How Resilience and Passion Drive a Boutique California Producer

In less than four years, the couple behind Chateau de Luz has overcome climate extremes, pests and labor challenges to craft world-class extra virgin olive oil.

Although Sandra Austoni hails from generations of olive growers in France, she only recently discovered her passion for olive oil. (Photo: Sharisse Rowan Photography)
By Wasim Shahzad
Jun. 12, 2024 15:39 UTC
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Although Sandra Austoni hails from generations of olive growers in France, she only recently discovered her passion for olive oil. (Photo: Sharisse Rowan Photography)

In four short years, the cou­ple behind Chateau de Luz has trans­formed a small olive grove into an award-win­ning olive oil brand.

The small-scale pro­ducer in sun-soaked De Luz, California, earned two Gold Awards at the 2024 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

It may seem glam­orous from the out­side, but (olive farm­ing) is a hard busi­ness that requires ded­i­ca­tion and resilience.- Sandra Austoni, owner, Chateau de Luz

We are a bou­tique olive grove founded in 2021,” said owner Sandra Austoni. We bought this oper­at­ing grove in 2020, and the pre­vi­ous owner planted the trees in 2007, so our trees are still very young.”

We offer two blends: an early har­vest Athena, mostly unripe olives, and our reg­u­lar blend Venus, which is 50 per­cent ripe and 50 per­cent unripe olives,” she added. This year, we also intro­duced an Olio Nuovo of our Athena right out of the press, which was really suc­cess­ful.”

See Also:Producer Profiles

Originally from Provence, France, Austoni said the company’s name is inspired by her past and present. I also wanted to empha­size my French her­itage with a name that is eas­ily under­stand­able for our mar­ket audi­ence,” she said.

My fam­ily has been grow­ing olives in Provence for more than a cen­tury,” Austoni added. It was never my goal to grow olives myself, but when we found this prop­erty while look­ing for a new home, I fell in love with it. So, this was not a planned event. It just hap­pened through serendip­ity.”

From the out­set, Austoni said the goal has been to pro­duce high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil at a small scale from the company’s 600-tree grove.

We have five Italian vari­eties: Frantoio, Leccino, Maurino, Moraiolo and Pendolino, as well as a few Kalamata trees that we also include in our blends,” she said.

The pos­i­tive is that we can process it within hours of har­vest­ing. We can also con­stantly mon­i­tor our trees all year,” Austoni added. Living among these beau­ti­ful trees is also a plea­sure.”

Due to the company’s small size, Chateau de Luz focuses exclu­sively on high-qual­ity small-batch pro­duc­tion.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-north-america-how-resilience-and-passion-drive-a-boutique-california-producer-olive-oil-times

In 2020, Austoni and her husband bought a 600-tree olive grove comprising Frantoio, Leccino, Maurino, Moraiolo, Pendolino and Kalamata olives. (Photo: Sharisse Rowan Photography)

We wanted to focus on qual­ity ver­sus quan­tity and keep increas­ing the qual­ity of our olive oil every year through con­tin­ual edu­ca­tion and learned expe­ri­ence,” Austoni said.

She attrib­uted the company’s suc­cess at the NYIOOC to the speed and effi­ciency with which Austoni and her hus­band har­vest and mill the olives each autumn.

The fruits start to degrade as soon as they are picked, so it is cru­cial to process them as soon as pos­si­ble,” Austoni said. We usu­ally start our har­vest early, as soon as there is enough light for our crew to har­vest safely. We start to process within a few hours after har­vest. Our goal is to mill on the same day.”

We only process 250 kilo­grams of fruits at a time, so we are truly in an arti­san-style process,” she added. We focus on qual­ity over quan­tity, even if that means we sac­ri­fice our bot­tom line. We want our clients, fam­ily and friends to expe­ri­ence the best when they taste our olive oil.”

While the 2023/24 crop year was boun­ti­ful across California, Austoni said ample yields come with their own obsta­cles and high­light some of the com­pa­ny’s longer-term chal­lenges.

The 2023 har­vest was extremely chal­leng­ing,” she said. Like every­body else in California, we had an over­abun­dance of fruits and prob­a­bly only har­vested ten per­cent of our trees.”

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-north-america-how-resilience-and-passion-drive-a-boutique-california-producer-olive-oil-times

Hiring workers for the harvest remains one of the company’s challenges. (Photo: Sharisse Rowan Photography)

We expe­ri­enced sev­eral mechan­i­cal issues dur­ing the milling, which forced us to pause sev­eral times,” Austoni added. We also expe­ri­enced crew prob­lems and retain­ing them because our har­vest was overex­tended over sev­eral weeks. That was by far the most chal­leng­ing har­vest we ever had.”

Overall, she believes the two main chal­lenges that the com­pany will con­tinue to face are the impact of cli­mate change and con­sis­tently find­ing enough work­ers to work dur­ing the har­vest.

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The change in weather pat­terns is affect­ing olive pro­duc­tion with big vari­a­tions in out­put from year to year, for which there is not much we can do except adapt,” Austoni said.

