Business

Food Industry Pros Attend Napa Valley Seminar on Olive Oil Quality

Jan. 15, 2012
By Curtis Cord

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Culinary Institute of America Vice President Greg Drescher opened the Olive Oil Flavor and Quality Seminar in St. Helena Thursday by saying olive oil was poised for the great­ness achieved by other foods like coffee, pre­mium cheeses and choco­late, but would first need to break away from old ways of think­ing.

“Many other food prod­ucts, even in these dif­fi­cult eco­nomic times, are oper­at­ing in a space that rewards and pro­motes qual­ity, inno­va­tion and upward pric­ing strate­gies,” Drescher said before a sold-out amphithe­atre of 150 food indus­try pro­fes­sion­als at the CIA’s stun­ning Napa Valley campus.

“Olive oil wants to follow this same growth curve in qual­ity, but as we will learn today, some­times for­ward progress is under­mined by tired, old par­a­digms of doing busi­ness.”

“I am firmly con­vinced, how­ever, that olive oil is poised for a new chap­ter,” he added, “one that will cap­ti­vate the imag­i­na­tion of chefs, retail­ers and con­sumers alike; a new story about incred­i­ble fla­vors hidden in plain view.”

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Drescher’s state­ment set the tone for a fast-paced day of pre­sen­ta­tions and dis­cus­sion that was per­haps less unique for its mes­sages than for its audi­ence.

Jointly pro­duced by the Culinary Institute and the UC Davis Olive Center, the con­fer­ence lineup fea­tured the reg­u­lar cast from the Association 3E Beyond Extra Virgin con­fer­ences — the olive oil qual­ity think tank that includes Drescher, Dan Flynn, Claudio Peri, Aris Kefalogiannis, Paolo Pasquali, Rosa Vañó, Paul Bartolotta, Alexandra Devarenne, Tom Mueller and others.

But while last summer’s BEV con­fer­ence in Córdoba played to an audi­ence of mostly pro­duc­ers, politi­cians and jour­nal­ists, this week’s show was directed to a group of pro­fes­sion­als fur­ther down the supply chain who make olive oil buying deci­sions for retail­ers and food ser­vice indus­tries.

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Unable to resist such a rare oppor­tu­nity to address the people who stand between them and con­sumers who only know the taste of bad olive oil, some pre­sen­ters made their points in the form of a harsh scold­ing.

In years of facing buyers through­out the world for Australia’s Cobram Estate, Ashley Read caused at least a few uncom­fort­able shifts in the audi­ence when he recalled “just two who actu­ally opened the bottle and tasted the oil inside,” and sug­gest­ing it was time for buyers to “get seri­ous about what the olive oil is and what you want your cus­tomers con­sum­ing.”

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Read’s frus­tra­tion is under­stand­able. Cobram Estate is her­alded as one of the world’s most effi­cient and well-run olive oil pro­duc­ers. Yet facing com­pe­ti­tion from sub­si­dized, lower qual­ity and often mis­la­beled imports, the lead­ing Australian olive oil com­pany is fight­ing for its life. The second-biggest pro­ducer, Kailis Organic, declared bank­ruptcy in November.

A number of pre­sen­ters again made the case for the use of newer olive oil qual­ity test­ing meth­ods known as PPP and DAG, which have been shown to do a better job iden­ti­fy­ing olive oils that don’t deserve the extra virgin grade. Australian Paul Miller, who has been spend­ing the last few months meet­ing with New World pro­ducer asso­ci­a­tions to form what he calls a “Global Quality Alliance,” told the audi­ence “If your sup­pli­ers know you will peri­od­i­cally take the prod­uct off the shelf and test it, they will lift their game.”

The pro­gram wasn’t all about good versus evil. Culinary Institute instruc­tor Bill Briwa and award-win­ning chef Paul Bartolotta teamed up for culi­nary demon­stra­tions that were cap­ti­vat­ing, and yet some­how kept within the day’s rigidly-timed sched­ule. Between ses­sions, atten­dees were treated to the same dishes, pre­pared in the Culinary Institute kitchens by an army of paring knife-wield­ing pro­tégés.

There was also guid­ance for olive oil retail­ers in a rapid-fire pre­sen­ta­tion by Liz Tagami, who offered demo­graphic sup­port for why olive oil deseved their clos­est atten­tion, fol­lowed by prac­ti­cal mer­chan­dis­ing sug­ges­tions.

And there was plenty of olive oil tast­ing, guided by such noted experts as Paul Vossen, Alexandra Devarenne and Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Twenty-one oils were tasted through­out the day rang­ing from the same super­mar­ket brands impli­cated in the now-famous UC Davis tests, to fresh juice from Tuscany, Greece and local Napa Valley mills. The expe­ri­ence left a bad taste with the audi­ence though, since the last oil tasted was one of those meant to illus­trate ran­cid­ity. Ending on a bad note sur­prised more than a few, who were left long­ing for one more palate-cleans­ing apple slice.

There was also the notable par­tic­i­pa­tion by the North American Olive Oil Association’s chair­man, John Sessler, who spoke about his organization’s qual­ity ini­tia­tives and test­ing pro­grams — state­ments that drew rolling eyes and a few audi­ble snick­ers from some of the home-field California pro­duc­ers. But pri­vately some par­tic­i­pants saw the pres­ence of the NAOOA and other importers as a pos­i­tive step toward open­ing a mean­ing­ful dia­logue about olive oil qual­ity with those respon­si­ble for the lion’s share of what’s on store shelves.

Most would agree the sem­i­nar achieved its objec­tives, which Olive Center Director Flynn said were to demys­tify olive oil, help buyers make more informed deci­sions and foster qual­ity. Attendees said they left the con­fer­ence with a stronger appre­ci­a­tion for olive oil qual­ity issues — a better under­stand­ing, orga­niz­ers hope, that will lead to better olive oil options for con­sumers.

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