Extra-virgin olive oil, one sip at a time 

Heat, air and light. These are the three big no-nos when it comes to extra-virgin olive oil.

On a recent tour of three Bay Area oliveoil makers — McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, Jordan Winery in Healdsburg and Round Pond Estates in Rutherford — I learned these steadfast rules: Never store olive oil anywhere that is above 82 degrees F; keep olive capped, corked or sealed when not in use; and never — ever — display it on your window sill, where direct light can degrade it.

As one of the most valued crops in history, olive oil has been used for food, fuel and in skin care products as well as in ceremonies and even as currency. Hence, as olive oil has become more widely used by Americans, it is no wonder that olive oil tours have also become popular.

Domestically, California is the No. 1 producer of olive oil. From San Diego to Sonoma, olive trees were first planted by Spanish missionaries during the late 18th century. By the 19th century, olive oil had become a thriving industry for the state — and still is.

A fun alternative to winery hopping, olive oil tasting — as well as learning about how olives are grown, harvested, milled, pressed and bottled — is highly accessible and can be enjoyed by just about everyone. And lucky for the Bay Area, Northern California produces some of the country’s best product.

From branch to table: McEvoy Ranch

Just an hour by car from San Francisco, a visit to McEvoy Ranch is like entering Beatrix Potter’s secret garden. Even when you drive up to the entrance, you’re immediately greeted by a cherubic bronze bunny perched on the property’s entrance.

Is on 550 pristine acres just west of Petaluma, the ranch is covered with rolling hills, lush pastures, an estate house, two green houses and a large organic garden of flowers and vegetables. There is also an area designated for the ranch’s honey bee colonies — as well as 82 acres used exclusively for olive orchards, and a stone farm house that is home to the ranch’s a state-of-the-art frantoio, or olive oil mill.

And like Ms. Potter’s magical gardens, don’t be surprised to see several friendly creatures — from a wild turkeys and a neighboring flock of sheep who mow the property’s pastures to bats, swallows and owls, all of whom keep the ranch’s predator population under control.

For the orchard tour, I made an appointment and was met at the ranch’s main building — a stone farm house — by Jill Lee, the ranch’s tour manager, who kicked off the tour with a brief history of the ranch.

The ranch was purchased in 1991 by San Francisco philanthropist Nan Tucker McEvoy, who originally purchased the ranch as a place where her grandchildren could run freely and enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings.

Strictly zoned agricultural use, McEvoy didn’t want to use it for livestock (the ranch had previously been a family-owned dairy farm). Instead, she wanted to grow olives — and make olive oil.

Everyone told her that it just couldn’t be done. The land had too much clay. It was too close to the ocean — just a short distance from Point Reyes National Seashore. The climate wasn’t optimal for olives — which thrive in a Mediterranean-like climate, such as in Sonoma and Napa — or Italy, Spain and Greece.

McEvoy, however, was not easily dissuaded.

She consulted a friend in Tuscany — olive oil expert Maurizio Castelli — who agreed to be her consultant. After surveying the property in person, he told her that olives could in fact be grown here — and began advising the ranch on planting 3,000 olive trees from Italy as well as importing the frantoio, which is used to crush and mill the olives. Fifteen years later, the ranch harvests more than 18,000 olive trees, and is one of the country's largest producers of organic estate olive oil.

The tour then moved outside, where I checked out the six varietals used to make the ranch’s Tuscan-style olive oil: Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Maurino, Lecciodel Corno, Coratina. (I learned than two of the varietals make up about 90 percent of the blend — Frantoio constitutes 75 percent of the blend and gives the oil its fruity notes; Leccino makes up 20 percent of the mix and gives the oil a peppery finish. The remaining varieties are added to give the oil softness and balance.)

Next, harvest and production. I learned how olives are picked by hand — and sometimes with the help of battery-operated pneumatic combs — and within 24 hours are milled and blended at the frantoio. Harvest, which lasts three to four weeks, usually happens in mid-November.

Lastly, the tour will end with a tasting. Here is where you can ask all kinds of questions — from the best way to enjoy the ranch’s extra-virgin olive oil — with bread, tossed with salad greens or as a finish to soup or grilled fish — as well as the best ways to determine if an olive oil is of high-quality.

First-time tasters, take note: After the olive oil is poured into a small glass, warm the glass with your palm. Taste just a tiny bit, and let it settle in the back of your throat — whereby you’ll experience a big finish. Since most of us don’t drink olive oil, the ranch then offers fresh bread and vegetables from the ranch’s organic garden.

» Before you go: Reservations are absolutely required. Tours are small and intimate — and will be open to the public this season starting April 12. The grounds are expansive — so be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. This is not a drive-to-the parking-lot and taste-some-olive-oil tour. You won’t be walking in mud — but there is a lot of walking involved. Be prepared to spend at least two hours here. Trust me, the time will fly by.

Depending on your preferences, you can choose between the orchard tour ($25 per person) — perfect for culinary types, or the garden tour ($35 per person) — which features a long stroll through the ranch’s olive orchards, its flower beds (last week, they were filled with tulips), its organic vegetable garden and orchards of organic cherry, Mandarin orange and Meyer lemon trees, from which it makes a tasty marmalade. As a certified organic farm and mill, the ranch doesn’t waste anything — it even uses residual defects from the milling process (i.e. stems, leaves and oil that can not be used to blend extra-virgin olive oil) to make soap and its new line of skin care products.

