Want to Get Into the Olive Oil Business? It's Not So Easy
Skyler Mapes wasn’t planning on getting into the olive oil business. As a Californian who grew up visiting wineries in Sonoma and Napa with her parents, she thought wine would be the more likely career for her. But when Mapes was studying abroad in Barcelona in 2014, she took a weekend trip to Rome and met Giuseppe Morisani, a Calabrian nutritionist whose family had been producing olive oil for three generations from olive trees on their property. The meeting resulted in two collaborations: Their eventual marriage, and, several years later, the launch of EXAU Olive Oil.
The two moved to the Bay Area, and Morisani was underwhelmed by the quality of the oil available to them. “Giuseppe tasted the olive oil here [in the United States] and said, ‘I can’t do this. Where are the medium-bodied Calabrian oils on the US market? Why is everything from Tuscany?’” Mapes told me over the phone. They set their sights on bringing the Italian oils that Morisani was homesick to the U.S. So after some planning, in 2017, the couple decamped for Calabria to figure out how.
Getting into the olive oil business, though, was full of hurdles. “It’s so hard to get in. It’s so freaking hard to get in,” Mapes said. “Olive oil is already a food that has a lot of mystery around it, and the process is very old school. I literally had to marry someone to get into the industry.” In Calabria, the couple worked on every stage of the process, harvesting and pressing olives to make oil.
Typically, the Italian olive oil that arrives on American shores is from the North of Italy. But Calabria, a region at the toebox of the boot of Italy, produces 33% of olive oil that Italy makes. Mapes’ theory is that the northern regions of Italy are more amenable to English-only speakers, while the South of the country is less of a tourism hub, and so the olive oil that flows into the States tends to come from that part of Italy despite the fruitful environs of the South.
EXAU olive oil—named after the Latin phrase Ex Albis Ulivis, referring to the tier of olives reserved for Roman nobility—launched in 2018. Last year, the oil won a Silver Award at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition. There’s been a slew of bright, interesting newcomers to the olive oil space over the past two years, and EXAU stands out for a few reasons. For one, it’s an olive oil company that’s led by a Black woman, a rarity in a space that had traditionally been overwhelmingly white. When other olive oil companies have looked to the wellness space to gain traction, EXAU is relying on e-commerce and subscriptions to get the word out. Unlike models that come in candy-colored tins or ceramic striped bottles, EXAU is in a sleek, green glass container, a more traditional look. “We want to be the Hermes Kelly bag [of olive oils],” Mapes said. “An elegant everyday product that we hope will become essential to your cooking.” And EXAU is sold entirely online, as of now. Their six-month subscriptions have sold out, and customer enthusiasm for the oil during pandemic-related shut-downs have even caused delays in shipping.
Mapes and Morisani moved to Austin, Texas shortly before the pandemic ground everything to a halt. They hope to be able to travel back and forth from Calabria more in the near future, but for now they’re focusing on educating the public about olive oil, and breaking down the barriers to transparency in the industry as best they can. “EXAU is just a tiny part of the range of Calabrian oil,” Mapes said. “We’re excited to show people more.”