`Reactions Underscore 'Super Premium's' Long Road Ahead

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Reactions Underscore 'Super Premium's' Long Road Ahead

Oct. 19, 2011
Curtis Cord

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It was quite a day for olive oil in the news. Arti­cles on the sub­ject were pub­lished yes­ter­day in two of the most-read Amer­i­can news­pa­pers — The Wash­ing­ton Post and The New York Times.

The title of The Times arti­cle must have sent a warm ping through the hearts of Cal­i­for­nia olive oil pro­duc­ers who have set their sites on chip­ping away at the 99 per­cent mar­ket share enjoyed by Euro­pean exporters.

Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Olive Oils Chal­lenge Europe’s” was how the title appeared online, while in print it was short­ened slightly to Chal­leng­ing Imported Olive Oils.” Either way, it was a head­ing thor­oughly enjoyed by many in the Golden State.

But the well-writ­ten arti­cle was refresh­ingly even-handed when so much cov­er­age of the Old ver­sus New World olive oil drama smacks of self-inter­est and sen­sa­tion­al­ism.

Throw­ing the brakes on what seemed yet another rehash of last year’s Davis study, Nancy Har­mon Jenk­ins (indi­rectly cast as an Old World Par­ti­san” — is that on your busi­ness card Nancy?) rea­soned, You can’t decide that all imported oils are sus­pect and dis­miss thou­sands of years of crafts­man­ship.“

Another exchange began with New York olive oil importer Mar­tina Rossi Ken­wor­thy report­edly say­ing that the high-den­sity farm­ing cham­pi­oned by New-World upstarts robbed trees of vital nutri­ents. That was called baloney” by Davis farm advi­sor Paul Vossen. But bal­ance was regained with a cau­tious assess­ment by Deb­o­rah Rogers who said, They can make good oils with high den­sity, but it remains to be seen if they can make great oils.”

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Stick­ing unnec­es­sar­ily to the stan­dard olive oil arti­cle play­book, The Times fin­ished the story with a taste test. This one was led by the New York importer Ken­wor­thy and her col­league at Gus­ti­amo, Ste­fano Noceti who, not sur­pris­ingly, could pick out in a blind test their own Ital­ian top-sell­ers among the few sam­pled. But in per­haps a hes­i­tant nod to the inevitable, they also liked the Cal­i­for­nia Olive Ranch Arbe­quina.

In a mod­ern refrain The Times writer, Julia Moskin, admit­ted was melo­dra­matic,” olive oil, she wrote, dete­ri­o­rates” as soon as it is bot­tled. While sci­en­tif­i­cally true, an aver­age reader gets the impres­sion that she will be able to taste the dif­fer­ence between an extra vir­gin olive oil bot­tled eight months ago and one bot­tled two months ago (and know which to pre­fer) — or that a high-qual­ity olive oil, if a year into its shelf life, will be a shadow of its for­mer self and sig­nif­i­cantly less health­ful.

The arti­cle, how­ever, left read­ers with the sound advice: per­sonal taste, and then fresh­ness, are the best guides when choos­ing the right olive oil.

The Wash­ing­ton Post arti­cle, writ­ten by Jane Black, read like a brochure for the Asso­ci­a­tion 3E — the ini­tia­tive spear­headed by Villa Campestri’s Paulo Pasquali, Culi­nary Insti­tute of Amer­ica Vice Pres­i­dent Greg Dreschner, Milan edu­ca­tor Clau­dio Peri and Gaea CEO Aris Kefalo­gian­nis — and their bid to define the top tier of olive oil qual­ity.

73 per­cent of the top five brands of imported extra-vir­gin olive oil failed to meet accepted inter­na­tional stan­dards for extra-vir­gin,” the arti­cle dove in, unable to resist begin­ning with another review of the Davis study and leav­ing many scratch­ing their heads at what 73 per­cent of five equalled.

Both arti­cles fea­tured inter­views with globe-trot­ting inves­tiga­tive author Tom Mueller whose much-antic­i­pated book Extra Vir­gin­ity is due out in Decem­ber and worth the wait.

But while the Wash­ing­ton Post arti­cle exam­ined the lost mean­ing of the extra vir­gin clas­si­fi­ca­tion, the need for a new cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for true olive oil qual­ity and how to have an EVOO epiphany,” read­ers largely latched on to the price tag, express­ing bewi­der­ment and annoy­ance in their com­ments.

I can’t buy pre­mium olive oil on my bud­get for every­day cook­ing, just as I can’t buy pre­mium vin­tage wine,” one reader lamented, What are we sup­posed to use to cook with – not nec­es­sar­ily adore?”

Another said Pay­ing that much money for such a small amount of any­thing seems pretty insane to me, unless it is enough to fla­vor about 200 meals or some­thing.”

While a few com­menters chimed in with mem­o­ries of Tus­can hol­i­days, or their own kitchen taste-tests, there was lit­tle sup­port among the few dozen read­ers for the super-pre­mium con­cept, or super-pre­mium prices.

A reader wrote Sounds like a racket, designed for the Age of Afflu­ence’ that is now over. $50/half liter. That’s bank­ruptcy in a bot­tle. Leave the super-pre­mium’ to the Wall Street rack­e­teers and yup­pies who don’t know any bet­ter. Taste is sub­jec­tive: a good $100 wine does not taste any bet­ter than a good $11 wine, enough with the food snob­bery. We’re in a depres­sion!”

And in a com­ment both funny and tragic, a reader asked, What kind of olive oil does McDon­ald’s use? All their stuff tastes real good.”

The most vocal read­ers are often over­rep­re­sented in com­ment sec­tions, but the reac­tions might nev­er­the­less under­score the rough road ahead for the super-pre­mium ini­tia­tive, espe­cially in the United States where con­sumers know lit­tle about olive oil in gen­eral, much less why it should cost more than two dol­lars per table­spoon.

And just as the Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil kicked off its long-antic­i­pated North Amer­i­can pro­mo­tional cam­paign lik­ing olive oil to fash­ion at a time when Amer­i­cans could­n’t feel worse about their eco­nomic futures, super-pre­mi­um’s aspi­ra­tional pitch faces the same tough audi­ence.

Mar­keters will first need to explain to Amer­i­cans what olive oil is and how to use it, before they’ll have much suc­cess with the upsell.

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