With deep pockets and high hopes, West Coast pioneers are betting that their oils can compete with the world's best


Tooling along through the arid, dusty, rolling terrain of northern Marin County, I crest a hill west of Petaluma, California, to face an Andalusian vision--acres upon orderly acres of olive trees marching to the horizon, their silvery leaves shimmering in the desultory late-autumn breeze. This is McEvoy Ranch, the latest entry in the California olive oil sweepstakes, where 78-year-old Nan Tucker McEvoy is devoting her time, passion and considerable fortune to answering a question that grows more urgent in these parts every year: will California oils ever compete with the best the Mediterranean has to offer?

Until recently, no one would have taken such a suggestion seriously, since California olive oils have never shown great promise. When the first Franciscan missionaries came up from Mexico and planted olive trees, their main goal was to make oil for sacramental use. From those early plants evolved 60 varieties of olive trees around the state, including typical California types like Mission and Manzanillo. But most of these varieties were drier and meatier than the kinds Europeans generally used for oil. California olives were table olives.

Or so people thought until about 10 years ago, when a woman named Lila Jaeger uncovered a grove of 100-year-old olive trees (now identified as a Catalan variety called Farga) on the land of her Rutherford Hill Winery and began, with some trepidation, to press oil from their fruit. The result was astonishing--a soft, sweet, rather flowery oil that recalled the best French extra-virgins. Jaeger and her husband ultimately sold their winery and now concentrate on olive oil.

A handful of determined producers, inspired by Jaeger's success, have followed her course, restoring old olive groves, planting new ones and improving harvesting and pressing techniques. Two of the most prominent oil makers are Nan McEvoy and Ridgely Evers, amicable competitors who have gone to considerable trouble and expense to bring in young Mediterranean rootstock to build their groves. The result may be a style of oil as unique as the Tuscan and Andalusian oils and good enough to make producers in those two prestigious regions--and all over the Mediterranean--sit up and take notice.

Pursuing the Tuscan Dream

Planting olives requires deep pockets. Given the time required for olive trees to produce fruit, it takes at least three years before investors see any return at all, and 10 to 15 years before they can think about profits. The Italians, who know something about growing olives, have a saying: "You plant olives not for your children but for your grandchildren." For quick growth, buy T-bills.

Possibly every farmer in notoriously gossipy Northern California has an opinion on just how deep into her pockets McEvoy, an heir to the San Francisco Chronicle fortune, has reached to support her Petaluma olive plantation. McEvoy, whose worth is estimated at $360 million, bursts out laughing when asked about the $20 million she is rumored to have spent on land, buildings, roads, terraces, olive trees (2,000 imported from Tuscany), consultants (one of whom, Maurizio Castelli, was also imported from Tuscany) and a state of the art sinolea press (which gently lifts the oil from the crushed olives rather than squeezing it out). That's not to mention permits, labels, bottles and all the concomitant hoo-ha of bringing a new product to the public.

How did her rivals arrive at that $20 million estimate? "They made that figure up," she says, pointing out that growing olives is not all that expensive, especially if you already own the land. McEvoy chaired the Chronicle company board until she was ousted in a family fight in 1995. At that point, she got serious about the Petaluma ranch, which had been a derelict farm when she bought it a few years earlier. County law dictates that an existing agricultural property may only be developed for agricultural use, but McEvoy decided to bypass wine--"Everyone was doing it"--for the smaller world of premium olive oil.

Not that she was alone in her quest for Tuscan-style olive oil. A highly successful 46-year-old software executive named Ridgely Evers has been on the same mission since 1990. That was the year he decided to fly in bare-root saplings from Tuscany to plant on his Healdsburg, California, farm. (Because American customs will not permit any foreign soil to enter the country, friends of Evers had to go to Los Angeles airport and hand-wash the peat moss off each of the 2,200 trees.) Evers was determined to produce a version of the complexly flavored Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil he'd fallen in love with while vacationing in Italy.

Named Olive Ridge Ranch, Evers's Healdsburg farm now grows four classic Tuscan olive varieties--Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Maurino--all represented in approximately the same proportions as in the orchard they were sent from near Lucca, Italy. Last November, Evers's DaVero Extra Virgin (DaVero loosely translates as the real thing) became the first California oil to earn the prestigious extra-virgin grade from the International Olive Oil Council. This group, which was established under the auspices of the United Nations, includes representatives from olive-oil producing countries. Evers was ecstatic.

