Making Award-Winning Olive Oil from California’s Centenarian Trees

In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Guilio Zavolta and Rachelle Bross seek to promote and protect the state’s historic olive trees.

Guilio Zavolta and Rachelle Bross
By Thomas Sechehaye
Nov. 6, 2023 16:08 UTC
Guilio Zavolta and Rachelle Bross

At the foot of the Sierra Nevada near Sequoia National Park, the pro­duc­ers behind Olivaia’s OLA seek to pro­tect California’s olive-grow­ing her­itage and bring new appre­ci­a­tion to tra­di­tion­ally pro­duced extra vir­gin olive oil.

OLA is short for orig­i­nal Lindsay arti­sanal,” co-owner Guilio Zavolta told Olive Oil Times. All our olives are hand-har­vested and imme­di­ately milled to main­tain the utmost fresh­ness. Our arti­sanal approach, regen­er­a­tive farm­ing and atten­tion to detail all work to make the most of the incred­i­ble fruit our trees pro­duce.”

We have already lost roughly 70 per­cent of our (cen­te­nary) California olives. I hope our story… will help save what is cur­rently in the ground.- Guilio Zavolta, co-owner, Olivaia OLA

Zavolta and his wife, Rachelle Bross, were intro­duced to Tulare County, where Lindsay is the fifth-largest city, and olive farm­ing by Albert Vera more than 20 years ago.

Knowing our appre­ci­a­tion for olives both because of my family’s his­tory with olives in Italy and Rachelle’s inter­est as a nutri­tion expert in healthy food, Albert and his won­der­fully warm wife Ursula con­tin­u­ously encour­aged us to get involved not only with their olives but with olives in gen­eral despite being recent immi­grants to California,” he said.

See Also:Producer Profiles

At first, the deci­sion to start olive farm­ing was a dis­tant goal. Going to grad­u­ate school – Zavolta has a Master’s degree in archi­tec­ture, and Rachelle a Ph.D. in nutri­tion – and start­ing a young fam­ily took pri­or­ity. Zavolta and Bross decided to wait to get involved in olive farm­ing.

We deferred get­ting involved until we were on more solid foot­ings,” Zavolta said. Unfortunately, sev­eral years later, both Albert and Ursula passed away sud­denly, and the only way to cel­e­brate what they had come to mean to us was to get involved with olives.”

With olive groves in mind, the cou­ple searched for the right prop­erty in the olive-grow­ing region near Lindsay.

We pulled together what­ever retire­ment funds we had been able to set aside, secured a loan and decided to start look­ing for olives,” Zavolta said. After about a year of search­ing and as fate would have it, we became neigh­bors to Albert’s and Ursula’s estate.”

While many olive farms in California are grown at high-den­sity or super-high-den­sity, Zavolta pur­chased a prop­erty with neglected cen­te­nar­ian olive trees and now works to pro­tect this increas­ingly rare type of cul­ti­va­tion in the state.

While we were thrilled to become neigh­bors, we essen­tially bought a block of cen­ten­nial trees that were in hor­ri­ble shape and slated to be removed to make room for a more lucra­tive crop,” he said.

Although Lindsay was once a focal point of olive grow­ing, con­di­tions shifted. Pulling out mature trees to replace them with cit­rus or almonds had become more com­mon­place than reha­bil­i­tat­ing his­toric groves.

Traditional olive acreage is typ­i­cally planted for hand-har­vest­ing, with 60 to 80 trees per acre (150 to 200 trees per hectare). However, mod­ern acreage pro­motes mechan­i­cal har­vest­ing, with 200 to 250 trees per acre (500 to 620 trees per hectare).

While the mod­ern approach costs less and is more eco­nom­i­cally viable, espe­cially in California, Zavolta and Bross decided to reha­bil­i­tate mature olive trees rather than pulling them out and replant­ing them.

Determined to honor our olive’ friends and as immi­grants to California who had just learned of the rich her­itage of the Lindsay area, we set out to reha­bil­i­tate our trees so that we could estab­lish some level of cash­flow by sell­ing our olives to one of the two remain­ing proces­sors in California,” Zavolta said.

The process was not smooth. Zavolta and Bross nav­i­gated many twists and turns as they inves­ti­gated their options.

During the process and after years of reha­bil­i­ta­tion, we dis­cov­ered that we had many unique olives that could not be sold to the proces­sor,” Zavolta said.


Eager to make the most of what we had got­ten our­selves into, we decided to make some oil for our­selves,” he added. We were amazed at the won­der­ful, unique and fruit-for­ward nature of the oil and imme­di­ately thought of our dear friends and whether this was one of the many gifts from above that would come our way.”

After five years of pro­duc­ing olive oil on a small scale, Zavolata decided to make a com­mer­cial batch, nam­ing it Bloc X Blend.

The name arose as X’ because we had no idea what these unique olives were, and Blend’ because it was a field blend,” he said with a smile.

Block X is an olive grove over 100 years old and con­tains more than nine vari­eties, includ­ing Manzanillo, Mission and Sevillano. Many of these cul­ti­vars include unique root­stock and, accord­ing to Zavolta, yield dis­tinc­tive-fla­vored olive oils.

