Every year at the New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC), we witness the winners’ hard-won elation. Then, after hugs and celebratory cocktails, the producers return to disparate corners of the globe and get back to the demanding task of crafting quality olive oil. If we are lucky, we stock their bottles in our kitchens, but we do not see their smiling (and nerve-racked) faces for another year.
This time, Olive Oil Times caught up with Sheila Fitzgerald, founder and partner of Azeite Esplendido, which won a gold for its estate-grown Esplendido Douro at the 2016 NYIOOC in April. We wanted to see how the award has impacted her oil and her business.
There is a 100 percent link between winning at the NYIOOC and growing my brand.
This year, competition was steeper than ever. 827 olive oil producers from 26 countries submitted entries — the largest international collection of olive oils ever assembled.
Fitzgerald’s brand was only two months old at the time it scored its gold. “The first day the product arrived I packaged up the samples and shipped them to New York,” she said. Her team in Portugal watched theof the press conference.
Azeite Esplendido hails from Tras-os-Montes, in one of Portugal’s six Protected Designation of Origin zones, which sits high in the hills overlooking the Douro valley. The region’s soil and microclimate are ideal for growing olives, and the grower tends to each olive without pesticides, carefully selecting and picking the perfectly ripe fruits by hand.
And yet, before the NYIOOC, Fitzgerald was finding it incredibly difficult to secure distribution in the US. “The market is so saturated,” she said. Fitzgerald was turned down by several distributors. “For a small brand like myself, you have to wait and wait and wait.”
But her NYIOOC victory changed the game immediately. The specialty foods importer Milepost 65 now distributes her product. With her award, “Azeite Esplendido became a shoe-in,” Fitzgerald said. “There is no way I would have gotten the deal without the NYIOOC gold award.” Since the results came in, “my phone has been blowing up with inquiries and web sales have gone through the roof,” she said.
And with good reason. The stunning golden-green oil is a careful blend of four varietals, fragrant with grassy notes and a peppery, spicy finish. Esplendido Douro is pressed within 12 hours after harvesting, and there is zero waste — the olive skins are used to make presto logs, and the fields are not irrigated.
Fitzgerald’s oil has been a labor of love. Fitzgerald met her now business partner, Portugese native Jorge Caeiro, while hiking a coastal trail in Northern Portugal four years ago. Along the trail, Fitzgerald and Caeiro were invited by a local olive producer, Henrique Cardoso, for lunch, where Fitzgerald first tasted this exquisite olive oil. A lightbulb went off: Americans would love this oil.
The first shipment of Azeite Esplendido arrived in Seattle on February 6, 2016. Caeiro remains in Portugal, managing the production and local staff and maintaining their obsession with quality. Fitzgerald oversees business development at operational headquarters in Seattle. Fitzgerald likes “being small, an underdog, with really good quality olive oil, because I know that we can maintain that quality.”
“I’m thrilled,” Fitzgerald said. “Once you have a gold award from New York, it solidifies your product. It’s validation. There is a 100% link between winning at the NYIOOC and growing my brand.”
Fitzgerald ships Esplendido Douro from her Seattle warehouse and has already listed her products on the Best Olive Oils Marketplace which will launch in a few weeks, to reach the ever-growing market for the world’s top olive oils.
After the competition, Fitzgerald joined some NYIOOC judges and producers for a drink at the Gramercy Park Hotel, where she was staying. She started chatting with a man who asked about her olive oil.
“My boss loves olive oil,” he remarked.
“Who’s your boss?” Fitzgerald asked.
“Do you happen to know Jewel?”
It turns out the man was bassist Byron House, whose band JD & The Straight Shot was touring with the singer Jewel.
House wanted to purchase six bottles for Jewel and her crew, but Fitzgerald insisted on gifting them the oils.
Big-deal chefs in Seattle had told Fitzgerald she was sitting on a pile of gold. “But you can’t just have a great product, you have to have a plan. The NYIOOC was a huge part of that plan. So far, it’s working.”
“We’re going to donate some sales back to the farming community in Portugal,” Fitzgerald said. “This is about doing something that people are going to benefit from.”