The Farmer Behind the Dramatic Rise of Dalmatian Olive Oils on the World Stage

Tomislav Duvnjak organized local producers to help them enter the NYIOOC. The result was a record haul for the coastal Croatian region.
Secretary of the Association of Dalmatian Olive Growers Damir Buntić and Vodice olive grower Tomislav Duvnjak (Nikolina Vukovic Stipanicev / Cropix)
By Nedjeljko Jusup
Jun. 1, 2021 13:01 UTC

Part of our con­tin­u­ing spe­cial cov­er­age of the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

We will prove that olive oils from Dalmatia are some of the best in the world,” 36-year-old Tomislav Duvnjak, a suc­cess­ful olive grower and civil engi­neer from Vodice, vowed.

His year-old promise came to fruition at the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, the world’s most pres­ti­gious olive oil qual­ity con­test.

The ulti­mate goal is to bring Dalmatia to the level of the best olive grow­ing region in the world, and then, together with our Istria, make Croatia a brand.- Tomislav Duvnjak, owner, Vodice DOO

In terms of the qual­ity of olive oils, we are among the four best coun­tries in the world,” said Duvnjak, who earned a Gold and Silver Award with Vodice DOO.

While Croatia can­not com­pete with Spain, Italy and Greece in terms of pro­duc­tion, Duvnjak and many other pro­duc­ers believe they can with their qual­ity.

In the 2020/21 crop year, Croatia pro­duced 4,600 tons of olive oil, about 0.15 per­cent of the global total and a frac­tion of what Europe’s largest pro­duc­ers annu­ally yield.

However, 1,171 extra vir­gin olive oils from 28 coun­tries were sub­mit­ted to the NYIOOC, with 105 from Croatia. Of these, 53 came from Dalmatia – one of Croatia’s four his­toric regions that stretches along the south­west­ern coast – and 52 from Istria. By com­par­i­son, 60 sam­ples arrived from Croatia to New York in 2020, of which more than 80 per­cent were from Istrian olive grow­ers.

See Also:The Best Olive Oils from Croatia

Croatian pro­duc­ers earned 49 awards that year, of which 39 went to Istrians and 10 to Dalmatians. This year, out of 105 sam­ples (almost 75 per­cent more than last year), 67 Gold and 20 Silver Awards went to Croatian pro­duc­ers.

More than half of the total num­ber of awards – 35 Gold and 13 Silver Awards – were won by Dalmatian olive grow­ers. Meanwhile, Istrian pro­duc­ers earned 39 awards, of which 32 were Gold and seven were Silver.

Istria has con­firmed its rep­u­ta­tion, but we have also proven that we have qual­ity,” said Ivica Vlatković, who once again earned two Gold Awards for his monocul­ti­var Šoltanka and a blend of Coratina and Leccino.

However, Dalmatian pro­duc­ers are no longer just rep­re­sented by him­self and a hand­ful of oth­ers. This, he points out, is the first great col­lec­tive suc­cess of Dalmatian oils, a suc­cess that will be remem­bered and writ­ten down in the his­tory of local olive grow­ing, and Vlatković does not hide his enthu­si­asm.

The credit for the regions’ impres­sive col­lec­tive per­for­mance at the com­pe­ti­tion belongs to the young Duvnjak, who cul­ti­vates 1,200 olive trees and is a mem­ber of the Olea Šibenik olive oil sen­sory eval­u­a­tion panel.


Photo: Vodice DOO

When he sent his two oils to the NYIOOC last year and won Gold and Silver with the brand of St Ivan from Vodice, he felt both pride and sad­ness at the same time because only 12 sam­ples from Dalmatia were fea­tured at the event.

When he saw that Dalmatia was not on the map of the olive-grow­ing regions, he said he could not come to his senses.

It was also the trig­ger for Duvnjak to start think­ing about orga­niz­ing the local olive grow­ers to per­form together in this com­pe­ti­tion and in the brand­ing of their oils, some­thing Istrian pro­duc­ers have been doing for years.

If need be, he would go col­lect oils from house to house, Duvnjak thought to him­self.


He first pro­posed his idea to orga­nize local pro­duc­ers to enter the NYIOOC to Goran Pauk, the Šibenik-Knin County pre­fect. Pauk accepted the idea and a meet­ing took place in Duvnjak’s oil mill.

