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Liquid Gold: A Guide to California Olive Oils

For your next bottle of extra virgin olive oil, look domestic, not imported.

Robbie Robbins and his family are gearing up for next month's olive harvest, and this year's batch of extra virgin olive oil.

Put aside any notions of bland, greasy stuff. If this oil is anything like the award-winning output in 2006 from the Robbins Family Farm in San Luis Obispo, Calif., it's not something your kitchen should be without.

It may be surprising to American consumers that such rich, nuanced flavor hails from a Californian, not Italian, olive oil. But, as Robbins points out, "The domestic olive oil industry is where the American wine industry was 30 years ago."

You choose your fine wine with care. Why should your olive oil be any different?

Essential Oil

Thought to have been first cultivated around 5000 B.C., the olive is one of the oldest foods known to man.

The ancient world, from Greece to Egypt to the Middle East, prized its oil -- called "liquid gold" by the epic poet Homer -- as an anointment for athletes and royalty, an elixir for good health, a base for cosmetics and a salve for wounds.

Under Roman rule, olive cultivation was spread through the entire Mediterranean basin. Production and trade of olive oil was as essential and influential to the economy then as crude oil is to today's global market (with the Roman Empire in place of OPEC).

On a Mission

There is a tradition domestically as well: The first olives of theNew World were brought over by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s and planted all along the California coast, from San Diego to Sonoma. But, as Patty Darragh, executive director of the

California Olive Oil Council explains, domestic olive oil production was sporadic and did not take root as an industry until the late 1980s.

Today, Italy is the world's biggest importer, consumer and exporter of olive oil; Spain is the largest producer. In North America, however, olive oil consumption has risen more than 100% in the past decade due to extra virgin's increasing prestige, both culinarily and medically -- olive oil is loaded with beneficial polyphenols (antioxidants), and has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.

The COOC, a nonprofit marketing and trade group established in 1992, has been seminal in setting olive oil standards for California's producers, who generate more than 99% of domestic olive oil (there is limited production in

Texas, Arizona and Oregon, albeit on a much smaller scale).

The group's "certified extra virgin" seal means that the oil was produced without chemicals or excessive heat, the free fatty acid content measures .05% or less, and that a blind tasting panel has found it free of defects.

More than 200 producers are currently certified, but domestic olive oils still face stiff competition from the entrenched regime of Italian olive oil. What will it take for consumers to buy local?

Price Pressures

"With the euro so strong, shops are looking domestic," says David Cooper of

B.R. Cohn, one of the first wave of olive oil producers in California.

In addition, a recent

New Yorker

article by Tom Mueller about the adulteration of imported olive oil -- and the news, unknown to many consumers, that much of extra virgin olive oil that is labeled falsely -- is prompting a look at local options. As Mueller explains, olive oil is more valuable than other vegetable oils, "but it is costly and time-consuming to produce -- and surprisingly easy to doctor." The practice is rampant in Italy, he adds: Other imported oils, such as soy, canola or hazelnut are doctored with chlorophyll (for color) and beta carotene (for flavor), then blended with olive oil and labeled as Italian extra virgin.

Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of food mecca

Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., agrees that adulteration and mislabeling exists, but points out that this is hardly unique to olive oil. Much like the process for COOC certification, knowing the producers is the best way to assure authenticity.

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If any of this seems hard to believe, just try a taste test. After sampling the picks at right, I poured out a bit of a bottle emblazoned "extra virgin olive oil, from Italy" (about $9 for 500 mL) for comparison. It'd been in my kitchen for about a month, used for everything from salad dressing to frying, and had seemed a good choice.

The second it hit my tongue, however, the discrepancy was glaring. There was no off taste or aroma, but there was just -- nothing. It was flat and insipid, with not even a hint of all the domestic oils' dynamics.

The Finest Domestic Olive Oils

A sampling of the best U.S. olive oils.
B.R. Cohn Unfiltered California Extra-Virgin
($10 for 200 mL)
cloudy, deep golden color; clean, light, fresh flavor; try in place of butter in recipes or drizzled over vegetables First Texas Olive Oil, Alfresco Extra-Virgin
($19.95 for 350 mL)
smooth, light flavor with slowly building pepperiness and hint of bitterness; try in mashed potatoes Round Pond Italian Varietal Extra-Virgin
($25 for 350 mL)
grassy aroma; strong pepper and heat overtones with a spicy burn; excellent for marinades and cooking Apollo Sierra Organic Extra-Virgin
($24.95 for 500 mL)
bright aroma; prominent bitter finish and lasting burn; good over hearty stews and pasta Apollo Gold Series Barouni
($21.95 for 500 mL)
floral, subtle flavor with a brassy kick at finish; ideal with hummus or lamb Robbins Family Farm Tuscan Blend
($18 for 375 mL)
nuanced aroma; full, balanced flavor with spice and bitterness peeking out from rich smoothness; great for dressings, dipping Robbins Family Farm Ascolano
($18 for 375 mL)
rare single varietal with sweet aroma; mild with a luxuriant, buttery taste; transcendent with crusty bread Allure Estates Extra-Virgin
($29 for 375 mL)
more pronounced flavor, pungent with pleasantly spicy finish; excellent over toasted, tomato-rubbed bread

So how can you find the real thing? As Weinzweig advises, "buy from a reputable olive oil seller and, please, taste before you buy." While professional tasters slurp oil straight up, it's perfectly fine to taste via a crusty loaf of bread. One advantage to this method, Weinzweig points out, is that since most American consumers will be tasting olive oil with food, not solo, bread provides a more accurate picture.

Alex Alexiev of Paso Robles, Calif.,

Allure Estates has a straightforward formula. "There's a very easy way to find out that it's extra-virgin olive oil: smell for the aroma of olives, and taste for fruitiness, pungency and bitterness." Swallow one drop of Allure's oil, and you'll immediately appreciate the difference from a mass-market brand like


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Even though a domestic oil's price can be a good indicator of quality, there are "poorly made products at every price point," Weinzweig says. Darragh recommends looking for around $10-$25 for a 375 mL bottle.

Linda Sikorski, senior buyer for the Berkeley, Calif.-based

Pasta Shop also advises to look closely at a bottle's label. The COOC seal is certainly one to look for, but beyond that, labels from reputable producers are becoming increasingly informative, often describing aroma, usage, what varietal of olive was used and where it was picked. "Now that the

olive oil industry has moved so far along, people making the olive oil understand what's important and how to communicate it to the buyer," Sikorski explains.

On the shelves now at the Pasta Shop, Sikorski says, are about 15

domestic olive oils and 20-25 imported; Zingerman's carries a handful of

domestic olive oils out of about 40 oils total. Both Sikorski and Weinzweig expect the number of their domestic offerings to expand.

Once you've found your favorite, the only requirement is to use it liberally: extra-virgin olive oils should ideally be consumed within a year. To maintain the best quality, keep bottles away from light, heat and air, Sikorski says, storing them in a cool pantry away from the stove and never in the refrigerator.

Ultimately, domestic olive oils could take a deserved place among the best offerings from Italy and the rest of Europe -- but only if American consumers realize the liquid gem that's produced in their own back yard.

"It's all about education. People would not buy cheap wine, but people can buy a great bottle of olive oil for $13-$14, which lasts longer and tastes great," Darragh says.

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