Producers across California overcame frost, drought and rising prices to yield some of the world’s best extra virgin olive oils.
Producers in California celebrated a strong finish to the 2022/23 crop year, claiming 71 awards at the 2023 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.
Home to virtually all of the United States’ olive oil production, California farmers and millers won the most significant share of awards, claiming 89 percent of all those won by U.S. producers at the world’s most prestigious olive oil quality contest.
Producers from across the state, which is larger than Italy and Japan but slightly smaller than Spain, overcame drought and extreme weather events at the onset of the harvest to produce award-winning quality.
According to the Olive Oil Commission of California, the state produced 1.94 million gallons (7.34 million liters) of olive oil in 2022/23, 20 percent below the rolling five-year average.See Also:The best olive oils from the United States
Among the biggest winners in California was its largest producer, California Olive Ranch (COR), which won a Gold Award and two Silver Awards.
“We are ecstatic with our multi-year wins on our products,” Mary Mori, COR’s vice president, told Olive Oil Times. “We have been submitting our brands to NYIOOC since 2017, and every year are pleased with multiple achievements from this prestigious competition.”
Despite being a relatively young competition, Mori said the NYIOOC quickly became a yardstick by which COR measures its progress and quality.
She added that the company, which produces extra virgin olive oil from California-grown and imported olives, carefully monitors olive developments and harvests at home and abroad to ensure quality.
“Our number one priority in sourcing our international oils, as well as what we produce in California, is the strict quality standards we hold,” Mori said. “We have a rigorous process in approvals for oils from our partners across Chile, Argentina, Portugal and Italy and approve every lot prior to any purchase, and constant testing upon receipt, during storage and bottling.”
COR sources olives from around the world to mitigate the impacts of challenging harvests in any location. Still, Mori said the company faced plenty of other challenges during the harvest.
“As many have seen in the olive industry, we are seeing unprecedented times with quality oil availability,” she said. “From the Ukraine war affecting sunflower oil, causing many to look at olive oil for a lower cost option, to the frosts seen in California, Europe and Chile, there have been immense challenges for olive oil producers to maintain high-quality production.”
Situated in San Luis Obispo County, the perennial award winner Pasolivo managed to maintain its high-quality production.
Located in south-central coastal California, San Luis Obispo County is home to many of the country’s best olive oil producers. This year, ten producers from the county combined to earn 22 awards at the NYIOOC, more than one-quarter of the awards earned by U.S. producers and importers.
Pasolivo was among the most successful, earning five Gold Awards for its carefully crafted blends that combine the millers’ artistry with a careful scientific process.
While the company has won 32 awards since 2016, general manager Marisa Bloch Gaytan told Olive Oil Times that the excitement and pride of winning do not diminish.
“In fact, it is almost more pressure to perform as well as you have in prior years,” she said. “It is always an honor to win such high accolades.”
Pasolivo achieves consistently high quality by maintaining close relationships with harvest contractors to get the olives harvested efficiently and take care of the fruit and trees during the process. Bloch and her team also taste each extra virgin olive oil separately before carefully crafting each blend to achieve the desired flavor profiles.
She said the state’s persistent drought was the biggest challenge Pasolivo and other San Luis Obispo County producers faced in the 2022 harvest but added that conditions look good for the next one.
“The lack of rainfall was the biggest challenge leading into the 2022 harvest,” she said. “Even though we water frequently, it is always best to get the natural rainfall on the trees.”
“Things are looking really good [ahead of the 2023/24 crop year],” she added. “We got record amounts of rainfall in late 2022 and into 2023. It is looking like it will be a big crop, but also a later harvest due to all of the rain.”
Karen and Malcolm Bond celebrated another successful year, adding to their streak of wins dating back to 2017. Their company, Bondolio, based in Yolo County, near Sacramento, earned its fourth Gold Award for an organic medium-intensity blend.
“As a grower and a producer, we think we make great extra virgin olive oil, but you must validate yourself against others, and the NYIOOC allows us to validate ourselves globally,” Karen Bond told Olive Oil Times.
Along with the hard work of farming, she said a passion for excellence and continuous efforts to improve agronomic and milling practices helped them maintain their quality year after year.
Despite the success, Bond said California’s hot autumn resulted in higher labor costs and presented the most significant challenges in the previous harvest.
“The weather was so hot that we had to watch irrigation more closely,” she said. “The cost of labor has really gone up in California in the last couple of years. Since it was so hot, we wanted to hire more labor so the olives could get to the mill faster to maintain quality. This made our labor cost double.”
Still, Bond said Yolo County’s climate helps the region stand out in California. Three Yolo County-based producers combined to earn seven awards at the competition.
“Our climate is very similar to Sicily, so it is an ideal place to grow olives,” Bond said. “Yolo County also has some of the best soil in the world, so we are able to grow organically and only use a cover crop. Also, we have lots of water in Yolo County, unlike other areas.”
Producers from across the state frequently attribute California’s Mediterranean climate to their ability to produce high-quality extra virgin olive oil. This is especially true of five producers in Sonoma County, who won eight awards at the competition.
“Sonoma County’s wine country has a unique Mediterranean climate, so grapevines, olive trees and stone fruit are all common agricultural crops,” Brent Young, the director of agricultural operations at Jordan Vineyard & Winery, told Olive Oil Times.
“Most Sonoma olive oil producers and Sonoma wineries that make extra virgin olive oil grow olive varieties that originated in Italy, Spain, or France,” he added.
Jordan Vineyard & Winery earned a Silver Award for its medium-intensity blend. Young, who said the company felt incredibly proud and honored to win the award, added that high-quality blending is the key to their success.
“Though each olive variety is harvested and milled separately, all components are blended before bottling with the goal of creating an extra virgin olive oil that is vibrant, elegant, and smooth – just like our wines,” he said.
“Focus is placed on harvesting olives at their peak ripeness and pressing within just a few hours – to ensure the highest quality,” he added. “Jordan’s olive trees are planted 15 by 15 feet (4.5 by 4.5 meters) apart, which has allowed each tree to develop a beautiful ‘open center’ canopy and not shade out the lower branches.”
Bi- and triennial pruning, along with efficient watering, are two of the other keys to the company’s success, Young added.
Despite this success, Young said the dry weather faced by producers in Sonoma County resulted in a significantly lower harvest, with the amount of olives picked falling from the usual 18 tons to just 10 tons.
Despite these challenges, the entire team at Jordan Vineyard & Winery was pleased to win the Silver Award
“It was a great recognition of the hard work, dedication, and passion our team puts into creating quality and delicious olive oil that honors Italy and Spain’s extra virgin olive oil-making traditions,” he said.
“Receiving this award will only help build our reputation and further establish Jordan’s credibility as not only a producer of timeless, European-style wines but also as a notable extra virgin olive oil producer,” Young concluded.