The ranch also offers a public garden tour and gourmet, catered outdoor lunch ($75 per person) — for those who would like to enjoy the afternoon here.

Before you leave, you can purchase oil at the ranch’s retail area (375-ml bottle costs $20), but it is also available online, at the San Francisco Ferry Building retail shop and at many specialty markets. If you are interested in starting your own olive grove, the ranch also sells potted olive tree plants for you to take home with you.

For more information, call (707) 778-2307 or visit www.mcevoyranch.com.

Where wine meets olives: Jordan Vineyard and Winery

Located about 80 miles north of San Francisco in Healdsburg, Jordan Vineyard and Winery is a family-run winery on 275 oak-covered acres in the Alexander Valley.

Located in Healdsburg, the estate is marked only by a tiny sign along Alexander Valley Road. As you enter the property, you will drive along a half-mile of winding, rustic hills. At the top is the winery’s main house: a French-style château surrounded by manicured, European-style gardens.Although the winery does not accept drop-in guests for tours, nor does it have a tasting room — the staff here couldn’t be more inviting and friendly. Call ahead, book a tour — and prepare yourself for a wonderful experience.

In addition to tasting wine, every tour of Jordan also includes an olive-oil tasting. In fact, the tour normally kicks off with a tour of its sustainable garden, where it grows 4,200 olive trees on 20 acres of its estate.

Jordan’s production is very small — for its 2006 harvest, which was released on March 24, there were only 273 cases, or about 1,000 gallons.

The extra-virgin olive oil is a classic blend of Italian varietals — a blend of that focuses on four Tuscan varietals: Frantoio, Pendolino, Leccino and Cipressino.

However, Jordan decided to make a bold move — and recently replaced 20 percent of its trees with a Spanish varietal from Catalonia, said Todd Knoll, the winery’s executive chef and manager of its olive oil production. In doing so, Jordan hopes to create a slightly sweeter olive oil for next year’s harvest.

After the olives are hand-picked, they are milled on a stone press and the oil is stored in two stainless-steel containers with conical bottoms — where it is allowed to settle for three months before it is bottled.

How to best enjoy Jordan’s extra-virgin olive oil? According to Knoll, simply dip French bread into the oil.

"Keep it on your dining room table and use it like butter," Knoll said. "Or use it as finishing oil — a little drizzle over fish or soups — let it float on top. You get a pepper, nuttiness finish."

» Before you go: Call Jordan in advance to schedule a tour. In addition to its award-winning olive oil — it won gold medal at the 2005 Los Angeles County Fair — you will also be treated to a tasting of the estate’s award-winning chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines. The cost of the tour is free. If you feel like purchasing olive oil or wine, ask your guide to show you to the area of the châteauwinery where you can make a purchase — there is no highly publicized shop here. In addition, you can purchase the 2005 Jordan Extra Virgin Olive Oil online. For more information, visit www.jordanwinery.com or call (707) 431-4250.

Olive oil, vinegar, syrup and wine: Round Pond Estate

Where Route 29 in Napa meets the Silverado Trail is where you’ll find Round Pond, a family-owned and run estate with vineyards, gardens and orchards.

When you enter the estate, the driveway is lines with olive trees — which leads you to the estate’s olive mill, where its award-winning olive oils are produced from the 12 acres of trees planted along the border of the Napa River of its 400-acre property.

Here, Round Pond produces several products: extra-virgin olive oil (Italian varietal, Spanish varietal — and my favorites, blood orange and Meyer lemon); red wine vinegar (cabernet and merlot blend; a delightful sangiovese; Nebbiolo and petit verdot blend); wine (a limited run of cabernet and nebbiolo); and last but not least, its delicious sweet syrups (blood orange, Meyer lemon) — which the estate recommends pairing with organic cheese from its local partner, Marin County’s Cowgirl Creamery.

Tours here are by appointment only, but are frequent. The 90-minute tour requires only 24 hours notice, and tours are held at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. To keep your experience intimate, there are never more than 10 to 12 visitors on any given tour ($20 per person).

A tour typically starts outside, where staff will walk you through the milling process — as well as explaining how olives are hand-picked during harvest. Next, visitors will be seated for a tasting of all of Round Pond’s products — olive oil, wine, vinegar and sweet syrup. Snacks from the estate’s organic garden — as well as bread and mozzarella cheese — are also served during the tasting.

And though the stone-pressed, unfiltered, extra-virgin olive speaks for itself, one of the most interesting parts of the tour is the vinegar tasting. The estate’s vinegar, a product of its wine, is produced using the Orleans method, a French style of making vinegar. Vinegar here is aged 10 months in French oak barrels, and when it is ready to be sampled, the staff employs the sugar cube method.

"What we do is give our guests two sugar cubes — for each vinegar," said Bill Chambers, who leads tours at the estate. "You douse the vinegar through the sugar cube and you suck the vinegar through the sugar cube to best taste the varietals of the vinegars. It’s a great way to taste vinegar — and we taste our citrus syrup this way, as well."

» Before you go: In addition to guided tours, Round Pond also offers guests the opportunity to book an al fresco lunch ($45 per person), which features and Italian-style light lunch overlooking its gardens. And though the estate does not have a tasting room, you can purchase a bottle of their estate wine that you can open and enjoy with your lunch.

Speaking of wine, Round Pond will open a new winery this summer — slated to open sometime in late June. To make a reservation for a tour or purchase any of the estate’s products — which they will ship practically anywhere — visit www. roundpond.com.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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