Reactions Underscore ‘Super Premium’s’ Long Road Ahead

It was quite a day for olive oil in the news. Articles on the subject were published yesterday in two of the most-read American newspapers — The Washington Post and The New York Times.

The title of The Times article must have sent a warm ping through the hearts of California olive oil producers who have set their sites on chipping away at the 99 percent market share enjoyed by European exporters.

“California’s Olive Oils Challenge Europe’s” was how the title appeared online, while in print it was shortened slightly to “Challenging Imported Olive Oils.” Either way, it was a heading thoroughly enjoyed by many in the Golden State.

But the well-written article was refreshingly even-handed when so much coverage of the Old versus New World olive oil drama smacks of self-interest and sensationalism.

Throwing the brakes on what seemed yet another rehash of last year’s Davis study, Nancy Harmon Jenkins (indirectly cast as an “Old World Partisan” – is that on your business card Nancy?) reasoned, “You can’t decide that all imported oils are suspect and dismiss thousands of years of craftsmanship.”

Another exchange began with New York olive oil importer Martina Rossi Kenworthy reportedly saying that the high-density farming championed by New-World upstarts robbed trees of vital nutrients. That was called “baloney” by Davis farm advisor Paul Vossen. But balance was regained with a cautious assessment by Deborah Rogers who said, “They can make good oils with high density, but it remains to be seen if they can make great oils.”

Sticking unnecessarily to the standard olive oil article playbook, The Times finished the story with a taste test. This one was led by the New York importer Kenworthy and her colleague at Gustiamo, Stefano Noceti who, not surprisingly, could pick out in a blind test their own Italian top-sellers among the few sampled. But in perhaps a hesitant nod to the inevitable, they also liked the California Olive Ranch Arbequina.

In a modern refrain The Times writer, Julia Moskin, admitted was “melodramatic,” olive oil, she wrote, “deteriorates” as soon as it is bottled. While scientifically true, an average reader gets the impression that she will be able to taste the difference between an extra virgin olive oil bottled eight months ago and one bottled two months ago (and know which to prefer) — or that a high-quality olive oil, if a year into its shelf life, will be a shadow of its former self and significantly less healthful.

The article, however, left readers with the sound advice: personal taste, and then freshness, are the best guides when choosing the right olive oil.

The Washington Post article, written by Jane Black, read like a brochure for the Association 3E — the initiative spearheaded by Villa Campestri’s Paulo Pasquali, Culinary Institute of America Vice President Greg Dreschner, Milan educator Claudio Peri and Gaea CEO Aris Kefalogiannis — and their bid to define the top tier of olive oil quality.

“73 percent of the top five brands of imported extra-virgin olive oil failed to meet accepted international standards for extra-virgin,” the article dove in, unable to resist beginning with another review of the Davis study and leaving many scratching their heads at what 73 percent of five equalled.

Both articles featured interviews with globe-trotting investigative author Tom Mueller whose much-anticipated book Extra Virginity is due out in December and worth the wait.

But while the Washington Post article examined the lost meaning of the extra virgin classification, the need for a new certification for true olive oil quality and how to have an EVOO “epiphany,” readers largely latched on to the price tag, expressing bewiderment and annoyance in their comments.

“I can’t buy premium olive oil on my budget for everyday cooking, just as I can’t buy premium vintage wine,” one reader lamented, “What are we supposed to use to cook with–not necessarily adore?”

Another said “Paying that much money for such a small amount of anything seems pretty insane to me, unless it is enough to flavor about 200 meals or something.”

While a few commenters chimed in with memories of Tuscan holidays, or their own kitchen taste-tests, there was little support among the few dozen readers for the super-premium concept, or super-premium prices.

A reader wrote “Sounds like a racket, designed for the ‘Age of Affluence’ that is now over. $50/half liter. That’s bankruptcy in a bottle. Leave the ‘super-premium’ to the Wall Street racketeers and yuppies who don’t know any better. Taste is subjective: a good $100 wine does not taste any better than a good $11 wine, enough with the food snobbery. We’re in a depression!”

And in a comment both funny and tragic, a reader asked, “What kind of olive oil does McDonald’s use? All their stuff tastes real good.”

The most vocal readers are often overrepresented in comment sections, but the reactions might nevertheless underscore the rough road ahead for the super-premium initiative, especially in the United States where consumers know little about olive oil in general, much less why it should cost more than two dollars per tablespoon.

And just as the International Olive Council kicked off its long-anticipated North American promotional campaign liking olive oil to fashion at a time when Americans couldn’t feel worse about their economic futures, super-premium’s aspirational pitch faces the same tough audience.

Marketers will first need to explain to Americans what olive oil is and how to use it, before they’ll have much success with the upsell.

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Curtis Cord

Executive Editor, Olive Oil Times | New Yorkoliveoilvoice

In 2010, Curtis Cord turned a personal blog, where he compared the tastes of olive oils encountered along his travels, into Olive Oil Times, now the most-read publication about olive oil. In 2013, Cord organized the first annual New York International Olive Oil Competition and, in 2014 he launched the International Olive Oil School. Cord is regularly cited in media for his unique perspectives as an impartial insider in the olive oil world.

