In the spring of 2011, in San Martino Italy, a panel of judges were about halfway through assessing fifty extra virgin olive oils entered in a competition called “Estrascape,” which rates producers on the quality of their oils, as well as the sustainability of their farms.
Among the judges were Gino Celletti, the well-known olive oil expert, and Curtis Cord, the publisher of Olive Oil Times.
“Suddenly the judges started rejecting every olive oil that was placed before them,” Cord remembers. “There was this strange run of around a dozen oils in a row that made the judges wince, before striking the score sheet with a big ‘X’ to indicate the oil was defective and disqualified.”
“Then Dr. Celletti put down his cobalt blue tasting glass and looked over at me with a knowing grin,” Cord recalls.”These oils are not defective,” Celletti told him. “What we are tasting is detergent.”
The other judges started sniffing their glasses again, holding them up to the light. Celletti was right. The chief judge was called over and went to the back room to inspect the glasses that had been cleaned, and there he found, sure enough, a faint white residue of cleaning detergent at the bottom of every glass in the batch that had just been washed.
The decision was made to start the process over again, retaste the oils, and clean and dry every glass by hand.
Cord had been, until that moment, putting off a plan to organize an international olive oil competition in New York. “I could not imagine finding the right person to be my chief judge — the one who would execute the fairest competition in the world. But there he was sitting next to me in San Martino. I knew it immediately.”
“I asked Gino right there if he would be the capo panel of the New York International Olive Oil Competition. He responded immediately: ‘Yes, I will.'”
According to the International Olive Oil Council, an official sensory analysis of olive oil requires a standard glass that has to match specific characteristics. The olive oil tasting glass standard, set in 1987, prescribes the glass for use in the “organoleptic analysis of edible oils.”
The standard also goes on to prescribe the process to clean the glasses before each use.
The glasses shall be cleaned using unperfumed soap or detergent and shall then be rinsed repeatedly until the cleaning agent has been totally eliminated. The final rinse shall be with distilled water, after which the glasses shall be left to drain and then dried in a desiccation stove. Before use, each glass shall be smelled to ensure that no extraneous odour is present.
The problem is that olive oil competitions are held in hotels, conference centers and commercial buildings where the quality of the cleaning equipment can vary, and competition organizers are not always able to ensure the IOC guidelines are followed.
“It was not the first time I had seen this problem,” said Celletti, who has judged olive oil competitions throughout the world. “The glasses are a problem. Almost no one washes them according to the standard and too often we have to contend with fragrances other than the oil — and the oil deserves our undivided attention.”
As the New York competition approached, and Celletti was assembling his team to analyze an unprecedented seven hundred entries, he phoned Cord to discuss the first item on his list of judging supplies: five thousand plastic cups with lids. No blue glasses.
“With the plastic cups I know what we are working with,” Celletti said. “They will not add fragrance or taste. They are more hygienic. They will not condense and concentrate the aroma as well as the glass, it is true. But my New York panel is the best in the world and they don’t need the assistance of a glass as much as they must have an absolutely clean container. I believe the glass should no longer be used in major competitions.”
“I had 600 certified blue glasses in New York standing by,” Cord said, “and I watched the judging closely. I am convinced Gino’s decision to use plastic cups enabled the judges to do a better job.”
“We got some calls, especially when the New York Times featured a picture of the judges sniffing from the plastic cups,” Cord added. “People wanted to know why we didn’t use the official glasses. But the New York International Olive Oil Competition is not about doing what has always been done before. It is about doing things the best way possible and giving the world’s best olive oil producers the fairness and recognition they deserve.”
The winning oils are presented on the website bestoliveoils.com.