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Richard Gawel on a Tear

Dec. 29, 2010
By Sarah Schwager

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By Sarah Schwager
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Buenos Aires

Australian extra virgin olive oil tast­ing panel leader and blog­ger Richard Gawel is well known around the indus­try for not being afraid to speak his mind. And this was cer­tainly the case speak­ing recently with Olive Oil Times.

“Sometimes I go to the super­mar­ket and pull the stuff off the shelf and taste them and think ‘this is just garbage’ and wonder what the hell pol­i­cy­mak­ers around the world are doing,” Dr. Gawel said about the qual­ity of some so-called EVOOs. “If they think these olive oils are good they’ve got rocks in their heads.”

They’re prob­a­bly seeing all these com­ments and think­ing ‘who is this guy?’- Richard Gawel

A little known fact, the olive oil expert actu­ally started off as a sci­en­tific sta­tis­ti­cian, design­ing trials and ana­lyz­ing results. This undoubt­edly explains his obses­sion with data when writ­ing his olive oil blog Slick Extra Virgin.

He then worked as a wine lec­turer, before being tapped by the Australian Olive Oil Association in 1997 to head up an olive oil tast­ing panel. He ran that panel for eight years before decid­ing to give it up and start out as a self-employed olive oil con­sul­tant, while still chair­ing a number of olive oil shows. He now works in wine research, pri­mar­ily with white wine phe­no­lics, and lives in Adelaide with his wife, two young teenagers, a dog, and a cat he doesn’t like.

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None of which has sub­dued his blog posts, his par­tial­ity to com­ment on olive oil mis­in­for­ma­tion he sees on the Internet, his role in chair­ing olive oil shows, includ­ing the cov­eted Australian National Olive Oil Show, or his Twitter updates
on all things EVOO.

Dr. Gawel said despite many people tran­si­tion­ing from the wine indus­try to the olive oil indus­try, the two are very dis­tinct. “With wine you’ve got so many dif­fer­ent vari­eties and dif­fer­ent alco­hol levels. Understanding the intri­ca­cies of each one is a lifetime’s work,” he said. “With olive oil the dif­fer­ences are more subtle because you’re basi­cally assess­ing fruit juice, but when you get 50 oils in a show and you’ve got to work out which is the best one that’s actu­ally pretty chal­leng­ing.”

Born and bred in Adelaide, it is a far cry from the places tra­di­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with pro­duc­ing olive oil experts. “If you asked some­one in the olive oil world where would be the most remote place, I reckon Adelaide, Melbourne or Hobart, Australia would get pretty close,” Dr. Gawel said.

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And so the Internet tends to be his outlet to the world of olive oil. Known to be out­spo­ken, Dr. Gawel said he is just saying what he thinks, and what most people are too afraid to say. Not having any major com­mer­cial ties to a par­tic­u­lar olive oil com­pany cer­tainly helps.

“I do a little bit of work for one com­pany or the other here or there but I make so little out of it I wouldn’t sell my soul for it,” he said. “Why would I want to bull­shit for
that amount of money? That’s the other good thing about being mil­lions of miles from nowhere. They’re prob­a­bly seeing all these com­ments writ­ten by me and think­ing ‘who is this guy? Oh, he’s just Australian, don’t worry, he’s a nobody’.”

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But his opin­ions are cer­tainly not going ignored.

One issue Dr. Gawel has stayed on top of is the qual­ity of European EVOOs and mis­la­bel­ing. He said the indus­try world­wide needs to look at the qual­ity of olive oil being pre­sented to the mass market and was glad that Andalusia’s con­sumer pro­tec­tion author­i­ties “had the guts” to go out and test oils all over Spain, dis­cov­er­ing that half of them weren’t actu­ally extra virgin.

Dr. Gawel believes the US stan­dards have a long way to go. “They aren’t much dif­fer­ent from the IOC (International Olive Oil Council) stan­dards, in fact there’s very little dif­fer­ence. If you actu­ally read the fine print, they’re just as con­fus­ing as they’ve ever been, and in fact you can have a blended refined olive oil and call it a number of dif­fer­ent things under the cur­rent stan­dards. The def­i­n­i­tion of a good set of stan­dards is that one oil should only fall into one cat­e­gory. I haven’t seen the new Australian stan­dards but I hope they’re a hell of a lot better. But we’ll have to wait and see.”

Dr. Gawel said a major change in the indus­try is the con­tin­u­ally improv­ing qual­ity of olive oils by the big pro­duc­ers forc­ing the small arti­san high-end pro­duc­ers out of the market. “In the past, high volume oils that you find in super­mar­kets around the world have gen­er­ally been pretty low qual­ity. But I think things are going to change really soon if you look at the big pro­duc­ers in Chile, here in Australia – Boundary Bend and the likes – and in California. For the first time ever we’re going to see really sound, fresh, good qual­ity olive oils hit­ting super­mar­ket shelves at super­mar­ket prices.”

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