter. No matter, because I now know what greatness lies ahead for the fruit.
I recall a comment Jean at The Olive Press made – “Olive oil makes me want to get out of bed in the morning.” Right now, I can’t think of a better incentive to rise and shine.