Reactions Underscore Super Premium's Long Road Ahead

Articles published on the same day in two major American newspapers put olive oil in the spotlight again. Readers' comments in the Washington Post offered a glimpse at some American reactions to Association 3E's super-premium initiative.
By Curtis Cord
Oct. 19, 2011 13:37 UTC

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.”

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 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 sound advice: per­sonal taste and 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 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 bewil­der­ment 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 funny and tragic com­ment, 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. Still, the reac­tions might under­score the rough road ahead for the super-pre­mium ini­tia­tive, espe­cially in the United States, where con­sumers know lit­tle about olive oil, 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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