The Man Behind China's Unlikely Gold at NYIOOC

An agronomic engineer from Argentina convinces a Chinese company to improve product quality and strikes gold at the world's most prestigious olive oil competition.

May. 15, 2017
By Paul Conley

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There were plenty of sur­prises at the 2017 New York Inter­na­tional Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion — but few caused quite as much of a stir as the Gold Award won by a Chi­nese pro­ducer.

You can’t imag­ine how happy they are. These guys want to leave a mark in the indus­try.- Pablo Cesar Cana­masas

Olive oil pro­duc­tion is still in its infancy in China. And no pro­ducer had yet devel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for high qual­ity. Yet this year, a robust Picholine from olives grown in Long­nan, Guansu Province beat out some of the best-known brands on earth.

What is the story behind this remark­able vic­tory? It started with an unex­pected phone call.

Oppor­tu­nity calls

I was run­ning a course at UC Davis,” said Pablo Cesar Cana­masas, an agro­nomic engi­neer, when I got a call from some guy who said he was call­ing from China and that they needed some help with their olives. I didn’t even know there were olives in China, to be hon­est.”


Pablo Cesar Canamasas with colleagues of the Longnan Xiangyu Olives Development Co.

The caller, how­ever, knew all about Cana­masas.

The 44-year old Argen­tin­ian has become a well-known name in olive oil cir­cles around the globe. Edu­cated in his native coun­try and in Spain, Cana­masas has run pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties in Aus­tralia and con­sulted com­pa­nies in Israel, Chile, the United States and else­where.

The caller con­vinced Cana­masas that his next tour of duty should be in China.

A short time later, Cana­masas arrived to find an olive oil indus­try quite dif­fer­ent from what he was used to.

They picked late in the sea­son. They picked black fruit, processed rot­ten fruit,” he said. They wouldn’t rec­og­nize a good oil from a bad one.”

Cana­masas quickly real­ized the core prob­lem. Roughly 70 per­cent of the fruit the com­pany processed was des­tined for third par­ties. Qual­ity wasn’t the company’s con­cern, vol­ume was.

Cana­masas became con­vinced that there was con­sid­er­able untapped poten­tial for the com­pany if it sought to make bet­ter oil, not just more of it. But there were con­sid­er­able bar­ri­ers to that approach.

First, there was lan­guage. Cana­masas doesn’t speak Man­darin. Sec­ond, there’s the often opaque struc­ture of the Chi­nese busi­ness.

The pri­vately held com­pany that hired him, Long­nan Xiangyu Olives Devel­op­ment Co. Ltd., had mul­ti­ple lev­els of man­age­ment and over­sight. You don’t get to see the real own­ers,” Cana­masas said. It can be dif­fi­cult to reach the peo­ple who actu­ally make the deci­sions.”

For the first year, Cana­masas put his focus on sim­ply try­ing to make a decent oil to start,” while try­ing to con­vince senior exec­u­tives to invest in qual­ity. It was a hard sell,” he said.

Roads paved with gold

If high-qual­ity, award-win­ning oils are your goal, you could do a lot worse than work­ing with Cana­masas.

In his roughly two decades in the indus­try, he’s worked with a slew of the best-known brands in the world, includ­ing Bound­ary Bend and Cal­i­for­nia Olive Ranch. The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment has funded his research into extrac­tion and pro­cess­ing tech­niques, and he’s lec­tured in Japan, Italy, Aus­tralia, New Zealand and else­where.

Per­haps it was that level of expe­ri­ence that finally con­vinced the Chi­nese investors to make a push for qual­ity. But what­ever the rea­son, when they decided to push, they pushed hard.

The sec­ond year I went to China, I found they had built this mon­strous pro­cess­ing plant in just six months,” Cana­masas said. The plant was filled with top-line equip­ment from Italy and Ger­many. Every­thing was new, It was beau­ti­ful,” he said.

The com­pany con­tin­ued to pour resources into the busi­ness. Adding a bot­tling line and a state-of-the-art lab­o­ra­tory. They’ve prob­a­bly invested “$50 mil­lion in the past year alone,” Cana­masas said.

But the cru­cial moment came last Sep­tem­ber after the com­pany and Cana­masas com­mit­ted to pro­duc­ing the best oil pos­si­ble and enter­ing it in the New York com­pe­ti­tion.

Cana­masas and his team spent a full day in the moun­tains check­ing for olive groves with fruit that had the poten­tial to make high-qual­ity oil. They selected ten dif­fer­ent vari­eties to be picked and then processed within the two weeks.

Work­ers at the plant processed the fruit as soon as it arrived, using low tem­per­a­tures for malax­a­tion and keep­ing the oil in the tanks for two days under nitro­gen.

The win

In April, the Picholine that began its life on that moun­tain in Long­nan won Gold at the New York Inter­na­tional Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion. It was a first for Xiangyu and all of China.

You can’t imag­ine how happy they are,” Cana­masas said.

The ques­tion, of course, is what’s next for Xiangyu and the Chi­nese olive oil indus­try. They’re hun­gry about learn­ing,” Cana­masas said. That’s what impresses me the most about them.”

The indus­try in China is new and filled with young, entre­pre­neur­ial com­pa­nies. There’s still not enough olive oil pro­duced in China even to stock the local mar­kets, but Cana­masas is opti­mistic.

These guys want to leave a mark in the indus­try. They have the drive,” he said. That’s what got me hooked.”

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