Life After Winning Gold in New York

When Sheila Fitzgerald's Esplendido Douro won an award at the New York International Olive Oil Competition, doors began to open. And she's just getting started.

Sheila Fitzgerald, producer of the NYIOOC award-winning Esplendido Douro extra virgin olive oil (Photo: NYIOOC).
By Hannah Howard
May. 3, 2016 09:36 UTC
Sheila Fitzgerald, producer of the NYIOOC award-winning Esplendido Douro extra virgin olive oil (Photo: NYIOOC).

Every year at the New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC), we wit­ness the win­ners’ hard-won ela­tion. Then, after hugs and cel­e­bra­tory cock­tails, the pro­duc­ers return to dis­parate cor­ners of the globe and get back to the demand­ing task of craft­ing qual­ity olive oil. If we are lucky, we stock their bot­tles in our kitchens, but we do not see their smil­ing (and nerve-wracked) faces for another year.

This time, Olive Oil Times caught up with Sheila Fitzgerald, founder and part­ner of Azeite Esplendido, which won a gold for its estate-grown Esplendido Douro at the 2016 NYIOOC in April. We wanted to see how the award has impacted her oil and her busi­ness.

There is a 100 per­cent link between win­ning at the NYIOOC and grow­ing my brand.- Sheila Fitzgerald, Esplendido Douro

This year, the com­pe­ti­tion was steeper than ever. 827 olive oil pro­duc­ers from 26 coun­tries sub­mit­ted entries — the largest inter­na­tional col­lec­tion of olive oils ever assem­bled.

Fitzgerald’s brand was only two months old at the time it scored its gold. The first day the prod­uct arrived I pack­aged up the sam­ples and shipped them to New York,” she said. Her team in Portugal watched the live broad­cast of the press con­fer­ence.

Azeite Esplendido hails from Tras-os-Montes, in one of Portugal’s six Protected Designation of Origin zones, which sits high in the hills over­look­ing the Douro val­ley. The region’s soil and micro­cli­mate are ideal for grow­ing olives, and the grower tends to each olive with­out pes­ti­cides, care­fully select­ing and pick­ing the per­fectly ripe fruits by hand.

And yet, before the NYIOOC, Fitzgerald was find­ing it incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to secure dis­tri­b­u­tion in the US. The mar­ket is so sat­u­rated,” she said. Fitzgerald was turned down by sev­eral dis­trib­u­tors. For a small brand like myself, you have to wait and wait and wait.”

But her NYIOOC vic­tory changed the game imme­di­ately. The spe­cialty foods importer Milepost 65 now dis­trib­utes her prod­uct. With her award, Azeite Esplendido became a shoe-in,” Fitzgerald said. There is no way I would have got­ten the deal with­out the NYIOOC gold award.” Since the results came in, my phone has been blow­ing up with inquiries and web sales have gone through the roof,” she said.

And with good rea­son. The stun­ning golden-green oil is a care­ful blend of four vari­etals, fra­grant with grassy notes and a pep­pery, spicy fin­ish. Esplendido Douro is pressed within 12 hours after har­vest­ing, and there is zero waste — the olive skins are used to make presto logs, and the fields are not irri­gated.

Fitzgerald’s oil has been a labor of love. Fitzgerald met her now busi­ness part­ner, Portuguese native Jorge Caeiro, while hik­ing a coastal trail in Northern Portugal four years ago. Along the trail, Fitzgerald and Caeiro were invited by a local olive pro­ducer, Henrique Cardoso, for lunch, where Fitzgerald first tasted this exquis­ite olive oil. A light­bulb went off: Americans would love this oil.

The first ship­ment of Azeite Esplendido arrived in Seattle on February 6, 2016. Caeiro remains in Portugal, man­ag­ing the pro­duc­tion and local staff and main­tain­ing their obses­sion with qual­ity. Fitzgerald over­sees busi­ness devel­op­ment at oper­a­tional head­quar­ters in Seattle. Fitzgerald likes being small, an under­dog, with really good qual­ity olive oil, because I know that we can main­tain that qual­ity.”

I’m thrilled,” Fitzgerald said. Once you have a gold award from New York, it solid­i­fies your prod­uct. It’s val­i­da­tion. There is a 100% link between win­ning at the NYIOOC and grow­ing my brand.”

Fitzgerald ships Esplendido Douro from her Seattle ware­house and has already listed her prod­ucts on the Best Olive Oils Marketplace which will launch in a few weeks, to reach the ever-grow­ing mar­ket for the world’s top olive oils.

After the com­pe­ti­tion, Fitzgerald joined some NYIOOC judges and pro­duc­ers for a drink at the Gramercy Park Hotel, where she was stay­ing. She started chat­ting with a man who asked about her olive oil.

My boss loves olive oil,” he remarked.

Who’s your boss?” Fitzgerald asked.

Do you hap­pen to know Jewel?”

It turns out the man was bassist Byron House, whose band JD & The Straight Shot was tour­ing with the singer Jewel.

House wanted to pur­chase six bot­tles for Jewel and her crew, but Fitzgerald insisted on gift­ing them the oils.

Big-deal chefs in Seattle had told Fitzgerald she was sit­ting on a pile of gold. But you can’t just have a great prod­uct, you have to have a plan. The NYIOOC was a huge part of that plan. So far, it’s work­ing.”

We’re going to donate some sales back to the farm­ing com­mu­nity in Portugal,” Fitzgerald said. This is about doing some­thing that peo­ple are going to ben­e­fit from.”


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