` Hillstone Olive Oil: Rooted in Tradition

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Hillstone Olive Oil: Rooted in Tradition

Aug. 19, 2010
By Lori Zanteson

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By Lori Zan­te­son
Olive Oil Times Con­trib­u­tor | Report­ing from Los Ange­les

Voices from the past have a way of fad­ing with the pass­ing years. But keep lis­ten­ing, as Lau­rie Schuler-Flynn and Amy Del­Bon­dio of Hill­stone Olive Oil know, and they just may lead to some­thing. The sto­ries told by their Ital­ian grand­moth­ers planted in Lau­rie and Amy the pro­lific seed to make olive oil. The sto­ries remained tucked away in their mem­o­ries until eight years ago when the idea finally sprouted and took root, con­tin­u­ing a tra­di­tion that reaches back more than a hun­dred years.

The attrac­tion to make olive oil is easy to see for Lau­rie and Amy who both love to cook and eat great food. But it really began with those early fam­ily sto­ries. Lau­rie fondly recalls her grand­mother telling about her father and cousin mak­ing olive oil from a stone mill they had and say­ing, sweet­heart there is noth­ing bet­ter in life than tast­ing the fresh olive oil as it comes out and let­ting it drip on a piece of fresh bread that my mother had made.” The deci­sion made sense, even with their lives in full spin.

The con­cept of olive oil mak­ing crept back into their lives when these long­time friends and co-work­ers at the Yolo County Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture took a class on grow­ing olive trees for pro­duc­tion. They were intrigued by the idea which awak­ened those beck­on­ing whis­pers from the past. Yet it wasn’t until a few years later when a class on high den­sity plant­ing con­vinced them they were ready to take the next step. Things began to fall into place and when Laurie’s dad gave them the have at it” with the vacant land on the farm Lau­rie grew up on, the deci­sion was sealed. In April 2004, they ordered, planted, and irri­gated 2000 trees that would pro­duce their first har­vest in Octo­ber 2005. Though the young trees’ yield was only 30 gal­lons, it was quite a thrill to see the first drips of oil.” Every year the reward gets bet­ter. Last year, their fifth har­vest pro­duced 300 gal­lons.

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Hill­stone is a labor of love in the truest sense,” says Lau­rie. They are on a three-acre plot of land in Yolo County, Cal­i­for­nia. We’re fairly small and can keep it under our con­trol which is the way we like it,” says Lau­rie. They do every­thing them­selves with huge sup­port from their fam­i­lies and par­ents. In fact, hus­bands, friends and fam­ily are right beside them come har­vest time, pick­ing and con­tin­u­ing what has become a fam­ily tra­di­tion that spans gen­er­a­tions. In fact, the year those first trees were planted, Laurie’s grand­mother gave them her bless­ing. She said if you can make it, then do your best! The olive oil will taste good!” Lau­rie believes their grand­moth­ers are giv­ing them a sprin­kle of good­ness from heaven.”

Every part of Hill­stone is con­nected to fam­ily and tied to the past, includ­ing the land which has been in Laurie’s fam­ily since the late1800s. The plot, cov­ered with prairie grasses and native river stones is even rem­i­nis­cent of the Mediter­ranean region, the source of Hillstone’s olive trees. Its rocky soil and micro­cli­mate are uniquely suited to grow­ing and nur­tur­ing the olives. Its small size and good con­di­tions are ideal for a bou­tique orchard, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to do every­thing by hand from prun­ing and irri­ga­tion to pick­ing, all of which con­tribute to the pro­duc­tion of a high qual­ity, locally grown Cal­i­for­nia olive oil. As influ­en­tial as good land and hard work, Lau­rie and Amy love what they do and it’s expressed in the care and atten­tion to detail in their award-win­ning extra vir­gin olive oil.

The close­ness that comes from 22 years as friends and co-work­ers and nearly a decade as busi­ness part­ners is Hillstone’s back­bone. Though they def­i­nitely have dif­fer­ent points of view, Lau­rie and Amy see that as a good thing because it lets them step back and exam­ine a sit­u­a­tion before mov­ing for­ward. Their roles at Hill­stone are nat­u­rally split. Accord­ing to Amy, Lau­rie is the go-get­ter, she’s in charge of the mar­ket­ing and the sell­ing of the oil which is a chal­lenge. Amy prefers to be out in the beauty of the orchard and admits they make a pretty good team.”