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This article was last updated November 14, 2014 - 8:16 AM (GMT-5)

  • Luanne

    We also read those comments, but have been pleased to hear from many consumers today, wanting to know more about top quality extra virgin olive oils. Their tone of voice is far different and very positive.

  • OliveChirper

    You wrote,
    olive oil, she wrote, “deteriorates” as soon as it is
    bottled. While scientifically true, an average reader gets the
    impression that she will be able to taste the difference between an extra virgin olive oil
    bottled eight months ago and one bottled two months ago (and know which
    to prefer) — or that a high-quality olive oil, if a year into its shelf
    life, will be a shadow of its former self and significantly less

    Ummm… because she will be able to taste the difference, with a little direct experience, and because it most certainly will be significantly less healthful.

    • CalMD

      Yes, that’s right. Because the only good, healthy olive oil is what was crushed yesterday. No, I mean, TODAY. Yesterday’s has already deteriorated. Rubbish.

      • OliveChirper

        Please let’s keep the straw men out of this.  I did not say that only brand-new oil had anything going for it. I confirmed the NYT journalist’s entirely accurate statement that year-old oil will be (as Curtis summarized) “significantly less
        healthful” than it was when it was fresh, which any report on olive oil
        storage can confirm: peroxides and carbonyls are up, polyphenols and
        vitamin E are down. The IOC standard, as the article notes, is so broad that a lot of mediocre oils meet the “extra virgin” standard; such oils are in very rough shape indeed a year on, and even the best of oils will be “significantly less
        healthful” than it was when it was fresh.

        • CalMD

          Sure, but actually what you said was that an average reader will be able to taste the difference in a hi quality EVOO bottled 2 months and one bottled 8 — and a quality EVOO one year into its shelf life will necessarily be “significantly less healthy.” I would disagree with these points or, at least, say they are debatable and depend on many variables. The point the author made, and with which I agree, is that saying an EVOO “deteriorates as soon as it’s bottled” has no real meaning to the consumer and is nothing more than the domestic producers’ battle call. 

          • OliveChirper

            Again, what I actually said was that a consumer “will be able to taste the difference, with a little direct experience” (emphasis added) — and yes, that a quality EVOO one year into its shelf life will necessarily be “significantly less healthy” than it was when freshly milled, racked, and bottles. Those  are empirically demonstrable facts; the degree to which it occurs will depend on the starting chemistry and the storage conditions.

            And there’s nothing particularly ‘domestic’ about making this observation (heck, she got it from Italian producers!): in a given year, an Italian or Spanish olive oil will be about as old as a Californian — and either will be 6-8 months older, or 6-8 months fresher (depending on the season) than the same year’s oils from Australia, Chile, or Argentina.

  • NancyHennessey

    Are there many things that DON’T begin to deteriorate once they’re bottled?

  • Lori Konstantopoulos

    Expensive versus cheap, old versus fresh…and then there’s that pesky little statement buried in the middle of the second page…”high-density growing drains the soil of nutrients”. You don’t have to be rocket scientist to know this will lead to soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. SHD (read cheap olive oil) is solely about making the farmer more money. Period.

    • Casa Rosa Farm

      well, the opposite is happening in our high density field.

  • Charles Butler

    Great piece, Mr. Cord.

    The whole issue of the age of bottled olive oil is a bit of a marketing generalization. It’s possibly true if you’re talking about arbequina and probably not if picual is the subject, for example. Aside from the fact that there are varietals the flavour of which are considered intolerable by many until they’ve sat in either a bottle or the bodega for a couple of months, the fundamental factors impinging on the flavour are the point in the maturity cycle that the fruit is harvested and the temperature at which it is pressed.

    As for super-premium, it’s a lovely fiction that would be a benefit for the good olive oils that don’t qualify. Everyone knows how a 13 buck wine that gets touted as ‘as good as such-and-such expensive label’ just flies off the shelves. Bring it on.

  • Dolores

    It appears the agency may be leading a faulty campaign re its choice of messaging.

    The extremely low acidity (broken down fatty acids) and peroxides (oxidation) in super premium can only be obtained by using very, very healthy olives free of mold, disease, brusing, etc., and very high quality elaboration techniques.  I believe resulting in better minor components linking to huge health benefits (antioxidants, squalene, etc.). 

    After all, olive oil is extracted from the pulp of a fruit! 

    One thought:  we can eat less volume of better quality food. (I.e. spend less on the most-up-to-date furniture, kitchen gadgets, etc., and more on good quality food that has great taste).

    Maybe that will also help put a dent in some of the health issues facing …obesity, etc.

  • Robert S. Boehm

    If Steve Jobs of Apple fame had decided to only give consumers what they wanted, the iPhone, iPad, iPod, the Mac OS, etc. would not exist. Same thing with high quality olive oil: produce it and eventually they will buy it. Why? It is simply superior to most of the low grade olive oils imported into America today.

  • Nancyharmonjenkins

    I’m getting new business cards printed with “Old World Partisan” under my name.