Australian extra virgin olive oil tasting panel leader and blogger Richard Gawel is well known around the industry for not being afraid to speak his mind. And this was certainly the case speaking recently with Olive Oil Times.
“Sometimes I go to the supermarket and pull the stuff off the shelf and taste them and think ‘this is just garbage’ and wonder what the hell policymakers around the world are doing,” Dr. Gawel said about the quality of some so-called EVOOs. “If they think these olive oils are good they’ve got rocks in their heads.”
They’re probably seeing all these comments and thinking ‘who is this guy?’
A little known fact, the olive oil expert actually started off as a scientific statistician, designing trials and analyzing results. This undoubtedly explains his obsession with data when writing his olive oil blog Slick Extra Virgin.
He then worked as a wine lecturer, before being tapped by the Australian Olive Oil Association in 1997 to head up an olive oil tasting panel. He ran that panel for eight years before deciding to give it up and start out as a self-employed olive oil consultant, while still chairing a number of olive oil shows. He now works in wine research, primarily with white wine phenolics, and lives in Adelaide with his wife, two young teenagers, a dog, and a cat he doesn’t like.
None of which has subdued his blog posts, his partiality to comment on olive oil misinformation he sees on the Internet, his role in chairing olive oil shows, including the coveted Australian National Olive Oil Show, or his Twitter updates on all things EVOO.
Dr. Gawel said despite many people transitioning from the wine industry to the olive oil industry, the two are very distinct. “With wine, you’ve got so many different varieties and different alcohol levels. Understanding the intricacies of each one is a lifetime’s work,” he said. “With olive oil the differences are more subtle because you’re basically assessing fruit juice, but when you get 50 oils in a show and you’ve got to work out which is the best one that’s actually pretty challenging.”
Born and bred in Adelaide, it is a far cry from the places traditionally associated with producing olive oil experts. “If you asked someone in the olive oil world where would be the most remote place, I reckon Adelaide, Melbourne or Hobart, Australia would get pretty close,” Dr. Gawel said.
And so the Internet tends to be his outlet to the world of olive oil. Known to be outspoken, Dr. Gawel said he is just saying what he thinks, and what most people are too afraid to say. Not having any major commercial ties to a particular olive oil company certainly helps.
“I do a little bit of work for one company or the other here or there but I make so little out of it I wouldn’t sell my soul for it,” he said. “Why would I want to bullshit for that amount of money? That’s the other good thing about being millions of miles from nowhere. They’re probably seeing all these comments written by me and thinking ‘who is this guy? Oh, he’s just Australian, don’t worry, he’s a nobody’.”
But his opinions are certainly not going ignored.
One issue Dr. Gawel has stayed on top of is the quality of European EVOOs and mislabeling. He said the industry worldwide needs to look at the quality of olive oil being presented to the mass market and was glad that Andalusia’s consumer protection authorities “had the guts” to go out and test oils all over Spain, discovering that half of them weren’t actually extra virgin.
Dr. Gawel believes the U.S. standards have a long way to go. “They aren’t much different from the IOC (International Olive Oil Council) standards, in fact there’s very little difference. If you actually read the fine print, they’re just as confusing as they’ve ever been, and in fact, you can have a blended refined olive oil and call it a number of different things under the current standards. The definition of a good set of standards is that one oil should only fall into one category. I haven’t seen the new Australian standards but I hope they’re a hell of a lot better. But we’ll have to wait and see.”
Dr. Gawel said a major change in the industry is the continually improving quality of olive oils by the big producers forcing the small artisan high-end producers out of the market. “In the past, high volume oils that you find in supermarkets around the world have generally been pretty low quality. But I think things are going to change really soon if you look at the big producers in Chile, here in Australia – Boundary Bend and the likes – and in California. For the first time ever we’re going to see really sound, fresh, good quality olive oils hitting supermarket shelves at supermarket prices.”
Many of the bigger producers are now turning olives into quality oils as soon as they have been harvested, something a small producer could only dream of. Dr. Gawel said in these oils they are finding free fatty acidity levels (an important indicator of an olive oil’s quality) of 0.1 and 0.15, low peroxides and they are fresh and fruity.
Richard Gawel said an issue that is not being widely talked about is the reduction in consumption of extra virgin olive oil, and olive oil in general, in Europe. “If you look at Spain, Italy and particularly in Greece, the per capita consumption has fallen significantly in the last 10 years. The IOC doesn’t ever talk about this because they don’t actually want anyone to talk about it.”
He said annual per capita consumption in Greece has fallen from something like 28 to 21 liters in the last 10 years. “That’s a hell of a lot of olive oil. You’ve got to ask the question, ‘why aren’t people in Europe eating as much olive oil as they used to?’ In every other country around the world – the US, Australia, Germany and Britain – consumption is either stable or increasing”
“In Europe, they’re doing promotional pushes into India and China, which is great. If you get people in China to eat even one drop of olive oil a year each we’d all be wealthy but it’s a long haul to do that.”
Dr. Gawel is certainly doing his part to help keep the wine and olive oil industries moving. As part of his job he tastes wine just about every day, and he tastes more than 500 olive oils a year. And that’s just his day job.
At home, he said one of his kids really likes EVOO and puts it on everything, while the other “doesn’t care less”. “That’s kids for you,” he said.
Even despite the huge number of oils that have touched his palate, his appetite for tasting good quality olive oils has not diminished. “It would be nice to see a few more super-duper fresh European oils that we could try, but again Australia is a bit out of the way,” Dr. Gawel said.
But he said one of the best things about the Australian industry is its ability to experiment and try new blends with its diverse varieties and styles of olive oils, which range from the Tuscan styles to Spanish and Greek varieties, and with green olives, mid-range, and riper olives.
“It is very open-minded about what constitutes good olive oils here. Some of the combinations you won’t find anywhere else in the world. We get a few dog oils here from Australian producers on supermarket shelves but I think the main thing is that the problem isn’t systemic. What I’ve found is that Australian oils on Australian supermarket shelves are really good quality and pretty consistent, apart from the odd one.”
Between his various olive oil and wine commitments, Dr. Gawel also manages to dedicate time to some of his other passions which often find their way into his Twitter feed (@oliveoilguy) such as human rights. As a member of Amnesty International, he said he feels privileged living in a country “where you can actually say what you think and not get in prison for it”.
When he has the time to go fly fishing he also writes about that. “That’s a pretty self-indulgent thing to do,” he said. A keen gardener, his tomatoes might also get a mention, mostly to “taunt” the neighbors. “I love cricket. My American friends think that’s the funniest thing in the world, how anyone could sit in front of the television for five days and watch a draw,” he said.
“And I’ve always loved AFL (Australian Football League). I’m a strong supporter of the Melbourne Football Club (known as The Demons). I’m a keen cyclist when I’m not getting hit by cars, which I’ve been a few times and been in the hospital. I think that cyclists get a bit of a hard time, we don’t get looked after that well. But apart from cycling and fishing and watching cricket that’s about my life really.”
As for a Sunday, he will tend his garden, go for a ride on his bike if he feels game, write his blog, have some mates around for a few beers, and spend some time with his kids.
“A lot of people think my Sundays might be wasted but I’ve never seen them as being wasted,” he said.