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Livermore's Liquid Gold

All that glitters in our local wine region now includes a stunning new lineup of extra virgin olive oils.


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Ask gourmands about their impressions of Livermore, and chances are, they’ll say something about wine. But for as long as grapes have grown in Livermore, olives have also thrived. Few olive growers ever thought seriously about using their olives for oil—until now.

As California’s olive oil industry takes off—growing by 168 percent over the past six years—Livermore olive growers are banding together, learning how to make high-quality extra virgin olive oil, and introducing some stellar oils to the market.

“Livermore is starting to produce some really high-quality oils,” says Patricia Darragh, executive director of the Berkeley-based California Olive Oil Council (COOC), which rigorously tests and tastes oils produced in California, certifying those that qualify as extra virgin. “The quality and interest are high, and they are continuing to rise.”

In the past two years, Livermore olive oils have made a big splash. At the Los Angeles County Fair, Karen Hughes, olive oil producer and owner of the Purple Orchid Inn Resort & Spa in Livermore, won the 2005 gold medal for her Sera Festino extra virgin oil. In 2004, Wente Vineyards won an L.A. County Fair gold medal for its Oro Fino.

But actually leading the charge is the Crohare family, owners and operators of The Olivina, a 92-acre olive orchard in Livermore. Olives have grown on the family’s property since 1881, and newer trees dedicated to oil were planted in 2000. Today, the Crohares harvest from more than 10,000 trees each year, producing six signature oils certified extra virgin by the COOC.

Producing extra virgin oil is difficult and costly: Olives must be picked by hand at the right time, then immediately and carefully pressed with expensive machinery. Charles T. Crohare came together with Hughes two years ago to form the Livermore Olive Growers Association with the goal that members would exchange information on how to produce the highest quality oil.

Their group has since expanded, and now comprises 15 members. The plan is for the region to acquire an olive oil appellation, similar to a wine appellation, that would require all labeling to be accurate and comprehensive. If, for example, a grower wants to use Livermore on its label, the association wants most of the olives used to make the oil to come from Livermore. “We want our oils to be defined as estate grown and Livermore produced,” Crohare says.

He says such distinctions are worth protecting, claiming that Livermore’s weather is perfect—even better than Napa Valley’s—for olive growing, and that the region is capable of producing superior oils. “If you follow the globe around to Italy and Spain, where some of the world’s best olive oil is produced, you’ll see that their climates are very similar to ours,” Crohare says. Livermore’s efforts are also inspiring other nearby regions. In Brentwood, David Navarette of the Brentwood Olive Oil Company is beginning to form a cooperative of local growers and producers. Ideally, he says, all of its oils would be certified extra virgin, from Brentwood. Although just Navarette and one other producer currently make olive oil in Brentwood, he’s seen a great increase in interest, and is confident the local industry will grow.

So how do Livermore’s oils compare to other California oils? Diablo recruited four expert tasters—all members of the COOC’s internationally certified tasting panel—to decide. The group tasted 12 Livermore oils (see sidebar at right for a list of the top-rated oils) from a range of producers. While quality varied—some oils wowed while others would not have passed the COOC’s tests for extra virgin quality—the overall impression was hopeful.

When a blend made from Tuscan olives grown by a new Livermore producer was compared with an old-time Rutherford producer, the Rutherford oil showed superior balance, but the Livermore oil had brighter fruit aromas.

“This reminds me of what I saw in the Napa Valley 10 years ago,” said taster Nancy Ash. “Back then, [producers] were early in the process and still figuring everything out, but showed a tremendous amount of potential.”

Best Bottles

Our tasters matched the oils they considered the finest to the foods they believed would best complement them. Here are the results.

Drizzle over grilled meat: The Olivina’s 2004 Frantoio, $17.50/375 ml. A green, spicy oil with wonderful warm spice aromas of cedar and cinnamon. Other suggestions: Mix into warmed mashed potatoes with porcini mushrooms. To buy online or to find retail locations, visit www.theolivina.com .

Drizzle on fish: The Olivina’s 2004 Arbequina, $17.50/375 ml. A light-bodied, almondy oil with buttery-sweet flavor. Other suggestions: Drizzle over slightly bitter vegetables like artichokes or broccoli rabe. Visit www.theolivina.com .

Whisk into a vinaigrette: Purple Orchid Inn Resort & Spa’s 2004 Sera Festino Manzanilla, $19.99/375 ml. A mild oil with a bold aroma and low bitterness and pungency. Other suggestions: Whisk into a hummus, or drizzle over fresh mozzarella. Call (925) 606-8855.

Finish a soup: Darcie Kent Vineyards Tuscan Blend, $19.95/375 ml. This oil is a bit out of balance—very pungent and bitter—but it would work well with intensely flavored foods. Other suggestions: Drizzle over pot roast or hearty braised meats like lamb or goat. Available at First Street Wine Company, 2211 1st St., Livermore, (925) 294-5825; Concannon Vineyard, 4590 Tesla Rd., Livermore, (925) 456-2505, www.concannonvineyard.com .

Use as a dipping oil for artisan breads: Wente Vineyards Oro Fino, $24.95/375 ml. A blend of Spanish and French varieties (locally grown), this oil has delightful aroma, a full, fruity flavor, and balanced bitterness and pungency. Available at www.wentevineyards.com .

Thanks to our expert tasting group: Nancy Ash, Dean Wilkinson, Sandy Sonnelfelt, and Melissa Swanson.

 

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