Just as there are cult wines (think Screaming Eagle), there are cult olive oils. In fact, many top vintners also produce vintage-dated, estate-grown, cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. What’s more surprising is that the cost of some of these oils can rival that of a good bottle of wine from those same producers.
Just like wine, whiskey, tobacco, and chocolate, olive oil has its own lexicon and descriptive tasting terms, which are established by the International Olive Council. They include nutty, floral, fruity—referring to the aroma of the olive itself—peppery, green (unripe olives), grassy, and so on. Oil can also be categorized based on its body and flavor profile; delicate refers to light-bodied varietals, while medium and robust characterize full-bodied oils.
No one knows the power of olive oil like Venanzio Ciampa, whose family runs a nearly 250-year-old olive-oil-making enterprise. Ciampa Antico, a certified-organic extra-virgin olive oil from Italy’s Calabria region, dates back to 1774. According to Ciampa, what his family produces will taste far different from the oils that are cultivated and pressed in the United States, Greece, and Spain. “The main differences relate to the soil, the type of olive trees, the climate, and the method of transformation of the olives into oil,” he says. “Like wine, it is about terroir.”
Burton Fohrman, who makes organic, handpicked, and estate-pressed oil in Sonoma County, concurs. “You need a Mediterranean climate, but it also helps when you have winds crossing large bodies of water to cool the olives when they most require it,” he explains. Fohrman’s award-winning Quattro (named for the four varieties of olives in its Meritage blend) won the coveted “Best in Class” award at the 2011 Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition. His bumper crop this year yielded a scant 650 bottles, two-thirds of which were sold even before they were released.
The DaVero family inarguably sparked California’s olive-oil craze. They were the first in the 20th-century United States to import olive trees, and they now have about 4,000 on their farm. Their certified-organic, biodynamic, and robust oil is widely regarded as one of the world’s finest. Like Quattro, DaVero is in Sonoma County and is sold exclusively through its online store and its tasting room.
For all these producers, their olive oil seems like a metaphor for something greater: For Ciampa, it’s an emblem of his family; for Fohrman, it’s the appeal of a frontier lifestyle; and for the DaVero family, well, there’s no hidden message at all. Theirs is an American culinary and agricultural institution, a pronounced testament to New World olive oil.
These oils may represent a cult, but we guarantee it’s the healthiest one you’ll ever join.