Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Food -- Olive oil -- a new gold rush in El Dorado County

Autumn Cruz / acruz@sacbee.com
Annette Schoonover refills a bottle of olive oil for a customer at her Winterhill Farms shop in Placerville. With 33 acres planted in El Dorado County in 2008, olives moved from the "minor and miscellaneous crops" category to a listing of their own in the county's annual crop report.

By Cathy Locke clocke@sacbee.com

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009 - 12:00 am Page 2B

Annette Schoonover invites patrons to "bring your own bottle," but what she pours at the tasting bar is for dipping, not sipping.

Winterhill Farms' shop on Placerville's Main Street represents El Dorado County's nascent olive oil industry. Since 2000, a handful of olive orchards have been introduced into the foothills agricultural scene.

With 33 acres planted in 2008, olives moved from the "minor and miscellaneous crops" category to a listing of their own in the county Agriculture Department's annual Crop and Livestock Report.

Although the total value of the olive crop in El Dorado County was $38,000 last year, far below the $5.8 million for apples and $5.2 million for wine grapes, olive growers see theirs as an up-and-coming industry.

Like many of the county's vintners, the olive growers came to agriculture from other professions. And like winemaking, producing a quality olive oil is a mix of science and art.
Schoonover and her partner, Richard Wolf, planted olive trees six years ago on 40 acres in the Somerset area. After 30 years as an art director for a South Lake Tahoe advertising agency, Schoonover said she wanted to get back to the earth.

She attributes her interest in raising olives to her Italian heritage.

"I have relatives still living in Sicily," she said.

In addition to 300 trees on their El Dorado County property, she and Wolf manage two orchards in the Oroville area. Not wanting to inconvenience neighbors on their privately maintained road, they decided to forgo ranch marketing and instead sell their oil at farmers markets and area wineries.

Two years ago, they opened the Main Street shop, featuring Winterhill olive oil, imported balsamic vinegars, and an array of jams, glazes, honey, teas and salves, as well as arts and crafts by area entrepreneurs whose farms and workshops are off the beaten path.

As in a wine-tasting room, patrons can sample varietals and flavored olive oils, dipping bread cubes into cups of the amber liquid, progressing from the mild to more robust. The oil is sold by the bottle and in bulk. Customers who bring their own bottles receive a 40 percent discount.
Herbalist Laura Owens developed teas made with olive leaves, as well as an all-natural, DEET-free, insect repellent containing olive oil, eucalyptus and lemon grass. Chris Lee's Bees supplies honey, and Betty Albert provides chutney and breads.

"Our theme is products with passion," Schoonover said. "We seek out the people that love what they do."

Bob and Amy Day share that passion. After traveling through Europe, they imported more than 3,000 olive trees, including 28 varieties from France, five from Italy and one from Spain. They planted them among the oaks on their 150 acres on the Georgetown Divide and market olive oil under their Mad Dog Mesa label.

Bob Day is a former management consultant, and his wife is a financial analyst. Most of what they know about raising olives they learned from books and the Internet, he said. They and other growers process their olives at mills outside the county, but Day said he hopes to install the first local mill.

Olives typically are harvested in November and December and pressed within 24 hours after they are picked. Unlike wine, the oil is best when fresh and should be used within two years.
Day sells his oil primarily at farmers markets in El Dorado County.

Education is key to the marketing process, growers say. "The American palate is not used to extra-virgin olive oil," Schoonover said.

Touted for its health benefits, olive oil is gaining popularity. Studies of extra-virgin oil indicate that its low acidity creates high antioxidant levels.

Day credits John Tillman of Gold Hill Olive Oil Co. for giving a public face to the industry in El Dorado County. Tillman's orchards, tasting room and farmhouse-turned-retreat-center are prominent along well-traveled Gold Hill Road.

Tillman, whose weekday job is general manager of Sierra Disposal, said he has closed his tasting room for the summer because of the poor economy. But the retreat center continues to draw visitors seeking a rural getaway, and who are eager to sample the region's oils as well as its wines.

No comments: