It was Father Junipero Serra’s Mission San Diego de Alcala where the first California olives were planted in the 1770s. Within two decades, the trees were flourishing.
The first olive oil from those trees was produced in 1803 and by 1885 California olive growers had learned to produce olive oil equal to the best imported oil.
Since then it has been a roller coaster ride for California olives and olive oil. The domestic oil industry all but disappeared in the 1940s when Europeans flooded the U.S. market. Imported oils still dominate U.S. mass retailing and food service.
However, over the past decade California olive oils have made a blip on the radar screen, the benefactor of newly discovered olive oil health benefits. This boom has been labeled California’s liquid gold rush.
Eating a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil, doctors say, may reduce cholesterol levels, prevent colon cancer, reduce hypertension and reduce cardiovascular disease. And, increasingly more chefs are using olive oil in a greater array of dishes.
Olive oil demand is increasing in the U.S. at a rate of about 20 percent per year. Exports into the U.S. have more than doubled in the past decade.
About 22 million gallons of olive oil valued at more than $336 million are imported into the U.S. each year. By comparison California will produces only about 400,000 gallons of oil this year, but that is up sharply from last year’s 321,000 gallons.
North Coast region
Much of the new growth has been coming from California’s North Coast wine region where there is a deep love of Italy and the robustly flavored cuisine of that region, according to Paul Vossen, a University of California farmer advisor in Sonoma County.
"The region of Tuscany in central Italy is currently regarded as the culinary king of olive oil production, worldwide," said Vossen. Many of the North Coast’s fledgling olive oil makers have planted trees imported from the region.
However, it is a three-generation farm family from California’s northern San Joaquin Valley that has been enjoying perhaps the biggest slice of this rejuvenated interest in California olive oils. Nick Sciabica & Sons in Modesto produce about a third of the state’s olive oil and has been leading the revival with olive oil produced from varieties that can trace their heritage back to the California missions.
Nicola Sciabica (pronounced Ska’ bee ka) began making olive oil in 1936, making the family the oldest olive oil makers in the state. The tradition was continued by Nicola’s sons Joseph and Vincent. Joseph, 86, continues to lead his family’s business with his sons Dan and Nick alongside. Dan is operations manager and Nick manages production.
The Sciabicas make some of the world’s best olive oils using the fruit from the traditional Mission, Manzanillo, Nevadillo and Sevillano olive varieties. They market almost 20 varietal olive oils.
Six years ago at the World Olive Day competition in Lucca, Italy, a California-made Sciabica Sevillano Fall Harvest Olive Oil received scores of 7.5 and 7 from two of Italy’s most prominent tasters. No oil got the high score of 8. It was so outstanding that one of the judges wanted to take the Sciabica oil home.
That feat has been compared to the 1976 Paris wine tasting where two California vintages triumphed over European counterparts. That put California wines on the world wine map.
Daniel Sciabica, operations manager for his family’s business, can only hope his olive oil tasting triumph could propel his and other California olive oils toward the same fate as California wine. The huge and growing domestic market at California’s doorstep is only a dream.
"We cannot compete financially against cheap, subsidized imports on the retail shelves and in the food service industry," said Daniel. "We have tried and have failed each time we went after retail sales."
Sciabica is satisfied to see his sales increase sharply via direct sales, in specialty food markets, health food stores and local restaurants. "We can more than compete against imported oil on quality and freshness," he said. "Some of the oil coming into this country is three years old. The oil I take to the San Francisco Farmers Market at Ferry Plaza each week is made the night before — it is fresh."
Joseph Sciabica can be found each week at the farmer’s market in Modesto, Calif., with the same fresh olive oil. "If my father is not there each week, people are disappointed," he said.
Sciabica’s varietal olive oils, are made fresh from olives harvested from the fall through the spring. Early oils produce intense green color and fruit as well as bitterness while olives harvested later are milder and sweet with a more golden color. European oils, which are almost all regional blends, are produced once a season.
Daniel relishes his heritage when each week he unveils a cornucopia of his family’s legacy at the San Francisco farmer’s market. In a 15-foot long display Daniel has an array of olive oils separated into three main categories, light, medium and heavy.
"I have tried conducting tastings, but that only confuses people—there are so many," he said. "What I enjoy doing is asking them how they want to use olive oil…sautes, salads, marinates or whatever…and then I make recommendations."
