And it's coming from a rapidly growing number of olive oil producers. In 1997, there were just 17 in California. Now there are 400, said Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council.
Speaking at a 2015 new oil release lunch at A.O.C. Restaurant, Darragh said olive oil production stretches from the Inland Empire to the upper Sacramento Valley, with the largest number of producers in San Luis Obispo County.
"I am olive oil's No. 1 fan, an olive oil junky," said Goin as she ran through how she matched the oils with food.
Enzo Olive Oil's "Delicate" oil is "really buttery and reminded me of avocado," she said, perfect for a market lettuce salad with basil green goddess dressing, avocado and cherry tomatoes (above). Enzo is a fifth-generation farm in the Central Valley. Its Delicate oil is organic.
The oil Goin chose for a plate of autumn vegetables with muhammara and chickpea puree, burrata and pomegranate (above) was Séka Hills Premium Arbequina Olio Nuovo. This oil is "super delicious, complex and developed," Goin said. These qualities and the "brightness of being new" lifted up the veggies and brought the plate together, she said.
Séka Hills is an estate-grown oil produced by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in the Capay Valley in northern California.
Rio Bravo Ranch's Coratina tasted of green olives to Goin, and she used it to season grilled swordfish with greens from Windrose Farm, curried cauliflower and a tomato, green olive and lemon salsa (above). Located in Bakersfield, Rio Bravo Ranch is in its second year of production.
Another boutique producer, Grumpy Goats Farm, provided spicy, peppery Picual oil that inspired Goin to think of Spanish flavors for grilled hanger steak with arugula, romesco and fried potatoes (above).
Grumpy Goats is a 20-acre farm just east of Napa. Eight acres are planted to olives. One-third is Picual, the rest Cortina. The Picual oil is organic.
A kabocha squash gratin flavored with Kiler Ridge Olive Farm's blend of Tuscan varietals came with the steak (above). This oil has a "lot of bitterness on the finish," Goin said, adding "I always say bitterness in a good way." She employed the sweetness of kabocha squash to contrast with the bitterness. A small family-owned and operated farm, Kiler Ridge is in Paso Robles.
Olive oil cake sounds heavy and greasy. Goin's was anything but. This lovely light cake (above) came with candied tangerines, Santa Barbara pistachios and whipped cream. The oil Goin used was California Olive Ranch's Arbequina, which is the A.O.C. house olive oil.
A large producer, California Olive Ranch gets oils from growers throughout the Sacramento Valley. The oil poured for the tasting before the lunch was the Limited Reserve blend of Arbequina and Koroneiki oils.
Two additional oils were set out for tasting. December's New Oil from Katz Farm blends Tuscan varietals and is organic. This artisan producer is in the Suisun Valley in Solano County, east of Napa.
The other was Green Valley Olive's single estate oil from the Sacramento Valley, made from a field blend of four olive varieties--Frantoio, Leccino, Maurino and Pedolino cultivars (above).
You'll find oils such as these in specialty stores.They may seem expensive compared to cheaper versions in supermarkets. However, the cheaper brands may blend oils that are not necessarily extra virgin, using the name because it has high selling power. They can do this because the United States has not set standards for extra virgin olive oil.
High quality oils usually have a harvest or milling date as well as a best use date. Check to see if the harvest date is within 12 months, and use the oil within 18 months.
To guarantee quality, the California Olive Oil Council has established a strict rating program for extra virgin olive oil. Member producers who qualify are entitled to use the logo above. Look for that, and you'll know you're getting the real thing.