The story of California olive oil cannot be told without the recognition of Deborah Rogers. A trailblazer in the California olive oil industry, her contributions are far-reaching. Impeccably attentive to detail and passionately driven to produce only the highest quality extra virgin olive oil, Deborah Rogers (appropriately well- known as the Olive Queen) has earned the respect and admiration of this industry that she has worked so tirelessly to lift to its current position.
Rogers’ influence touches every aspect of the industry from the mill and retail to consumer education and the olive oil community. She grabbed hold of a rising interest in olive oil in the early 90s, set up two five-gallon drums of oil in her dining room and singlehandedly blended, siphoned into bottles and sold it. “It was absolutely hysterical,” she laughs, yet so very characteristic, even then, of her independent spirit. She created a brand, took on a partner and grew the company into an industry leader.
When she sold the company in 1998, she stayed on as production manager over six brands but left the next year when a push toward quick growth compromised the quality of the olive oil. “I couldn’t tolerate the continuing decline in quality standards of the olive oil going into the bottles,” explains Rogers. It’s this unrelenting integrity that today earns The Olive Press, her company with partner Ed Stolman, recognition as the most award-winning olive oil in the United States, and the recipient of prestigious awards in Spain and Italy.
“I’ve learned most everything the hard way,” Deborah says in reflection, “or at least on my own. I’ve really grown up with the industry and struggled through the growing pains of producing a quality brand and making sure consumers understand what an incredible food olive oil is. I’ve been fighting the good fight the whole way.”
Currently in the throes of her eleventh harvest with The Olive Press, Rogers is clearly in her element. The best part of producing olive oil, she says, is “the day we start the mill and smell the very first olives being crushed. Glorious! It’s so incredibly organic, natural, alive. If you could smell the color green, it would be new oil coming out of the mill. It just doesn’t get any better to me.” Stolman, who works closely with her, admires her passion and intense focus. “Deborah watches over every load of olives that are pressed at our facility,” he says. “She works tirelessly, especially during harvest, to ensure the highest quality standards are upheld.”
Because educating people about quality olive oil is built right into The Olive Press, visitors watch Rogers and the olive oil process through glass windows before stepping into California’s first olive oil tasting room to learn about different varieties and styles. “The greatest joy for me,” says Rogers, “is trying to demystify olive oil.” Everyone who is lucky enough to walk through The Olive Press doors will walk away knowing not only where the olives came from and how they were milled, but what to do with the oil at home. She gets a lot of feedback from people who tell her, “I can’t go back” to inferior olive oil.
Rogers believes the commitment to produce only the highest quality olive oil is the common bond between those in the industry. “I don’t just support my brand,” she says, “I’m a staunch supporter of the industry worldwide.” For Rogers, this means not only spending time in the mill, but also reaching out to educate consumers and actively participating in the olive oil community. Colleague, Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, Sonoma County-based olive oil consultant and educator, credits Rogers as “an extraordinarily skilled taster,” and long-time taste panel member who has been “an incredible supporter of the California olive oil industry, generously sharing her amazing knowledge and insight.” Rogers has judged olive oil competitions in the US and abroad.
As California’s olive oil industry grows, it will continue to rely on producers as knowledgeable, dedicated, and passionate as Deborah Rogers to make it thrive. Respected by her colleagues, honored by the industry and valued by anyone fortunate enough to hear her speak about olive oil, this Olive Oil Queen has definitely earned her crown.
Each year, Olive Oil Times commends the achievements of olive oil producers who make an outstanding contribution to the industry. These individuals or companies set the standards of excellence for the rest of the industry to follow and influence the quality, variety, value, and educational information available to olive oil consumers.
Often these leaders have overcome formidable and enduring challenges, or through innovation found new ways to advance olive oil quality in a product range, in their community or throughout the world.
With an eye to the past we recognize the olive oil maker who has managed to preserve or promulgate olive oil’s cultural legacy. Looking to the future, we’re honoring the producer who works to ensure the place of olive oil in our lives and those of generations to come.
The Olive Oil Times Producer of the Year award may be bestowed upon an entire organization or a particular olive oil maker. This recognizes the fact that producing olive oil can be both a collaborative endeavor involving many hands and an individual expression of personal creativity.
Read about the other winners of the 2010 Olive Oil Times Producer of the Year award.