This week new standards go into effect for California olive oil. The state is eager to grow its tiny share of the global olive oil market, which is currently at less than 1 percent. Demand in the U.S. is up, but the vast majority of the olive oil Americans buy still comes from the Mediterranean. That raises the question: Why isn’t California, which is blessed with a Mediterranean climate, an olive oil powerhouse like Spain or Italy?
In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries established a small olive oil trade, but American demand for olive oil was relatively small compared to demand for butter and vegetable oils. “Consider that 40 years ago, olive oil was sold in pharmacies in the United States,” says Eryn Balch, executive vice president at the North American Olive Oil Association, a trade group representing importers. It was “a specialized health product,” she says.
Italian cooks had always used it, of course, but it wasn’t until Americans focused more on heart-healthy eating that olive oil started flying off the shelves. U.S. consumers now buy more than three times the olive oil they did 20 years ago. It’s been a significant enough jump to draw many California growers into the olive business. The state’s drought also provides incentive. Olives are a less thirsty crop than, for example, almonds.
Thom Curry, general manager of Temecula Olive Oil in Southern California, says domestic olive oil is as good as Europe’s, and certainly higher quality than much of the cheap, imported oil sold in American supermarkets. Some of those imports are mislabeled as extra virgin when they’re not, according to reports over the past few years. Growers have complained to trade authorities about labeling fraud and generous European subsidies. But low-cost imports aren’t their only problem.
“I think we’re going to be limited for at least the near future by the amount of acres planted,” Curry says. “Once we get to tens and hundreds of thousands of acres, that’s when we can really start taking over the world.”
Just for comparison, right now California has about 35,000 acres in olive production, according to the California Olive Oil Council. Spain, meanwhile, has between 5 million and 6 million acres. But California growers are expanding quickly. “Right now, olives are the fastest growing specialty crop in California,” says the council’s executive director, Patty Darragh. She says California produced 1.2 million gallons of olive oil in 2011. Just two years later, it was producing almost three times that.
Much like California’s neophyte vintners in the ’70s, olive-oil-makers in the state are trying to convince Americans to seek out domestic brands, even if some of them cost more than they’re used to paying. Many growers here are planting trees close together so they can harvest mechanically and cut costs. They’re also experimenting in new terrain. Temecula Olive Oil is expanding into the Imperial Valley, a dry, desolate region north of the Mexican border. “If they can grow there they can grow pretty much anywhere,” Curry says.
Supporters of California’s new labeling and testing rules hope they will signal “high quality” to consumers. “We want to make it easier for consumers to understand the product before them,” says Darragh.
One of the labeling rules bans using the term “light,” which denotes a type of oil common among imports. Darragh says many Americans falsely believe that means the oil is less caloric, though the term actually refers to the flavor and/or color.
Importers believe the new California rules are simply self-promotional. “They appear to be written in a way to name things based on a very specific flavor profile,” says NAOO’s Balch. “They don’t take into account the reality of the broad market of olive oils today.”
Graphic by Shea Huffman
We asked our sources for their favorite things to eat with olive oil, but we want your favorite pairings too! Post your suggestions on our Facebook page and we’ll add the best ones here.
Patty Darragh, California Olive Oil Council: Vanilla ice cream with olive oil drizzled on top with a dash of sea salt.
Trudy Batty, Temecula Olive Oil: Grilled peaches brushed with blood-orange olive oil.
Anne Lewis: “Broccoli tossed in olive oil and roasted at 400° for about 30 minutes with a little feta added after. #kneebuckle”
Todd Hoffman: “Vermouth and gin.”
Beth Patrick: “Salmorejo.”
Tom White: “Soft boiled eggs on toast… With avocado.”
Jennifer Hamlin Lamott: “Fresh grape tomatoes, halved, with garlic olive oil, pepper, basil, and cubed fresh (whole milk) mozzarella.”
Gwyn Alcock: “Popcorn. No, really. Regular Orville’s kernels, popped homestyle in a saucepan with olive oil (rather than peanut oil or butter-flavored oil). Little salt. The better the oil, the better the popcorn.”
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