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 was ideal for growing olives.
Today, California accounts for 99 percent of all U.S. olive oil production, and has earned a reputation as a world-class producer. 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. 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.
1. Temecula Olive Oil Company
Launched in 2001, Temecula Olive Oil Company grows a mind-boggling 48 varieties of olives at its estate near Temecula and other Southern California sites. With tasting rooms in five locations, along with its original outpost in Old Town Temecula, visitors can stroll in for free samples of the company’s extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars; there’s also a terrific selection of olives, flavored oils, spreads, and salts. In addition to its extra virgin oils, it makes a variety of flavored olive oils. You can even buy your own olive tree to take home. (More: Temecula Olive Oil Company)
2. Tehama Trail Farms & Ranches
Established by local farmers, the Tehama Trail meanders through rural communities, linking together nearly two dozen vineyards, orchards, and grass-fed beef ranchers and other specialty meat producers. Though you can hop onto the route at any point, the driving tour technically begins in Corning, a town that has been linked with olives for generations. Stop in at the iconic Olive Pit for samples of traditional black and green olives, or try more exotic options, like herb-and-garlic-cheese-stuffed Sicilian olives. Head over to Corning Olive Oil Company to sample artisanal olive oils and vinegars and shop for classy gifts. (More: Tehama Trail Farms & Ranches)
3. Ojai Olive Oil Company
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. Since then, seven more varieties have been added, and the grove has grown to include around 3,000 trees; only organic farming practices are followed, and the olives are harvested by hand. Free tastings of their extra virgin olive oils, infused oils, and balsamic vinegars are offered seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The ranch also offers free 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 for the roughly once-an-hour tours. (More: Ojai Olive Oil Company)
4. Round Pond Estate
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. More than 2,000 olive trees, including five Italian and three Spanish varieties, are hand-harvested and pressed minutes later to produce two extra virgin olive oils and seven flavored oils. The estate offers a guided olive oil tasting, along with signature experiences that combine the estate’s olive oil, culinary, and wine-making elements. 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. (More: Round Pond Estate)
5. Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill
Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill, located in the Lake County town of Kelseyville, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of San Francisco, includes more than 3,000 certified-organic olive trees that produce several varieties of olives. That fruit goes into six organic extra virgin olive oils, including single-variety offerings. Chacewater also makes Meyer lemon and blood orange flavored oils, milled with whole fruit and organic olives. You can try all eight of them, along with their 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. (More: Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill)
6. Kiler Ridge Olive Farm
Kiler Ridge Olive Farm, just outside downtown Paso Robles, hosts weekend tastings at their 58-acre spread, where you can sip several different varieties of Tuscan-style olive oil 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!) 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. (More: Kiler Ridge Olive Farm)
7. Séka Hills Olive Mill And Tasting Room
Intimate Capay Valley—like its much larger neighbor, the Sacramento Valley, to the east—is a bountiful agricultural region, and at Séka Hills Olive Mill & Tasting Room, you can savor the flavors 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; discover its award-winning oils, made with premium fruit from 82 acres 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. Or have a meal on site from the menu of signature salads, artisan sandwiches, and charcuterie boards on the patio that overlooks the rolling hills of the Capay Valley. (More: Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room)