The Cost of Being Small

But don't rush to stock your pantry shelves with DaVero oil--or with any premium California extra-virgin, for that matter. Evers now owns 4,500 trees and pressed a scant 600 gallons of oil last year; his bottles are available only in select shops in the San Francisco Bay area. Still, he's a bigger producer than Lila Jaeger, who owns just over 800 trees, and B.R. Cohn, another notable producer, with 500.

With 12,000 trees, McEvoy is far and away the largest maker of fine oil in California. But even she doesn't make much oil compared to top European producers of estate-bottled extra-virgins, such as Tuscany's Capezzana. And with 25,000 trees, Capezzana is small by Italian standards.

The best California oils tend to be as high in price as they are limited in quantity. The quality of the oils fuels the growers' ambitions but is also a sharp reminder that the Mediterranean oils--whose producers can count on healthy government subsidies--enjoy a great cost advantage. Evers jokes that it costs him only $40 to make a $20 bottle of oil. To borrow the blunt words of Albert Katz, whose Oakville Grocery is a mail-order source for premium California oils, the question is, can growers in the state produce enough fine oil to get beyond "the freak-show level" and compete with the imports in price?

Maurizio Castelli, the Tuscan expert who works closely with McEvoy Ranch, believes that California oils can. He points out that land and labor in California are a good deal cheaper than in premium Mediterranean regions like Tuscany. And, he argues, "Even California's old Spanish olive varieties can produce good oil if they're harvested early and pressed quickly." Further, Tuscan trees in California are producing an oil of great finesse and elegance, Castelli says, even though they're still very young.

While Evers works to produce an oil that comes as close as possible to its Tuscan model, Castelli makes a case for the distinctiveness of classic oils produced in California. Tuscan oils often have an overwhelming piquancy, especially when they're very fresh, and Castelli says California's Tuscan-style oils are actually more harmonious, with a better balance between fruitiness and piquancy, and the fine flavors of artichokes and fresh grass. "This makes them much more attractive to a public still uneducated in all the nuances of olive oil"--in other words, to the relatively new American market.

Like Castelli, Nan McEvoy champions California oil and is putting a patriot's passion into promoting it. She not only focuses on her own production, but encourages others to join her through a nursery program that offers young trees for planting and through the sharing of her technologically advanced sinolea press (growers can bring their crops). Interest in the young trees, which sell for $8 to $11, has been enormous. "We sell every one we can produce," she says.

California's Oil Future

Can California olive oil truly make it in world competition? Some people are beginning to think so. "The new oils from McEvoy are phenomenal, and the Sonoma Estate from B.R. Cohn has reached new levels," Katz says. "For the first time in a couple of years, I'm pretty excited. Patience is starting to pay off."

Outside California, olive oil experts are more guarded. "There's a lot of promise," says Mort Rosenblum, whose book Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit (North Point Press) won a James Beard Award in 1997. But, he adds, "developing an olive oil takes a lot of time. Some California oils are good, but essentially they are imitations of Italian oils. And right now you can get better ones from Europe. The Californians are heading in the right direction--but they're not there yet."

Castelli thinks major players--big wineries like Kendall-Jackson and Mondavi--are simply waiting to see which way the market goes before jumping into premium olive oil production on a large scale, and he believes it won't be long. In effect, elite pioneer growers like McEvoy and Evers are doing the expensive, and invaluable, research and development for the big producers of the future.

Last year, the newly formed California Olive Oil Council began to offer its own seal of approval, based on international standards. Ken Stutz, president of the California group and an olive oil négociant who assembles and sells blended and single-varietal oils from a number of growers throughout the state, says 17 California oils were granted the seal in 1997. He expects more to meet the standard in the near future. A new California gold rush is on--and American olive oil fanatics will be the beneficiaries.

F&W contributing editor Jan Newberry, who is based in San Francisco near California's expanding olive groves, created these recipes to showcase extra-virgin olive oil. Newberry has included recommendations for the oil flavors that best complement each dish. Each recipe takes no more than 15 minutes of prep time.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who wrote the text, divides her time between Italy and Maine. Her newest work, Flavors of Tuscany, will be published next month by Broadway Books.