"Wait, let me get this straight...you're coming to Napa Valley but you don't drink wine?!"
That was the proprietor of Dutch Henry wines when I called to ask if I could visit his vineyard to taste his olive oils. Though a bit amused, he was happy to have me. Good thing, because his EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) was incredible.
When most people think of the wine country the last thing that comes to mind is sitting on a gorgeous estate taking leisurely sips of oil. Yet, Napa is home to over 50 artisinal olive oil producers and the industry is growing fast. The Mediterranean climate is ideal for olive trees and there is a well established clientele for luxury food items. However, the olive oil industry has yet to become a tourist destination and despite myriad producers, organizing a tasting is fraught with difficulties.
A few weeks ago I spent several long hours calling every certified EVOO producer in Napa. When I started, I assumed that I was going to be able to pick and choose which producers I visited from the lengthy list. Instead I found that only a handful would have me. There are several factors intrinsic in EVOO production which makes public tastings unrealistic. Most EVOO producers are small scale farmers that do not have the resources to offer a formal tasting room. They have neither the capital nor the supply to mill on site, they send their olives to a community mill where the oil is bottled and then distributed to retail outlets, and it is inefficient to transport the oil from the mill back to the estate. Most importantly, production is extremely limited and for good EVOO demand exceeds supply. A producer can expect a yield of about one gallon of oil from a healthy olive tree. A good producer will sell out of their entire crop every year. Why bother pouring free samples and investing in a tasting room when you're already selling out?
Despite these hurdles, I tasted about 25 EVOOs over the past two days and a third as many vinegars. The purpose of this report is to guide anyone who is visiting Napa and looking to take a short break from the standard series of wine tastings. I will direct you to a few choice destinations where you can taste superior EVOO and learn a bit about tasting and production methods.
Round Pond was the highlight of my visit, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Napa who has any interest in food. They are the only place in Napa that specializes in EVOO production and offers tastings and tours of their facility. I saw their state of the art mill, learned how the milling process worked, learn the techniques they use to guarantee a superior oil (including picking every olive by hand!) and enjoyed a wonderful tasting. I learned the proper way to taste an olive oil (you take a large sip in your mouth, let it coat your tongue and then suck air through it to release the flavors) which was incredible useful for the remainder of my trip. Equally fascinating was learning how to taste vinegar by sucking it off a sugar cube (the sweetness neutralizes the acidity and allows you to taste the flavor of the vinegar).
Not only was the tour informative but the tasting was delicious. Heirloom tomatoes from the garden, fresh mozzarella cheese and their full line of oils, vinegars and fruit syrups. This was just a tasting, not their full lunch, and I was really surprised with their generosity. The cost was $20 for a 90 minute tour and tasting, an excellent value though I wish we could have spent some time walking amongst the private orchards. Most importantly, all of their products were INCREDIBLE! The oils had a wonderful depth of flavor and a lovely, peppery finish. Particularly noteworthy is their meyer lemon olive oil which completely turned me around on flavored olive oils. Whereas most olive oil companies add flavorings to oil, Round Pond mills meyer lemon peels along with the oil creating a unified product that is truly special. After a weekend of tasting I returned to Round Pond and purchased their entire product line.
Longmeadow Ranch is an integrative agriculture operation in Calistoga that produces EVOO, vinegar, grass fed beef, free range eggs and a variety of organic produce. I really wanted to take a walking tour of the ranch but sadly they were closed for a private event. However, I had a great time visiting their public garden and farm stand just off the highway in Rutherford (just north of Napa). They encouraged us to wander around the garden and sample the strawberries and figs fresh off the plant. I purchased some delicious fruit and had a nice chat with one of the owners about issues facing grass fed beef production. The EVOO, though very good, did not stack up to Round Pond's products. Regardless, it was a great stop, ideal for picking up some fresh fruit for snacking, and I can't wait to visit their ranch to sample their beef and eggs. The farm stand is open Saturdays from 10-3.
While in Rutherford, I decided to visit the St. Helena Olive Oil Company. Though retail shops are not quite as "fun" as going to the source, they're nice because you can try a variety of oils in one place. Also, as many producers don't have tasting rooms, retail shops are the only place you can sample their wares. Well, SHOO was a big disappointment. They had a whole range of olive oils and vinegars to sample but they lacked proper sampling equipment and expected you to taste everything using tiny plastic spoons. There was no way to get enough of a mouthful to really taste the oil and the plastic left an off flavor on each sample. None of the oils stood out, but I feel that it is unfair for me to judge them using such poor methodology. I may return with my own tasting glass, but overall I expected much more from a place specializing in olive oil tasting.
After a lovely lunch at Market in St Helena (report to follow) I decided to hit up a few more olive oil shops. Olivier had a decent tasting facility but their oils were entirely unremarkable. Far more impressive was Tasting on Main. Though chiefly a wine shop they had three excellent EVOOs and proper glassware. They were, in fact, the only place other than Round Pond that had EVOO tasting glasses. We wound up purchasing the OliOdessa Koroneiki a Spanish variety with complex flavors that came together for a clean finish. Tasting on Main is the only retail shop that I would recommend.
I ended the tasting with a trip to two vintners that also produce EVOO-Dutch Henry and Silverado. Two nice things about visiting vintners: even if they charge for a wine flight they will sample EVOO for free and even if they don't have proper EVOO glasses a wine glass will always suffice. Dutch Henry was a lovely spot with a gorgeous estate and a quaint little tasting room. Their EVOO was outstanding – much more mellow than Round Pond's but with a real depth of flavor. Most of the mellow Spanish varieties I tasted were simply bland, but Dutch Henry was robust and fruity with just a hint of bitterness and a slightly peppery finish. Though the most expensive EVOO of the trip ($42 for 500 ml) I bought a bottle without hesitation. I found the whole experience to be quite charming and I'm curious what some of our wine hounds think of their offerings. Silverado was a fun place to visit though I didn't love their EVOO. It felt like it was straight out of a commercial for Napa Valley – Spanish Revival architecture, sweeping views of the valley, an enormous tasting room chock full of tourists. I had a nice time relaxing on their patio and though their EVOO was perfectly good, it didn't make the cut.
I had a fantastic time in Napa and Mrs. Mousse is thrilled with the collection of oils we've amassed for her cooking (she was with me for the whole trip, of course, I just prefer writing in first person singular). It was fun to do something "different" in a town where every visitor pretty much does the same thing. I learned a lot and I discovered some lovely oils that I will likely buy for years to come.
If I do another tasting I will probably time it in February or March when the oils are newly released as some of the places I tried to visit were sold out (this is the end of the season) and others had a limited selection (I can't wait to try Round Pond's blood orange oil next year). I will bring my own tasting glasses and I will probably branch out to Sonoma and visit McEvoy ranch and some of the other local producers. Some day, if I'm made of money I'll do the Great Olive Oil Tour: for $500+ a head you get access to private estates and oils that you can't sample anywhere else.
Wow! Only three pages single spaced. Can't help but wonder if anyone is still reading...
To summarize my trip:
Round Pond is an absolute must visit
Rutherford Gardens is right off the highway and worth a stop
If you're in St Helena (and you should go, the food is great) drop by Tasting on Main
If you're really into EVOO, take the drive out to Dutch Henry