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.”

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.

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.

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’.”

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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