If olive oil pro­duc­ers con­tinue to take the rules of the pro­fes­sion even more seri­ously in cul­ti­va­tion, har­vest­ing and pro­cess­ing, and then in keep­ing the oil in opti­mal con­di­tions, most of them will win Gold in New York.- Tomislav Duvnjak, owner, Vodice DOO

The two were joined by Duvnjak’s father, fel­low pro­ducer Damir Buntić, the act­ing pres­i­dent of the Šibenik County Chamber Commerce Josip Laća and Višnja Marasović, the county’s head of agri­cul­tural and rural devel­op­ment of Šibenik-Knin County.

Together, they decided to mon­i­tor the results of sev­eral local olive oil com­pe­ti­tions and per­form sen­sory analy­ses on the win­ners to ensure that they were top qual­ity. Afterward, they invited the best olive oils from these com­pe­ti­tions to enter the 2021 NYIOOC.

Meanwhile, Pauk began to call other Dalmatian coun­ties to join Šibenik-Knin and search for their own high­est-qual­ity olive oils. Soon olive grow­ers in all four coun­ties – Zadar, Šibenik, Split and Dubrovnik – started to get excited.

Duvnjak reviewed which Dalmatians went to pre­vi­ous edi­tions of the NYIOOC, con­tact­ing them all, along with oth­ers he knew had excel­lent oils.

I called them per­son­ally and when I explained every­thing to them, they were all incred­i­bly happy and every­one sup­ported it,” he said.

At first, Duvnjak thought that maybe 20 or 30 oils would be col­lected, but in the end, 51 oils from Šolta, Hvar, Brač, Korčula, Dubrovnik, Zadar and Šibenika were sent to New York.


OPG Rajner i Sinovi (Photo: Delfa Perica)

Certainly, there are more extra­or­di­nary olive oils in Dalmatia, but we haven’t reached all of them,” Duvnjak said. We may not know about some of them yet, but for the first year, about 50 sam­ples are excel­lent,”

The first step in get­ting all of these olive oils sent to New York was to reg­is­ter all con­tes­tants by December 30 to take advan­tage of the reduced rate dur­ing the early reg­is­tra­tion period.

Duvnjak’s wife, Helena, played an essen­tial role in this part of the process. She is a law grad­u­ate and flu­ent in English, allow­ing her to do the nec­es­sary steps on behalf of the pro­duc­ers.

The sec­ond step was for all reg­is­tered com­peti­tors to bring sam­ples to the Sveti Ivan oil mill and send them all out to the com­pe­ti­tion. Duvnjak and his sup­port­ing cast started to fundraise to pay for the ship­ping costs and reg­is­tra­tion fees.

In the end, Šibenik-Knin County and other coun­ties agreed to pay 50 per­cent of the reg­is­tra­tion fee for each olive grower and the Šibenik Chamber of Commerce agreed to pay 25 per­cent. The costs of ship­ping the sam­ples were borne by the Sveti Ivan oil mill.

It is a for­tu­nate cir­cum­stance that we have a con­tract with DHL, so the costs are much lower,” Duvnjak said.

However, this was just the first step of what Duvnjak sees as an ongo­ing process. The ulti­mate goal is for Dalmatian pro­duc­ers to emu­late the suc­cess of their Istrian coun­ter­parts.

We can still learn a lot from olive oil pro­duc­ers in Istria; they know how to do busi­ness,” he said.

Over the years, Istrian pro­duc­ers have suc­cess­fully orga­nized into local pro­ducer orga­ni­za­tions, which sup­port and edu­cate mem­bers and help mar­ket their prod­ucts.

Duvnjak believes this is one rea­son they have become so suc­cess­ful over the years and why Istria has twice been declared the best olive grow­ing region in the world. He is con­vinced that Dalmatia can fol­low in the same foot­steps.

If olive oil pro­duc­ers con­tinue to take the rules of the pro­fes­sion even more seri­ously in cul­ti­va­tion, har­vest­ing and pro­cess­ing, and then in keep­ing the oil in opti­mal con­di­tions, most of them will win Gold in New York,” Duvnjak said.

The ulti­mate goal is to bring Dalmatia to the level of the best olive grow­ing region in the world, and then, together with our Istria, make Croatia a brand,” he added.

Duvnjak believes that every­one who vis­its Croatia should know about the country’s high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oils. His effort to pro­mote Dalmatian pro­duc­ers is the first step down a long road to pro­mot­ing the region and pro­pelling it to the top of the olive oil-pro­duc­ing world.

This suc­cess, which will soon be cel­e­brated by all par­tic­i­pants, is the begin­ning of the his­tor­i­cal uni­fi­ca­tion of olive oil in Dalmatia,” he said. There will be a party, where else but in the oil mill of St. John in Vodice, where it all started.”


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