Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Extending the Olive Branch in Pinot Country: The Oregon Olive Mill

Along the road to some of the Dundee Hills' most well known wineries you'll come across the Oregon Olive Mill. The mill is part of the Red Ridge Farms complex, owned by the Durant family who came to this part of Dundee in 1973 looking for land, perhaps a nut orchard. Valley floor property was expensive then and so the Durants bought what they could afford on a ridge that over looked the valley. You may have heard though that the hills and ridges along the Willamette Valley have turned out to be a pretty good place to grow Pinot Noir? Let's just say it's worked out fine.

The olive groves that Ken and Penny Durant eventually planted came out of Penny's original designs on a nursery. One with a focus on medicinal and culinary plants. Ken though, honed in on the olives and they selected a handful of olive varietals that would potentially do well in the cooler climates of the Willamette Valley. Their son Paul is now the general manager for the entire Red Ridge Farms operation (which includes the mill, wine label, nursery and a retail operation). There were some hard lessons originally, harsh winter events in 2008 and then again in 2009 wiped out a fair portion of their 13,000 trees. They've rebounded and replanted but because of the cooler weather the estate groves are still fairly low producing. At this point their yields of the estate olive grove is somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 tons. That doesn't allow for an awful lot of olive oil, but the Durants were able to find some growers in Northern California they could partner with. Each harvest they truck in about 58 tons of olives from California.

The olives are milled on site, Paul does the milling, in a state of the art Italian olive mill, the process itself looks a fair bit like crush in a winery. However olive milling smells so much better than crush, it's not even comparable really. Olives are ground, pits included into a paste, and that paste is pressed using a centrifuge to separate the water from the oil. The resulting oil is then collected and bottled. I should mention, it tastes wonderful.

The Oregon Olive Mill is the largest commercial milling operation in the Pacific Northwest and each November they harvest, mill and bottle olive oils that are comprised of fruit from both their estate groves and olives from Northern California. (12,000 375ml bottles to be exact.) Estate fruit only comprised about 3% of the total oil produced. There are two "single varietal" oils a Spanish Arbequina, perhaps the most approachable and popular olive oil, as well as a Greek Koroneiki. In addition a Tuscan oil is produced from a blend of  three olives.

Libby Clow serves as the Oregon Olive Mill's resident guru, she's sort of like a sommelier but for olive oil. Her role, and hope is for guests to begin to see olive oil as many people have come to appreciate wine. Different varieties have different characteristics, and olive oil has it's own sensory experience. Like wine, olive oil, particularly olive oil that is well made can enhance a meal and bring out or highlight a food's flavors or textures. And olive oil, like wine is sensitive and should be stored properly. Light and especially heat can be damaging to olive oil turning it rancid. It's still safe to eat, but the experience is shot.

Libby led me through an olive oil tasting, very similar to a wine tasting to highlight the signatures of the varieties and differentiate between them. Similar to tasting wine, you breathe in the oils aromatics, and aerate it in the glass, as well as in your mouth to bring out those characteristics. There is also vintage variation, for example cooler vintages typically lead to a heightened pungent, peppery character in the oil.

It should be noted, these are higher end oils, and so you should be thinking about them with an appetizer, warm bread or to finish a meal, drizzling on soup, risotto or meat dishes.

Arbequina, the Spanish varietal and probably most common olive oil in use is kind of the "Merlot of olive oils." It's one that's familiar, comfortable and very approachable. The Arbequina is very clean aromatically, imagine cut grass, and the flavors tend towards nutty and buttery character with a mild spice. $19

The Koroneiki is a Greek varietal that gives off aromas you might associate with the leaves of a tomato plant, flavors of green banana and sweet hay and a bit more spice on the finish. $19

A Tuscan blend (Frantoio, Leccino and Pendolino olives) is the final of the three flagship oils, and it's the one with the most kick. Aromas of pine nut, beeswax and mushroom and a dollop of peppery spice to finish out. $19

As it turns out the oils produced at the Oregon Olive Mill are delicious, and they mark another place to pay attention to where our foods are coming from. While the olives themselves are not 100% local, in terms of buying both local, and fresh oil, you're not going to do any better here in the Northwest. There are a litany of complicated issues with imported oils, too many to elaborate upon, but I can tell you that fraudulent olive oil is "a thing." And there are nefarious labeling practices when it comes to olive oils coming out of Italy.

For the Durants, Libby and those singing the praises of locally milled oils (count me among them), its really a matter of time. As Ken Durant put it "We're where we were with wine about forty or fifty years ago. It's a matter of palate training, and culture." America doesn't see olive oil as a necessary table side companion, but Italy for example doesn't even make enough olive oil to feed the nation's own consumption. This despite being the second largest producer in the world.

While we may have a ways to go in terms of creating a domestic palate for olive oil, you don't have to go nearly that far for a delicious quality finishing oil, just to Oregon.


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