Spanish missionaries planted California’s first olive trees in the late 18th century, at missions from Sonoma to San Diego. It was no divine intervention; the savvy padres knew that California’s warm, sunny climate—similar to the olive-producing regions of Spain, France, and Italy—was ideal for growing olives. By the mid-1800s, California had a thriving olive oil industry that led to the rise of olive oil tasting rooms across the state.
California accounts for 99 percent of all U.S. olive oil production, and has earned a reputation as a world-class producer. At least 75 different olive varieties thrive in the state’s microclimates, giving producers a wealth of flavour profiles to work with. “This expansive selection of olive varietals provides a range of oils and trademark blends that are unique to California,” says Lisa Pollack of the California Olive Oil Council.
Much like the state’s wineries, many olive oil producers and purveyors welcome visitors for tastings and tours at ranches, mills, and storefronts across California. “They offer more than just a different selection of olive oil, they’re great learning experiences,” says Nancy Ash, president of Strictly Olive Oil, a Berkeley-based olive oil consultancy. “You’re talking to someone about what you’re buying, and getting ideas for new ways of using it in your kitchen.”
When sampling olive oil, skip the bread and take a small sip of the oil on its own. “Hold it in your mouth for a bit, and then, with a little smile, suck in air through the corners of your mouth,” says Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of the book Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil. Then, swallow. If you feel a peppery tickle at the back of your throat, it’s a sign of quality.
Almonds, tomatoes, and tomato leaves are all common descriptors for good olive oil, Jenkins adds, along with freshly cut grass and green apples. Want to try it for yourself? Here are seven destinations, listed from north to south, for sampling California’s golden nectar.
The city of Corning, two hours north of Sacramento, was once known as The Olive City. With nine canneries within its borders and hectares of orchards surrounding it, the town was a hub of olive activity.
H.R. Crane got a piece of the action in 1947 when he bought a 10 hectare olive grove. Before long, the Crane family was farming more than 40 hectares of Sevillano and Manzanillo olives. It wasn’t until 2009, when Crane’s grandsons planted 80 new hectares of olive trees and bought an olive mill, that the company began producing extra virgin olive oil under the Lucero name. The Cranes’ ranch now grows more than 16 varieties, covering more than 200 hectares acres.
The tasting room is open every day, with free sampling of Lucero extra virgin olive oils, infused oils, balsamic vinegars, and gourmet pantry items. Tours are free, too, and available anytime. Call ahead and they’ll even arrange an educational, seated tasting.
Along with producing great olive oil, the Cranes are also community minded: For every gallon jug of their Five Star Blend sold, they donate $5 to local agriculture education programs for young people.
Paul Manuel is a do-it-yourself kind of guy. In 1988, after decades working for his family’s construction business, he decided to plant a vineyard on property he owned with his wife, Kellye. The project turned out so well that he became a grower for Fetzer Vineyards, and spent 10 years providing grapes for the company’s wines. In 2004, he started making his own wine. Four years later, Manuel bought a 4-hectare olive mill property in the Lake County town of Kelseyville, and built a 930-sqm winery on the estate.
Known today as Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill, the ranch includes more than 3,000 certified-organic olive trees, producing several varieties of olives. That fruit goes into six organic extra virgin olive oils, including single-variety offerings that showcase the flavour profile of each variety. Chacewater also makes Meyer lemon and blood orange flavoured oils, milled with whole fruit and organic olives.
You can try all eight oils, along with Chacewater’s full lineup of wines, for free in the tasting room. Late April is an especially great time to stop by, because that’s when Chacewater hosts the annual Kelseyville Olive Festival, featuring local vendors of olive-related products and food, plus wine and beer tastings.
Set in the Napa Valley’s Rutherford district, famous for its high-end Cabernet Sauvignon, Round Pond Estate has a lot more going on than just wine. The property is planted not only with the vineyards that produce Round Pond’s signature Cab, but also to gardens, orchards, and more than 2,000 olive trees. The olive grove includes five Italian and three Spanish varieties, which are hand-harvested and pressed minutes later to produce two extra virgin olive oils and seven flavoured oils.
Round Pond offers three olive oil tasting tours, along with signature experiences that combine the estate’s olive oil, culinary, and wine-making elements. Just want the basics? The Splash & Dash tasting is a no-appointment-necessary visit to the tasting bar to sample estate olive oils and red wine vinegars.
Opt for the Mill Tasting and you’ll learn the essentials of producing artisan olive oil, then taste Round Pond olive oils paired with small bites inspired by the estate gardens, as well as locally sourced meats and cheeses.
The Tour & Tasting begins with a guided stroll through the olive grove, where you’ll learn about cultivation, harvest, and artisanal production methods. After the tour, you’ll be treated to a guided tasting of the estate’s olive oils and vinegars, paired with seasonal nibbles.
If you like fine wine with your olive oil (and who doesn’t?), the Il Pranzo experience combines the best of both worlds: an estate garden tour followed by a tasting of Round Pond olive oils, vinegars, and estate wines.
The gold rush may be over, but there’s still gold to be found in the Sierra foothills. This is gold of the liquid variety, and it gets its start at the 4/J + 1 Ranch, home base for the Copperopolis Olive Oil Company.
