Son of Pioneering Oregonian Wine Producers Blazes a Trail for Olive Oil

The owner of the state’s only commercial mill reflects on the challenges of producing award-winning olive oil in Oregon.
Photo: Kelsey Chance, Good Chance Creative.
Nov. 29, 2021
Daniel Dawson

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The 2021 olive har­vest in Oregon is get­ting under­way and the state’s most awarded pro­ducer is already out in the groves har­vest­ing his trees.

Paul Durant, the owner of Durant Olive Mill, expects to pro­duce about 500 gal­lons (2,200 liters) of extra vir­gin olive oil from his groves in the north­ern Willamette Valley, about 40 kilo­me­ters south­west of Portland.

I’ve really learned that magic hap­pens… at that malax­a­tion step. That’s where you have that inter­sec­tion of fruiti­ness, bit­ter­ness and pun­gency, want­ing all three of those to be har­mo­niously in bal­ance.- Paul Durant, owner, Durant Olive Mill

Long-renowned as wine pro­duc­ers, Durant and his par­ents began plant­ing olive trees in 2005. Since then, Durant has evolved his oper­a­tion into the state’s only com­mer­cial olive mill.

See Also:Producer Profiles

My par­ents were amongst the first to do cool cli­mate viti­cul­ture in the north Willamette Valley,” Durant told Olive Oil Times. Then we started a com­mer­cial nurs­ery in the late 1990s where we prop­a­gated and sold plants. Through that process, my mother started sell­ing some spe­cialty plants which hap­pened to be olive trees and became very inter­ested in them.”

We had some ground on the prop­erty that was­n’t con­ducive to grapes, so we thought well let’s put in a few thou­sand trees and start see­ing what hap­pens,” he added.

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At the time, olive oil pro­duc­tion was unheard of in Oregon and only begin­ning to take root in California.

We kind of grew with the Californians so to speak,” Durant said. We planted a lot of the wrong trees and had some really good learn­ing expe­ri­ences through trial and error. But it was really meant to be a sup­ple­ment to and really com­ple­ment the wine side of the oper­a­tion.”

By 2008, the Durant fam­ily decided to start milling their olives, so they pur­chased the small­est-pos­si­ble mill from Alfa Laval, which they have since updated, and spent two sea­sons har­vest­ing olives with the help of an Italian miller.

Duccio Morozzo della Rocca was very instru­men­tal in not only show­ing us the mechan­ics of how to make olive oil but more impor­tantly about the sen­sory aspects of the milling process that can really enhance that,” Durant said.

At the time, Durant was work­ing full-time as a mechan­i­cal engi­neer and would take off a few weeks each autumn to come up and help out with the har­vest. However, as his par­ents approached retire­ment age and con­sid­ered sell­ing the farm, he decided to make the career switch.

By the 2010/11 crop year, Durant was a full-time olive farmer. Along with har­vest­ing and milling his own olives, he began pur­chas­ing olives from north­ern California, cre­at­ing purely California-grown extra vir­gin olive oils as well as blends of Californian and Oregonian olives.

business-north-america-profiles-production-son-of-pioneering-oregonian-wine-producers-blazes-a-trail-for-olive-oil-olive-oil-times

Photo: Kelsey Chance, Good Chance Creative

Durant pri­mar­ily pro­duces olive oil from his Arbequina trees but plans to shift pro­duc­tion more toward Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Picual and Nocerella, all of which do bet­ter in Oregon’s unique cli­mate and pro­vide more con­sis­tent yields.

He attrib­utes some of his suc­cess as a pro­ducer – Durant Olive Mill has won 16 awards at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition over seven years – to his back­ground in mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing. However, he has also had plenty of time to exper­i­ment, which has also helped him hone his method.

I’ve really learned that magic hap­pens, in terms of olive oil fla­vor, at that malax­a­tion step,” Durant said. That’s where you have that inter­sec­tion of fruiti­ness, bit­ter­ness and pun­gency, want­ing all three of those to be har­mo­niously in bal­ance.”

I’ve learned how to treat that process through malax­a­tion and really let the sep­a­ra­tion be as sim­ple as pos­si­ble, where I’m not hav­ing to manip­u­late things around a lot,” he added.

