` Food Industry Pros Attend Napa Valley Seminar on Olive Oil Quality

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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.

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.”

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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