Olive Oil Season in California Wine Country

Just as grape-picking and -crushing comes to an end, the olive season is getting quickly under way in northern California's wine country.

Olive trees also like a dry Mediterranean climate, and many vineyards and ranches have orchards of gray-green olive trees dotting the valleys and hillsides. Throughout November, crews lay tarps under the trees, and then hit the branches with long poles to knock the olives to the ground.

Like winemakers, olive oil producers look for distinct flavors from different varietals of olives, but unlike wine, olive oil doesn't need to age and has its most interesting and intense flavors when freshly pressed.

Nan Tucker McEvoy helped to usher in this industry in Northern California wine country when she established McEvoy Ranch in the Marin County hills of West Petaluma.

Originally, it was to be the site of her country home, but the region was not residentially zoned, so she needed an agricultural activity for permitting. She decided there were enough vineyards in the area, and so she set her sights on an olive ranch.

McEvoy was told it couldn't be done because of the cool fog in Marin County, but that only increased her determination. She hired Maurizio Castelli, an olive oil expert from Tuscany, who helped her develop an organic olive ranch specializing in Italian varietals including the popular Frantoio and Leccino.

"We want the intense bitter flavor of the green olives, so we tend to harvest on the earlier side, even though the riper they get, the more oil the olives have," said education director Jill Lee.

McEvoy Ranch is only open to the public a few times a year. On Dec. 7, visitors can tour the orchards and try the newly milled Olio Nuovo olive oil. In the spring, there will be tours of McEvoy's private gardens. Click here to make reservations.

McEvoy Ranch also has its own frantoio, or stone olive mill, that presses the fruit right on the property. Vineyards from around the region who are foraying into the olive oil business have also started pressing their olives at McEvoy.

Medlock Ames Winery in Sonoma County brings its crops of Italian and Spanish varietal olives to McEvoy for pressing. Ames Morison, co-owner of the vineyard, believes that including Spanish olives like Manzanillo and Arbequina help round out the Italian fruit by adding a distinct spice and peppery bite. He suggests paring a pasta dish drizzled with oil with a red blend, like a merlot/cabernet to match the bold flavors of the new oil. He plans on having his winery's first commercial batch of olive oil for sale this spring for members of its wine club.

Frantoio Ristorante in Mill Valley, Calif. (152 Shoreline Hwy., Mill Valley, Calif., 94941) boasts a large stone olive oil press right off the dining room. In November and December, guests can watch the fruits being crushed with a huge granite stone.

Owner Roberto Zecca, originally from Tuscany, believes there's a mystic connection between people and the olive tree and refers to ancient Greece and Mesopotamian cultures use of it thousands of years ago. His restaurant's olive oil is cold pressed, organic, and sold only through his store and Web site to manage the quality. Zecca says he doesn't allow his oil to get old on shelves.

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