The other main chal­lenge is find­ing and retain­ing high-qual­ity crews, espe­cially dur­ing har­vest time,” she added. Many grow­ers could not har­vest last sea­son because of a lack of crews. It just takes time to find good con­trac­tors who also want to learn and grow with us. We like to offer train­ing and paid edu­ca­tion to our main con­trac­tor as a way to retain him.”

Another con­sis­tent chal­lenge the com­pany faces is man­ag­ing pest infes­ta­tions using organic prac­tices.

We do suf­fer from the olive fruit fly in south­ern California,” Austoni said. A proper pro­gram to con­trol them and pro­tect the fruit is essen­tial. Without a healthy, high-qual­ity olive, there is no high-qual­ity olive oil. We use kaolin clay to pro­tect our trees and our olives, a nat­ural prod­uct approved for organic farm­ing.”

In addi­tion to these peren­nial chal­lenges, Chateau de Luz also had to over­come ris­ing pro­duc­tion costs in the lat­est har­vest.

Everything is get­ting so much more expen­sive,” Austoni said. We are such a small pro­ducer that we are not prof­itable, at least not yet. Because we focus on qual­ity over quan­tity, we are priced more on the pre­mium side. We also ensure that our pack­ag­ing and labels reflect our high-end posi­tion­ing.”

Despite the hard work and numer­ous chal­lenges of olive farm­ing in California, Austoni said win­ning awards at the World Competition and other local olive oil qual­ity con­tests is a sig­nif­i­cant reward and helps the com­pany build its brand.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-north-america-how-resilience-and-passion-drive-a-boutique-california-producer-olive-oil-times

The elegant packaging behind the company’s efforts to market its boutique extra virgin olive oil. (Photo: Sharisse Rowan Photography)

It was very reward­ing to be rec­og­nized by such a pres­ti­gious orga­ni­za­tion, espe­cially since we are pretty new on the scene,” she said.

It is hard to eval­u­ate the impact at this time, but it is cer­tainly help­ing us to estab­lish our brand. We were also able to sell our olive oil at the 2024 Los Angeles County Fair, which just con­cluded,” Austoni added. We sold out our stock within a few days, which was a great expe­ri­ence for our brand expo­sure.”

While Austoni has not been able to plant her own trees yet, she said the com­pany takes advan­tage of the pre­vi­ous grower’s efforts to pro­duce olive oils high in polyphe­nols, which sig­nif­i­cantly con­tribute to olive oil health ben­e­fits and fla­vor pro­files.

I would prob­a­bly have cho­sen French vari­eties if I were to plant a new grove,” she said. The infor­ma­tion we got from the pre­vi­ous owner is that they were selected for cross-pol­li­na­tion and also to get a max­i­mum amount of polyphe­nol in the blend.”

Making the most of these high-polyphe­nol olive vari­eties requires har­vest­ing the olives while they are green and get­ting them to the mill quickly.

I han­dle the har­vest and the sort­ing,” Austoni said. We man­u­ally sort our olives before the milling, remov­ing the bad’ ones. This is a tedious process when done man­u­ally, but it guar­an­tees that we will have top-qual­ity oil.”

We also con­stantly mon­i­tor the tem­per­a­ture dur­ing the malax­a­tion and the sep­a­ra­tion processes,” she added. My hus­band Alan is in charge of milling and oper­at­ing the equip­ment. He has a back­ground in mechan­ics and has always worked in the food indus­try, so that was a nat­ural fit.”

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-north-america-how-resilience-and-passion-drive-a-boutique-california-producer-olive-oil-times

Austoni’s husband, Alan, runs the mill while she oversees the olive harvest. (Photo: Sharisse Rowan Photography)

Once the har­vest is com­pleted, Austoni sends sam­ples of the extra vir­gin olive oil to be cer­ti­fied at inde­pen­dent labs.

It shows cred­i­bil­ity and is con­sid­ered best prac­tice,” Austoni said. Certifications also help to edu­cate the con­sumer so they know what to look for when buy­ing a high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil.”

Along with estab­lish­ing cred­i­bil­ity through cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, she believes edu­cat­ing con­sumers about high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil and sus­tain­able farm­ing prac­tices is a pri­or­ity.

Through social media posts and var­i­ous arti­cles on our web­site, we aim to inform and edu­cate,” she said.

While the work never ends for a small farmer, Austoni said redis­cov­er­ing a pas­sion for extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duc­tion comes with intan­gi­ble rewards.

The chal­lenge is that there is no delim­i­ta­tion between work and per­sonal life, which I am sure many other farm­ers can relate to,” she said.

Be patient. Like any agri­cul­tural busi­ness, this is not a get-rich-fast activ­ity,” Austoni con­cluded. It may seem glam­orous from the out­side, but it is a hard busi­ness that requires ded­i­ca­tion and resilience. Passion is very impor­tant to weather the ups and downs,” she said.


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