Owned by John and Josie Ribeira, the farm is perched at 275 metres above sea level, where warm summers and mild winters create an especially hospitable environment for olive trees. With 1,600 trees planted on two properties, the couple grows four Tuscan olive varieties, which are bottled as single-variety extra virgins, as well as blended together to create the signature Copper Cobalt Tuscan extra virgin olive oil.
When they’re not tending to operations at the ranch, the Ribeiras can be found charming the customers at the Copperopolis Olive Oil Company store. Located at the Copperopolis Town Square, the shop offers free tastings of extra virgin olive oils, flavoured oils (chipotle or bacon olive oil, anyone?), and balsamic vinegars, including unusual flavors such as honey-ginger, pineapple, and pomegranate.
It’s also a fun place to shop for non-edible, olive-themed gifts, including cookware, salad bowls, and kitchen utensils.
We hear lots of stories about people getting “bitten by the wine bug.” For Audrey Burnam and Gregg Bone, it was the olive oil bug. The couple became olive-oil obsessed during a bicycle tour of Tuscany, and went on to plant 835 Tuscan olive trees on their Central Coast farm. They produced their first extra virgin olive oil in 2010. Today, the couple farms 2,700 Italian olive trees on their 23-hectare ranch, just outside downtown Paso Robles.
Kiler Ridge hosts educational tastings at the farm, where you can sip the nectar straight up (between palate cleansers of green apple slices) and learn what to look for when tasting extra virgin olive oil. (Staff experts will even reveal how to spot fake extra virgin oil!) Several different varieties of Tuscan-style olive oil are there for the sampling, from the peppery Cook’s Choice to the grassy Late Harvest.
On Saturdays and Sundays, you can join a free walking tour of the olive orchard, with bonus views of the surrounding Paso Robles vineyards, to learn about the trees and the company’s farming practices. For an in-depth look at how Kiler Ridge olive oils are made, from press to bottle, stop by Thursday through Sunday for a production tour.
Southern California’s Ojai Valley has a lot going for it, from the rustic, charming town of Ojai to the picturesque landscape dotted with small family farms. It’s also an ideal place to grow olives.
The grove at the Asquith Ranch, home of the Ojai Olive Oil Co., dates back to the 1880s, when Lechin de Sevilla olive trees were first planted on the property. After the late Ronald H. Asquith bought a parcel of the land in 1996, he decided to make this special grove the basis of an olive oil company.
In the following years he planted seven more varieties, including Italian, French, and Spanish olives, and brought the total number of trees up to 3,000. The heritage grove, now more than 130 years old, is still in production. Today the ranch is managed by Asquith’s son Philip, with the help of Alice de Dadelsen-Asquith, and they use only organic farming practices and harvest by hand.
The ranch offers free educational tours every Wednesday and Saturday, starting in the original grove and ending in the tasting room. Scheduling is a laid-back affair, with no reservations necessary and no particular starting time. When people show up, the staff simply gathers together whoever is interested, and a tour begins—typically once an hour.
If you’d rather skip ahead, you can go straight to the tasting room to sample Ojai’s certified organic extra virgin olive oils, infused oils, balsamic vinegars, and olive oil skin care products.
Launched in 2001,Temecula Olive Oil Company was founded by two friends, Catherine Pepe and Nancy Curry, who went into business together after Nancy’s husband, Thom, had the idea of making olive oil. Thom now manages production for the company, which grows a mind-boggling 48 varieties of olives at its estate near Temecula and other Southern California sites.
Temecula Olive Oil Company has tasting rooms in Old Town San Diego, Seal Beach and Solana Beach, along with its original location in Old Town Temecula and the newest location in Laguna Beach. Pop in for free samples of the company’s extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars; there’s also a terrific selection of olives, flavoured oils, spreads and salts.
On the second and fourth Saturday of each month, you can get a behind-the-scenes tour at the company’s ranch, located 25 minutes from Old Town. You’ll start with a guided walk through the scenic olive groves, learning about Temecula Olive Oil Company’s sustainable growing practices and olive oil production, and then taste your way through the company’s offerings. In addition to its extra virgin oils, it makes a variety of flavoured olive oils. You can even buy your own olive tree to take home.
For a VIP experience, parties of 10 or more can book a day at the ranch, complete with a tour led by one of the company founders. The package also includes a guided olive oil tasting and a specially prepared lunch that showcases Temecula Olive Oil Company products.
Intimate Capay Valley is a world apart—with rolling hills and oak woodlands just west of the Sacramento Valley. Like its much larger neighbour, the valley is a bountiful agricultural region and at Séka Hills Olive Mill & Tasting Room, you can savour the flavours of the land: wine, olive oil, and honey. The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, whose ancestors have lived in the valley for generations, operates the tasting room, which is housed in a 4,000-square-metre facility designed with local materials, reclaimed wood, and eco-friendly technology. Discover its award-winning oils, made with premium fruit from 33 hectaes of Arbequina olive trees, and wildflower honey collected from thousands of hives on tribal lands. Guided tours also showcase Séka Hills’ other agricultural products, including beef jerky and seasoned nuts.
An on-site chef creates a menu with locally sourced ingredients from the surrounding farmland. Pick your favourites from the menu of signature salads, artisan sandwiches, and charcuterie boards, and enjoy them on the patio that overlooks the rolling hills of the Capay Valley.