After the first har­vest, Zavolta said the oil was rec­og­nized at sev­eral local com­pe­ti­tions. Not only were we thrilled about the awards, but we felt that the value we saw in our trees was val­i­dated,” he said.

Winning awards reaf­firmed the ben­e­fits of sav­ing the ancient trees, high­light­ing their his­tor­i­cal value, as well as their cul­tural and culi­nary value.

Aside from the value the trees had because of how we got started, we felt the trees had proven their value as the source of a unique oil, as the con­veyor of the region’s rich her­itage and as a cul­tural land­mark,” Zavolta said.

We, of course, wrapped our bot­tles and tins with images of our majes­tic trees and an image pro­vided by the Lindsay Museum of the orig­i­nal Lindsay plant that at one time employed over 500 peo­ple,” he added.


The original Lindsay olive plant employed more than 500 people at its peak.

With Olivaia’s OLA, Zavolta hopes that California’s his­tory of grow­ing olives will find a new vital­ity.

We are proud to be putting his­tory in a bot­tle’ for all to enjoy and appre­ci­ate, and we hope that from now on, the per­cep­tion of value goes beyond the sim­ple bot­tom line and is under­stood holis­ti­cally and sus­tain­ably,” Zavolta said.

We have already lost roughly 70 per­cent of our orig­i­nal California olives,” he added. I hope our story, together with the con­tin­ued efforts by the indus­try lead­ers, will help save what is cur­rently in the ground.”

His cen­ten­nial trees have con­tin­ued to gar­ner awards. Zavolta said the older trees have deep root sys­tems and can draw water in ways newer plants can­not. The rewards of legacy olive trees are fur­ther enhanced with arti­sanal care and regen­er­a­tive farm­ing prac­tices Olivaia uses.

Earlier this year, the com­pany earned three Gold Awards at the 2023 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition for a Sevillano mono­va­ri­etal, a blend and an extra vir­gin olive oil made from a wild vari­ety.

Winning helps you know that you are doing some­thing right. It also allows you to claim that there is some­thing spe­cial about your extra vir­gin olive oil,” Zavolta said.

The NYIOOC has built the voice and cred­i­bil­ity. It pro­vides pro­duc­ers like Olivaia’s OLA the tools to mar­ket their prized extra vir­gin olive oils,” he added.

Along with its acclaimed extra vir­gin olive oils, Zavolta said the com­pany will also launch a brand of arti­sanal table olives, focussed on qual­ity and dis­play­ing the organolep­tic fea­tures of the fruit of its cen­te­nary trees.

From the begin­ning, we set out to rede­fine the notion of value in trees like ours; we believe our extra vir­gin olive oil and our story help rede­fine value,” he said. We hope to do it again with the upcom­ing launch of our own cured arti­sanal table olives.”

The launch comes in the after­math of what Zavolta described as a poor har­vest for his part of California.


Olvaia OLA earned three Gold Awards at the 2023 NYIOOC for olive oils sourced from centenary trees.

2023 is some­what dev­as­tat­ing since after years of drought and low crops, the expec­ta­tion was to have a great year to recu­per­ate from the pre­vi­ous years, and that does not look to be the case,” he said.

At least for our region, the crop is low enough that we will not even be able to cover our farm­ing costs,” Zavolta added. This, together with ris­ing labor costs, is a com­bi­na­tion that may prove to be lethal to more grow­ers despite the value’ argu­ment.”

The profit mar­gins for grow­ers are so low that it does not take much to put them in an upside down sit­u­a­tion,” he con­tin­ued. I think it is time as a nation to start appre­ci­at­ing this, or we may con­tinue to lose more and more grow­ers to cor­po­rate farm­ing.”

Promoting extra vir­gin olive oil is an ongo­ing chal­lenge. Zavolta said that pro­duc­ing award-win­ning olive oil requires proper care, stor­age, mar­ket­ing and sales tim­ing so con­sumers can truly taste the dif­fer­ence and expe­ri­ence extra vir­gin olive oil’s health ben­e­fits.

We need to do every­thing we can to sus­tain the small-to-medium-size pro­duc­ers,” Zavolta said. We need a bit of every­thing on the mar­ket, but right now, it is tough for the great extra vir­gin olive oils to get onto gro­cery store shelves. The real­ity is that folks need to be exposed to great extra vir­gin olive oils to want great extra vir­gin olive oils.”

He believes pro­duc­ers must work more closely with retail­ers to pro­mote extra vir­gin olive oil in cook­ing and explain what it takes to achieve award-win­ning qual­ity.

The culi­nary delight that comes with it, the health attrib­utes that are asso­ci­ated with it, and the poten­tial con­nec­tion to a local grower or pro­ducer are all val­ues that could jus­tify the higher cost of a great extra vir­gin olive oil, and the mes­sage needs to be dis­sem­i­nated,” Zavolta said.

For Zavolta, extra vir­gin olive oil must fol­low in the foot­steps of wine. We need to stop think­ing of extra vir­gin olive oil as a com­mod­ity,” he said. It may be so for some, but it should not be for all.”

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