Along with becom­ing a bet­ter miller, Durant also believes he has got­ten bet­ter at tast­ing the olive oils at the moment of trans­for­ma­tion and pro­ject­ing how the fla­vor will evolve over time.

business-north-america-profiles-production-son-of-pioneering-oregonian-wine-producers-blazes-a-trail-for-olive-oil-olive-oil-times

Photo: Kelsey Chance, Good Chance Creative

Even with wine­mak­ing, when you’re tast­ing that juice early in the process, you’re try­ing to project out what’s this going to be like down the road and it’s the same thing with olive oil,” he said. It’s so vibrant com­ing off the end of the milling process but after you fil­ter it, what are the com­po­nents that are going to be there because they’re obvi­ously going to be more muted.”

While Durant is just begin­ning his own olive har­vest, he has already been trans­form­ing olives that he buys from California and, for the first time, south­ern Oregon. Overall, he hopes to pro­duce as much as 10,000 gal­lons (45,500 liters) of olive oil but does not know how close he will get to this fig­ure due to the unpre­dictabil­ity of the cur­rent har­vest.

It’s been a chal­leng­ing har­vest so far this year,” he said. It’s been pretty wild. The yields are way off and that’s kind of going to be the story of the har­vest.”

Durant attrib­utes these lev­els of unpre­dictabil­ity to all the rain and humid weather in north­ern California recently.

They had a del­uge of rain down there and all our olives are mechan­i­cally har­vested so they could­n’t get the har­vesters in on the soft ground,” he said. At a cou­ple of the sites from which I source fruit, they picked up a third of their annual rain­fall in two days.”

business-north-america-profiles-production-son-of-pioneering-oregonian-wine-producers-blazes-a-trail-for-olive-oil-olive-oil-times

Photo: Kelsey Chance, Good Chance Creative

It’s a huge bum­mer,” Durant added. The fruit really puffed up with water, so there’s a lot of water weight in these olives… I buy the fruit by the ton, so I’m buy­ing a lot of water right now because the fruit is so sat­u­rated.”

Luckily for him, the olives Durant sources from Oregon have arrived in slightly bet­ter con­di­tion.

I don’t know if the trees are more accli­mated to being in sat­u­rated soil con­di­tions so they don’t really pump water,” he said. But so far what I’ve milled for other peo­ple has been typ­i­cal. Right around the low 30 gal­lons per ton range, which is pretty good.”

For Durant, the oppor­tu­nity to pur­chase olives from south­ern Oregon was a water­shed moment. Along with plans to open a sec­ond com­mer­cial mill in the state, he hopes this is a sign that olive oil pro­duc­tion will con­tinue to take root.

In terms of his own oper­a­tion, Durant has seen demand for locally-sourced olive oil spike dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­demic.

Our tast­ing room was closed for the bet­ter part of 18 weeks in 2020,” he said. Our wine sales were down, but our olive trees became very impor­tant for the busi­ness.”

business-north-america-profiles-production-son-of-pioneering-oregonian-wine-producers-blazes-a-trail-for-olive-oil-olive-oil-times

Photo: Kelsey Chance, Good Chance Creative

One of Durant’s main sources of income comes from a big con­tract he has for 3,000 gal­lons (13,600 liters). Generally, gro­cery store sales make up 40 per­cent of what remains and the other 60 per­cent of sales come from vis­its to his farm and online, which saw a four-fold increase in 2020 com­pared with 2019.

Durant empha­sized that win­ning qual­ity awards has been immensely help­ful to grow­ing his brand and gain­ing name recog­ni­tion on super­mar­ket shelves, which in turn dri­ves foot traf­fic to the farm and online traf­fic to the web­site.

Being where we are procur­ing fruit or hav­ing to drive it here, I think there are ques­tions about how are we main­tain­ing that fresh­ness,” he said. Third-party val­i­da­tion is really key for con­sumers. We can say it’s great. They can say it tastes great, but this panel of experts tasted it and really put that seal of approval on it. We have every one of those [NYIOOC] awards promi­nently dis­played in our tast­ing room.”

Durant is already mak­ing plans to enter the 2022 NYIOOC and is opti­mistic that he will be able to add a few more awards to his tast­ing room.

We will enter for sure. I am really happy about the Arbequina that we’re crank­ing out right now,” he said. That’s always inter­est­ing. It’s such a mild olive oil, but it’s really lovely. I’ve made a Mission that’s always tasted great.”

I’m get­ting some other later oils too,” he con­cluded. I haven’t milled Koroneiki yet, which is one of my favorite olive oils, but I’m not get­ting that until after Thanksgiving. It’ll be a very inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence to be milling so late and see how the fla­vors evolve.”


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