Olive oil industry in grape's 60s place

Tom Hunter and Sue Ellery spent more than two decades in the highly-charged cyberspace world of California's Silicon Valley, dodging pitfalls to failure in the world of software development and marketing and the dotcom revolution.

They not only survived, but were successful. Yet, they gladly traded it all in for a new lifestyle where the biggest challenges initially were gate-busting wild pigs and deer bounding over six foot fences destroying investments in their future life away from the computer screen.

Hunter and Ellery traded Silicon Valley for idyllic Mendocino County, Calif., and computermania for one of the fastest growing segments of California agriculture, olive oil production.

Olive oil production in California is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year. However, the industry is so small now it is miniscule. California olive growers produced 99,000 tons of olives last year, but only 2,000 were crushed for oil.

It may only be a blip on the $27 billion agricultural radar screen, but people like Ellery and Hunter say it has unlimited growth potential in a growing health conscious America where olive oil has emerged as the foundation to a good diet.

“The California olive oil industry is where the wine grape industry was in the 1960s,” said Ellery who along with husband Tom are proprietors of the olive oil company called Stella Cadente (Shooting Star in Italian). On a clear night in Mendocino County, the sky can be a light show of trailblazing stars.

The parallel Ellery draws to the wine grape industry is bolstered by the fact that many North Coast wineries are now producing and featuring olive oils in their wine tasting rooms, marketing catalogs and Web sites.

Stella Cadente and three small Mendocino wineries have added a unique twist to the olive oil/wine tasting alliance in opening an olive oil/wine tasting room in Boonville. It opened in April and features Hunter/Ellery olive oils.

Fill ‘er up

“We like to call it the gas station of olive oil,” said Hunter. “People bring in their own containers and can buy as much of our olive oil as they want. We think it is the only olive oil tasting bar of its kind where people can do that. If people are traveling and they don't have a container, we will sell them a small jar, but the whole idea is to bring your own container and fill it up.

“The tie between the wine industry and the olive oil industry is a natural because people who enjoy wine also enjoy food,” said Ellery.

Another parallel is at the Los Angeles County Fair, long known for its Wines of the World competition. In recent years, olive oils have been added to the competition under the sponsorship of the California Olive Oil Council.

The oldest and largest event of its kind attracted 4,000 wine entries from 80 wineries this year. It also attracted 200 entries in the olive oil judging, more than double last year's entrants.

And, Stella Cadente won best of show in the domestic extra virgin oil category. Last year it won a gold medal in the competition. Equally impressive is the recognition from the International Olive Oil Council for having an extra virgin olive oil “equal to or better than the best of the Italian oils.” In all Stella Cadente has won more than a dozen awards, impressive considering it did not make its first extra virgin olive oil until three years ago.

Uk and Midwest

Ellery grew up in the United Kingdom, and it was her family who introduced her to olive oil. “My father lived in Italy and loved olive oil. Of course after World War II butter was scarce in the UK, and olive oil was what you used to cook,” she explained.

Hunter grew up in Midwest and spent many hours driving tractors through corn fields. “Of course we grew up with butter and fried foods, but I learned as an adult that you cannot eat like that forever. Olive oil is obviously healthier for you,” he said.

Hunter and Ellery met in 1993, two years after Ellery bought Shooting Star Ranch in Anderson Valley near Boonville.

“We met in the computer business, which is a seven-day work week every five days,” said Hunter. “Fourteen-hour days forever… a killer profession. We knew we had only a certain amount of time left to devote the kind of energy we were in the software industry. We knew we were getting close to the end of our lifecycle in the business because it was starting to affect our health. We were physically ill.”

Mendocino drew them in and the olive oil business became their new career. “It was not our exit strategy to begin with, but it just worked out that way,” said Hunter.

Once they decided to make olive oil their new career, they took classes at University of California Davis to prepare themselves for producing and making olive oil. UC Davis is the only university in the nation offering sensory classes for olive oil.

Planted in 1995

They planted their first trees in 1995, mostly all Missions, which Ellery says makes a good olive oil. “Mendocino County is Zone 1 for wine grape production, which means it is the coldest area in California in which you can grow wine grapes,” Hunter said.

While there were a few ornamental olive trees around, there were no commercial orchards in the county. “People thought we were crazy eight years ago when we planted our first trees. But we knew Mendocino County was a Mediterranean climate, not unlike the Tuscany area of Italy where they growth both wine and olives.”

It also is very wet in Mendocino County. Anderson Valley receives an average of about 40 inches of rain per year. This year the Shooting Star Ranch rain gauge totaled 75 inches.

