Olive Oil in California

img_1194-600x450Almost all of the olive oil produced in the United States comes from California.  Experts agree that, just as in the case of wine grapes and winemaking, California’s growing conditions and expertise in agriculture have the potential of producing some of the best extra virgin olive oils in the world.  In the last twenty years, that potential has now become a reality.

Olive trees were introduced to the New World by Spanish missionaries in the early 1500’s.  Arriving first in Cuba, olives made their way to Mexico, Baja California, and eventually up into California through a series of missions established along the coast by the famous Franciscan missionary Father Junipero Serra beginning in the 1760’s.

By the early 1800’s, these missions were producing olive oil.  The majority of the olives planted were the Spanish variety Cornicabra, which were later commonly referred to as “Mission” olives.  Years later, the missions were sold to private owners and the olive trees were neglected.  However, in the mid-1800’s, cuttings from these original Mission olives were replanted along with newly imported olive varieties such as Manzanillo and Sevillano.  These latter varieties produce large fleshy olives which proved useful many years later for canned eating olives.

After the California Gold Rush until the end of the 1800’s, the population of Mediterranean immigrants in the United States grew rapidly, along with their desire for olive oil.  Demand for olive oil was on the rise, but California’s production suffered a setback when imported olive oils from Italy, Spain and France undercut the prices of local producers by blending cheaper oils with the olive oil exported to the United States, a practice which still goes on today.

In the early 1900’s, new cooking oils made from cottonseed oil (Wesson) and corn oil (Mazola) were introduced into the marketplace at prices lower than olive oil.  These less expensive oils, along with other refined seed oils which were stripped of their nutrients by heat and chemicals during the refining process, gained in popularity causing the demand for olive oil to languish.  During this difficult period, the California olive industry turned to canned eating olives as a more profitable alternative to olive oil.

Despite these difficult challenges, there were determined California olive oil producers who refused to give up.  One such producer, the Sciabica family led by founder Nicola Sciabica, began producing olive oil in 1936 in Modesto, California using methods they learned in their native Sicily.  Through good times and bad they pressed on, offering help and advice to newcomers entering the California olive oil business in later years.

In the early 1980’s, news of the miraculous health benefits of olive oil together with the rise of California’s wine industry, there was a renewed interest in olive oil across the United States .  Award-winning wineries in Northern California began reviving old olive trees and planting new  olive oil varieties from Italy such as Leccino, Frantoio, Pendolino and Maurino, from Spain such as  Arbequina and Arbosana, as well as the Greek variety Koroneiki and the French variety Lucques, to produce premium estate grown olive oils.   The world began to realize that California could produce world class olive oils when an extra virgin olive oil made in Northern California by Ridgely Evers won an international blind tasting in Italy in 1997.

Today, California is poised to revolutionize the availability of high quality extra virgin olive oil in America.  Traditional olive groves of individual tall spreading trees will supply California’s boutique olive oil producers with an ever increasing number of different olive varieties from all over the world.  There will also be olive trees planted in closely spaced rows using trellis systems similar to  the way grape vines are grown, a technique called super-high-density, developed by Spanish growers in 1999 using semi-dwarf olive varieties such as Arbequina, Koroneiki and Arbosana which were brought from Spain and grown in California nurseries specifically for this purpose.

The super-high-density planting system reduces the cost of farming and harvesting olives, a savings that can be passed along to the consumer which allows California’s genuine extra virgin olive oils to compete with less expensive imported brands (which are often adulterated olive oils sold to unsuspecting customers, a problem that has been going on since the 1800’s).

The future potential of California’s extra virgin olive oil production is enormous.  According to Wikipedia.com,  2009 consumption of olive oil in the United States was about 65,000,000 gallons

of which over 98% was imported.  In 2012, California has about 25,000 acres of olives under cultivation, but this number would have to increase to over 300,000 acres just to satisfy domestic demand.  And, due in part to the delicious and healthy extra virgin olive oil that California is now producing at more affordable prices, demand for olive oil in the United States should continue to increase.