California Olive Oils Challenge Europe’s

AMERICAN food lovers have long taken for granted that only olive oils from the Mediterranean are worth buying — preferably with an olive tree, an Italian flag and some words like “authentic cold pressed” on the bottle.

But in the last decade, California producers have mounted a major new effort to bring back the domestic olive oil industry, planting thousands of acres, building new mills and producing oils that can be fresher, purer and cheaper than all but the finest imports.

The California olive oil trade, started by 16th-century Spanish missionaries, was almost dead 10 years ago, except for small-scale producers along the Pacific Coast and in the wine country.

Many people loved the romance of olive oil,” said Deborah Rogers, an owner of the Olive Press, a mill and orchard in Sonoma, Calif. “But no one could figure out how to make any money at it.”

Less than 2 percent of the olive oil consumed in the United States is produced here. But that figure is nudging upward as companies like California Olive Ranch, Corto Olive and Apollo have produced oils that are priced to compete not only in specialty stores, but in supermarkets. They’re using two powerful tools: intensive farming systems already in wide use around the Mediterranean, and a self-imposed bureaucracy that has tried to set a new domestic standard for purity, just as imported olive oil has come under increased scrutiny.

At the California Olive Ranch north of Sacramento, where last week was the beginning of the annual harvest, most of the trees are less than a decade old. But with 13,000 acres under cultivation, the company is already the largest producer of extra-virgin olive oil in the country.

“These trees have a precocious growth spurt and high oil content,” said Adam Englehardt, the field manager, who comes from a family that has been farming in nearby Artois (that’s AR-toyce, not ar-TWA), for five generations.

As long as the olive oil is reasonably priced and reasonably tasty, should American cooks care where it’s from? There are the usual arguments for buying local food: supporting domestic agriculture and the jobs it creates, reducing fossil-fuel consumption by limiting transport, a fresher product.

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