Regard­less of roles, there is no split­ting their ded­i­ca­tion to the olives and expand­ing their exper­tise. Together they’ve sam­pled count­less olive oils from both Cal­i­for­nia and abroad, vis­ited olive oil pro­duc­ing regions in Spain, attended sem­i­nars, par­tic­i­pated in tast­ings and read every book and pub­li­ca­tion they can get their hands on. Lau­rie is also an appren­tice taster on the UC Davis Olive Oil Sen­sory Panel. They spend a lot of time look­ing at their own fruit of course, tak­ing sam­ples, and mak­ing that ever stress­ful and crit­i­cal deci­sion of when to har­vest. They appre­ci­ate a greener tast­ing oil, one that’s more pun­gent and pep­pery as opposed to a more mature olive that has a but­tery, mel­lower taste. Though they try to get to a par­tic­u­lar taste, so many vari­ables come into play mak­ing every year dif­fer­ent, but always with good results. For­tu­nately they have liked all of them, but they agreed early on that if they ever made an oil that wasn’t good, they wouldn’t sell it.

There have been chal­lenges. As a small scale farm, some­times peo­ple tend to think of you as a hob­by­ist,” explains Lau­rie, but we’re still out there irri­gat­ing and doing the work.” The dif­fer­ence between a larger scale and a smaller scale farm is we get what we get.” There is less room for error so there’s a lot more rid­ing on every­thing they do. And at the bou­tique level, every invest­ment is costly, whether money, time, or com­mit­ment. There have been times when those in the indus­try didn’t take them seri­ously, but for the most part they’ve been pretty good. In con­trast, there are a lot of peo­ple who see Hill­stone as a small, women-owned busi­ness and really appre­ci­ate that. I think if peo­ple see the enthu­si­asm on our faces and that there’s noth­ing hid­den under that,” Lau­rie says, they’re con­vinced we make good oil and are doing what we love.”

One of the things both Lau­rie and Amy love most about Hill­stone is mak­ing that one on one con­nec­tion with peo­ple. You can’t get any bet­ter than that,” Amy says. One of the things they love most to hear is, I didn’t know olive oil could taste like this.” They enjoy speak­ing and inter­act­ing with peo­ple at fes­ti­vals, tast­ings, events, and farm­ers mar­kets enhanc­ing their edu­ca­tion on olive oil.

They also enjoy the per­sonal con­nec­tion they estab­lish with online cus­tomers. Despite a slug­gish econ­omy, their online sales increase every year. As imper­sonal as inter­net shop­ping often is, Hillstone’s buy­ers tell a dif­fer­ent story.

Though Lau­rie and Amy love hav­ing con­trol of every aspect of Hill­stone from plant­ing and har­vest­ing to mar­ket­ing and sell­ing, growth has def­i­nitely been on their minds. To stay small like we’d like,” Lau­rie says, almost seems impos­si­ble. Peo­ple want you to get big­ger. Stores want more vari­eties.” The econ­omy does pose a chal­lenge for the bou­tique pro­ducer whose cost for every­thing is higher com­pared to a larger pro­ducer. Last year was a lit­tle rough,” says Lau­rie, which is why Hill­stone stays with smaller mar­kets and sell­ers.

Hillstone’s future remains filled with promise. Lau­rie and Amy would like to own their own olive press some­time soon and they talk about plant­ing more vari­eties of olives to open up the pos­si­bil­ity of more types of oils and more prod­ucts. Increas­ing their cus­tomer base by find­ing peo­ple who want to buy their olive oils and stores who want to carry them is a def­i­nite pri­or­ity. Their acco­lades, which are awarded in a steady stream, help peo­ple find Hill­stone and for that, they are appre­cia­tive. Since they first entered com­pe­ti­tions, their oils have won sev­eral gold medals at the Yolo County Fair Cal­i­for­nia Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion and the Los Ange­les Inter­na­tional Extra Vir­gin Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion. Their blend earned the pres­ti­gious 2009 Best of Show and a 2008 Best of Class for a robust extra vir­gin olive oil at the Los Ange­les com­pe­ti­tion.

Hillstone’s busi­ness prac­tices have been cri­tiqued, but in a very refresh­ing way. Appar­ently, Lau­rie and Amy are too hon­est. Every bot­tle of Hill­stone olive oil is marked with its har­vest date. Not all pro­duc­ers do so, though some will list the bot­tling date, which Lau­rie and Amy are quick to point out is not the same thing. Oil can sit in stor­age a long time before it’s bot­tled. We don’t’ want our oil sit­ting on the shelf a long time. We want to see it moved,” says Lau­rie, because an old oil reflects on them.

The integrity of Hill­stone begins and ends with Lau­rie and Amy. It per­me­ates the soil, the trees, the blush­ing fruit, and ulti­mately the award win­ning olive oils they pro­duce. A recon­nec­tion with the past influ­enced by fam­ily and tra­di­tion makes a pro­found mark which is beau­ti­fully expressed in the qual­ity that defines Hill­stone olive oil.

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