“The wet weather has caused some problems with sooty mold,” said Hunter.

However, it was not the weather that posed the greatest initial challenge for Hunter and Ellery. “Wild pigs broke down the gate to our place uprooted the first 200 trees we planted,” said Ellery.

“Deer came in right behind the pigs and finished off the trees — kind of a high-low attack,” said Hunter.

They strengthened the gates and raised the deer fence to eight feet and continued to learn about olive production.

Others interested

“We were told by many people that Missions were the only olives to plant, but we wanted to try other varieties from Italy and other countries. We have discovered that the Italian trees do much better here,” she said.

Their introduction of commercial olive production into Anderson Valley attracted interest from other farmers. “Early on we found ourselves conducting seminars and consulting,” said Ellery. Over the past several years the University of California Cooperative Extension has joined in to educate growers and conduct research plots, including a 13-variety UC test block on Shooting Star Ranch.

“We have learned a lot since we started,” said Hunter.

For example, olive trees need well-drained soils. Initially, Ellery and Hunter were told they needed to fertilize the trees. However, that has proven to be unnecessary.

“While the climate may be similar to Tuscany in Italy, they get rain there in the summer and we do not. We drip irrigate during the summer,” said Hunter.

The trees are planted either 12 by 12 feet or 15 by 15. The Italian trees come into bearing earlier. “We are into commercial production with four and a half year old trees. We do not know yet when they will become full bearing,” said Hunter. They hope to get about 200 pounds of olives per tree at full maturity.

“Unfortunately you get only about 40 gallons of olive oil from a ton of olives compared about 160 gallons of wine from a ton of grapes. That fact alone had us grappling with whether to grow wine grapes or olives, here,” said Hunter.

Harvest weather

The weather is a key factor on when Mendocino County olives are harvested. If you wait until there is a hard frost, olives become mushy and do not make high quality oil.

“We harvest and blend green, black and purple olives to make our oil,” said Ellery.

“The weather dictates the style of oil we make. Unlike oil from olives in the central valley or Butte County which are a more buttery style oil, our oil is more fruity and peppery,” said Ellery.

Ellery and Hunter produce about 20 percent of the olives used in their Stella Cadente oil. They contract with other growers for the rest.

“We are very fanatical about how we want olives for our oil produced,” said Ellery. “We want them hand picked and pressed within hours of when they are picked.” They use presses in Petaluma and Butte County.

They also direct the olive harvest and pressing of oils for Fetzer and Bonterra wineries.

Up until now Ellery and Hunter have been a two-person operation. They recently signed on with a distributor in Sonoma County.

“Both Tom and I have extensive backgrounds in marketing. Selling olive oils is marketing 101. I call it dialing for dollars — calling up retailers and restaurants and telling them you have the greatest thing since sliced bread,” said Ellery.

And they have been successful locally and are branching out. They recently sold some of their oils into Canada. The awards are certainly helping. The Los Angeles County Fair 2003 best of show will be a big boost.

“But we will never get big. We both have been down that route in the software business, and we don't want to go back,” said Ellery.

Stella Cadente produces estate grown olives and three extra virgin oils, Estate Blend, Early Harvest Missions and Everyday Late Harvest Missions. They recently added Meyer lemon oil. It is made by pressing the lemons and olives together. “It has been flying off the shelf,” said Ellery.

Obviously these oils and most of the other oils produced by the 350 members of the California Olive Oil Council are not the bulk cooking oils produced and shipped by boatloads into the U.S. from Europe and elsewhere.

These are artisan or condiment oils used to flavor dishes and salads.

“The California oils are for the top 1 percent of the olive oil market. We know we cannot compete with the low end, subsidized European oils,” said Ellery.

Ellery is a board member of the California Olive Oil Council. It was formed in 1992 to make California a source of sustainable, commercially viable world class olive oil.

It works toward that goal by supporting education efforts in growing olives and making oil, but has established a certification program for California extra virgin olive oil and educating the public on olive oils.

“Sue and the council work very hard to gain consumer confidence with the certification program,” said Hunter.

There are major differences in the quality of bulk imported oils and what is produced by California olive oil makers.

“Some oils that are labeled olive oil that come into the U.S. are cut with hazelnut or canola oil. There is a real problem with truth in labeling and the council is working hard to correct that,” she said.

Although there are millions of gallons of olive oil imported into the U.S. each year, it is probably the largest, untapped olive oil market in the world outside of China.

For a fledgling segment of California agriculture, that is an enormous market potential.

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