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Market growing for Marin olive oil producers, sellers

Olive oil maker Guilermo Ramirez pours freshly pressed olive oil into a filtering machine at the McEvoy Ranch. (IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel)


Gary Klien
Marin Independent Journal

November 19, 2006


The McEvoy Ranch is always finding new ways to squeeze money from olives.

This holiday season, the Northern Marin olive-oil producer is launching a new line of olive-oil based body products called "Verde." The line includes body lotion, hand cream and a body scrub made from the same 100-percent organic oil the ranch sells for dining.

The Verde products carry an herbal scent developed by the ranch staff. In addition to olive oil, the products contain avocado oil, sesame oil, grapeseed oil and jojoba oil, plus chamomile and other natural botanicals.

"We're continually coming up with alternative uses for the olive oil," said Shari DeJoseph, the ranch's resident orchard manager.

When Nan McEvoy, the 87-year-old publishing heiress, launched the operation in 1991, she faced skepticism that olive oil could be produced in Marin County. Fifteen years later, not only is the McEvoy Ranch thriving, but Marin is home to a scrappy olive oil industry.

In Mill Valley, the Frantoio Ristorante & Olive Oil Co. produces about 2,000 gallons a year, importing the olives from Yolo, Napa and Sonoma counties and milling them on-site. Much of the oil is used at the restaurant; some is bottled for sale. The olive oil operation has been running for about 10 years, said chef Duilio Valenti.

"We also press a lot of olives for third parties, people who have a few trees but don't have the machinery," Valenti said.

In San Rafael, the O Olive Oil company, launched in 1995, buys olives from the Sierra foothills and produces an array of plain and citrus-flavored olive oils and vinegars. In Greenbrae, the Olive Oil Source, founded in 1998 by Kaiser Permanente physician John Deane and his wife, Lisa, is a Web-based publisher of olive-oil health news and industry links.

The Olive Oil Source also manufactures and sells small olive-oil presses and containers, and Lisa Deane sells larger presses as a U.S. sales representative for Pieralisi, an Italian manufacturer.

"Everybody's buying presses for their own use," she said. "Olive oil's coming into its own."

Paul Vossen, a farm adviser and olive specialist for the University of California Cooperative Extension, said that while most California olive orchards are in the Central Valley, there has been an increasing amount of interest in olive production in the state's coastal counties. Some of the interest is from affluent property owners seeking a country lifestyle, some is from working farmers looking to fortify their businesses, he said.

"Olives will grow just about anywhere, as long and it's not too cold or too wet," said Vossen, a Sebastopol resident. "The quality that's come out of Marin County so far has been excellent."

But he said olive cultivation can be challenging in places like Marin. Labor is more expensive; the hilly geography doesn't lend itself to the big, efficient harvesting machines used in the Central Valley; sunlight and heat aren't as abundant, and water costs more.

"It's quite an investment," he said. "There returns are there, but it's difficult."

West Marin resident Lia Lund could attest to that. In 2001, Lund bought 60 acres in Marshall, planted 1,000 trees on five acres, and launched Tomales Bay Olive Oil. But the trees have yet to produce fruit.

"We have almost no olives," she said. "We really thought this was the year would have them. We don't know if it's the youth (of the trees) or the wind or that this is an odd year.

"It's a hard-scrabble area."

At the other end of the scale is the McEvoy Ranch, a 550-acre former dairy ranch just off Point-Reyes-Petaluma Road. Harvesting 120 to 150 tons of olives a year, the ranch produces up to 4,500 gallons of organic oil annually.

Much of the oil is bottled for culinary uses - with prices ranging from $20 for 375 milliliters to $160 a gallon - and the rest is converted into soaps, gardener's hand salve and other products. Meanwhile, the pruned olive branches are crafted into wooden bowls, salad utensils, cutting boards, pepper grinders and toothpick holders.

The ranch also raises bees for honey and grows lemons for curd and marmalade.

"We realize that we have a really special property," said marketing director Christina Cavallaro. "It begs for things to be created. We try to use everything. It's using every part of the land and never letting anything go to waste."

The ranch says it's the largest private-estate bottler of olive oil in the United States, and its oil is carried by more than 60 stores in California and dozens of others from Maine to Hawaii. A spokeswoman declined to disclose sales figures.

"It just has a delicious, particular, sweet flavor," said Susie Stewart of the Bolinas People's Store, which sells McEvoy and seven other brands of olive oil, mostly organic oil from small producers. "It's rather expensive, so people have to be able to go the extra mile."

The month of November is harvest and oil-making time on the ranch, and McEvoy held her annual harvest celebration last weekend. The party might be unlike any other event in Marin, with a catered gourmet luncheon for more than 300 guests each day, plus live music, horse-drawn carriage rides and seemingly endless quantities of wine, oysters, espresso and gourmet pizzas.

The luncheon menu, as might be expected, centered heavily on olives: chick pea soup with croutons and olive oil, Tuscan table olives and olive oil potato puree, all complementing grilled salmon and Niman braised beef.

"It's all about showcasing the olive oil," said caterer Paula LeDuc.

The oil is a blend of six Tuscan varietals - Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Maurino, Leccio del Corno and Coratina - crushed and milled on site within hours of harvesting. McEvoy imported the original 3,000 olive trees from Italy in 1991; today, the ranch has 18,000 trees covering 80 acres.

"These varieties prefer the cooler climate," said DeJoseph, the orchard manager. "The oil is better with the slow ripening period. We don't get a threat of frost until after Thanksgiving, so we have the harvesting completed."

For DeJoseph, the November harvest is a bittersweet time. One the one hand, it's the culmination of a year's toil; on the other, it means letting go and starting over.

"It's sad to see the fruit coming off the trees," said DeJoseph, who studied agriculture at the University of California, Davis. "It comes off so fast. One moment they're there, and then they're gone."

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Contact Gary Klien via e-mail at gklien@marinij.com.