Come with guarantee
Daniel’s recommendations come with a guarantee. "I tell them that if my suggestion does not work, I’ll refund their money or give another selection. I hit it right 95 percent of the time," he said.
This revival of California olive oils is something of a bittersweet success for the Sciabicas because they are enjoying it largely among their San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley farmer peers. Most fellow olive growers and olive oil makers have fallen by the wayside as a result of the overall malaise of the state’s oil and fresh olive industry.
Daniel and his brother grew up farming peaches, olives and grapes and other crops on the family’s Modesto farm. They still farm a small vineyard not far from their olive oil company headquarters east of downtown Modesto. "We got out of olives in the 1950s because farming them was so hard." However, Joseph never gave up making olive oil, buying the raw product.
"We got back into olives in the early 1970 and continue farming olives today. We have 50 acres of certified organic olives in Calavares County," he said.
"My dad has always had a passion for making olive oil and he kept that alive for many years," said Daniel. Now the family is enjoying the financial fruits of that family passion.
While the Sciabica family’s olive oils can compete with the best, Daniel takes a valley farmer approach to the use of olive oil. Use it with just about any dish you want. Daniel’s mother Gemma Sciabica has written two cookbooks on using olive oil in baking and with main dishes.
Daniel suggests new olive oil users select lighter oils to begin with and move up the ladder to the more hearty styles. "You can use olive oil with just about anything from salads to sautés to making chocolate chip cookies with it. My brother says cook eggs with olive oil," said Daniel.
Heat brings out the flavor of olive oils. "Take a few drops and put it on your hands and rub them together…smell the fragrance of the oil," he said.
Californians and the world are discovering California olive oils. It a revival of a dying industry kept alive for decades largely by the farming Sciabica family of the central valley.
Olive Oil Council
This renewal is being propelled along by the California Olive Oil Council, a non-profit organization devoted to the education of its members and consumers concerning specialty oils. The council conducts research, tastings, festivals, tours and educational events to disseminate information on this growing California agricultural industry.
There are about 36,000 acres of olives in the state with 90 percent of the crop used for black ripe olives. The remainder is used for olive products, including olive oil. Overall, olives have not been very profitable for producers in recent years. While small in the overall picture, the renewed interest in California olive oils offers hope of contributing to a turnaround.
The hub of the latest revival is the North Coast where growers are importing varieties from Tuscany in central Italy, considered the epicenter of premium olive oil production.
Sciabica said this movement is good for the overall industry, but the world of olive oil does not evolve around Tuscany and its varieties. "Tuscany is a particular style of oil. It is not the end all of olive oils. Mission olives have produced world class oils for 65 years," he noted. "The varieties that we have grown for years are what put us on the map."
Nick Sciabica and Sons is located at 2150 Yosemite Blvd, Modesto, where there is a gift shop. It’s Web site is www.sciabica.com
Olive Oil Categories
Olive oils are made in a wide array of styles. Here are the definitions.
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL: Virgin olive oil that has an organoleptic rating of 6.5 or more and a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams (1 percent), with due regard for other criteria laid down in this standard.
FINE VIRGIN OLIVE OIL: Virgin olive oil that has an organoleptic rating of 5.5 or more and a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid of not more than 2 grams per 100 grams (2 percent), with due regard for other criteria laid down in this standard.
ORDINARY VIRGIN OLIVE OIL: Virgin olive oil that has an organoleptic rating of 3.5 or more and a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid of not more than 3 grams per 100 grams (3 percent), with due regard for other criteria laid down in this standard.
LAMPANTE VIRGIN OLIVE OIL: Virgin olive oil that has an organoleptic rating of 3.5 or more and a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid of not more than 3.3 grams per 100 grams (3.3 percent), with due regard for other criteria laid down in this standard.
REFINED OLIVE OIL: Olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure.
OLIVE OIL: Olive oil which consists of a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil. Also known as "pure olive oil".
REFINED OLIVE-POMACE OIL: Oil which is obtained by treating olive pomace with solvents. The resulting oil is refined using methods which do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure.
OLIVE-POMACE OIL: Olive oil which consists of a blend of refined olive-pomace oil and virgin olive oil.