Producers from California’s Central Coast attributed the climate, soil and dedication of local institutions to their big successes at the World Olive Oil Competition.
Part of our continuing special coverage of the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.
Despite a challenging crop year in which inclement weather and labor shortages hampered the harvest across California, producers from the state enjoyed a solid performance at the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.
Thirty-six producers from 20 counties combined to win 62 awards at the world’s most prestigious olive oil quality competition. While producers were spread across the state, the highest concentration came from the Central Coast region.
The reason our area produces such superb oils is partly due to the perfect Mediterranean climate the Central Coast enjoys, but also because we focus on industry-leading practices.
Comprising San Luis Obispo County, Monterey County and Santa Cruz County, producers from the Central Coast earned 16 Gold Awards and five Silver Awards at the NYIOOC. Combined, producers from the region, which is slightly larger than Slovenia, earned one-third of all awards won by U.S. producers at the competition.
Winning producers attributed a combination of the region’s Mediterranean climate, unique soils and culture of camaraderie for their success.
“The reason our area produces such superb oils is partly due to the perfect Mediterranean climate the Central Coast enjoys, but also because we focus on industry-leading practices to grow, harvest and store our oils,” Lynn Israelit, the co-owner of Templeton-based Spanish Oaks Ranch, told Olive Oil Times.
“We have a long-standing history of local grower organizations in our area which focus on education and collaboration,” she added. “San Luis Obispo County producers learn about best practices together and support one another in achieving them.”
Israelit and her husband, Sam, earned two Gold Awards and a Silver Award at the 2021 NYIOOC. The couple has entered the competition every year since they began producing olive oil in 2016 and enjoy the opportunity to be judged alongside the best extra virgin olive oils in the world.
“Winning Gold and Silver Awards at the NYIOOC makes a big difference to our customers,” Israelit said. “It lets them know that we produce superior oils that are internationally recognized and gives them confidence that the product they are buying is some of the best olive oil in the world.See Also: The Best Olive Oils from the United States
Despite the advantages of the climate and soil, Israelit added that part of what separates her oils from others is the amount of work that goes into the harvest.
“We are small producers who pay meticulous attention to every detail of the production of our oil: timing our harvest perfectly, hand-picking our fruit to avoid bruising and getting our olives from the tree to the mill within two to three hours for maximum flavor and freshness,” she said. “It’s hard work, but it makes a difference.”
Less than an hour north of Spanish Oaks Ranch, in the single-road town of San Miguel, the producers behind Rancho Azul y Oro Olive Farm celebrated winning a Gold Award after entering the NYIOOC for the first time this year.
“We felt truly honored [to win this Gold Award] because we’ve always considered the winners of this competition to be the best of the best,” co-owner Kathryn Keeler Olive Oil Times.
She also attributed the success of Central Coast producers to the area’s microclimate and placed plenty of emphasis on the soil.
“The reason that the region is so important is the unique growing conditions,” Keeler said. “One of the commonalities with most of the award-winning olive growers in the Central Coast region is that we are on the eastern side of the coastal range, a bit inland, so we are hotter and drier.”
“Our soils in this region are what is considered calcareous soil,” she added, which perfect for growing oil-producing olives.
Beyond the climate and the soil, Keeler added that the region’s olive growers have excellent support from local millers and producer organizations, which also helps them to reach their full production potential.
“Combined with the extraordinary soils in this region, as well as the optimal growing conditions, we also have two extraordinary mills,” Keeler said. “Both of the gentlemen who run these mills know that they are working with extraordinary olives and growers who truly care about their olives.”
“They not only go to great lengths to make certain that all of the growers are educated about new advancements, but they also truly help all of the olive growers in the Central Coast region to shine,” she added.
One of these millers is Greg Traynor of 43 Ranch, who previously won a Gold Award at the 2020 NYIOOC.
He estimates that small producers across the Central Coast produced about 20,000 gallons (100,000 liters) in 2020, down from 40,000 gallons (200,000 liters) in 2019. However, he added that these figures did not include the counties’ super high-density producers.
The Olive Oil Commission of California, which keeps track of production figures for anyone who producers more than 5,000 gallons per year, did not respond to the request for comment about the region’s exact production figures.
Traynor told Olive Oil Times that he attributes three factors to the success of the Central Coasts producers, including the availability of experienced consultants and institutions to help farmers, a highly involved producer association and the climate.
“Central Coast Extra Virgin as a group meets about six times per year and shares best practices and information,” Traynor said. “These are highly dedicated growers that strive to make world-class extra virgin olive oil. They have banded together and police each other to ensure that the highest farming, storage, packaging and labeling practices are followed.”
Traynor added that the Central Coast is unique due to pronounced diurnal temperature swings, with hot days and nighttime temperatures reaching around 13 ºC.
“We believe that this cooling influence on our olives allows for a longer growing season and produces oils with greater complexity,” he said. “When most of the rest of the state is finished with their harvest and milling by the end of October, the Central Coast is harvesting and producing oil until the end of December every year.”
While the Central Coast provides plenty of advantages for olive growers to produce high-quality oils, she emphasized that the difference between good oils and award-winning oils lies in the work of the farmer.
“Truly great olive oil starts with best farming practices,” she told Olive Oil Times. “Our focus is first on the health of our orchard and trees, using regenerative farming techniques to ensure that the olives we grow are the best.”
“In the spring during bloom and fruit set, we pay careful attention to what our trees need to produce the highest quality olives,” she added. “When we are ready to harvest, we are highly selective about which olives get harvested and pressed into oil. We handpick our olives so that they stay pristine until they arrive at the mill.”
For Rahman, this careful micromanagement of the production process is necessary to ensure only the best olives are transformed into oils, which are then carefully blended.
“For our varietal blends, we are methodical in tasting and evaluating the olive oil from each varietal and then spend hours, days and sometimes weeks balancing the varietals to craft something special,” she said.
Back in Templeton, Karen Tallent, the producer behind The Groves on 41, also attributed a combination of the Central Coast’s climate and the work in the groves and mill to her success, and the region’s at large.
“I think we all endeavor to produce the finest oils possible,” she said. “Our soils and weather are usually on our side, too.”
“We like to harvest a little early, so we hold off watering during some of the most demanding days, closer to harvest, with the goal of a little more intense flavor,” Tallent added. “This earlier harvest is a little more difficult to pull from the trees, so our yields are a little lighter, but oh, does the flavor and polyphenol count make up for this”
This year, Tallent and the rest of her team at The Groves on 41 earned a Gold Award for their medium blend. It is the fourth award the company has earned in five years of competing at the NYIOOC.
“We’re a small, local producer and enjoy our local [customer] base,” Tallent said. “They have come to know our farming operations and olive oils, so when we receive a big award like this one, it is a really big deal for the community. We all celebrate.”