By Emily Shartin, Epicuring
In California wine country, “harvest,” for the most part, refers to grapes. But in just over a month, after all the Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys has been picked, another important crop will be harvested in wine country: olives.
If you’ve spent any time around wineries, you may have noticed that olive trees often grow alongside grapevines. This is because the two plants share similar growing conditions, and olive trees are often seen as a way to add some biodiversity to the vineyards. The trees may also be planted around the perimeters of vineyards to help protect vines against wind.
And many wineries, such as Round Pond Estate in Rutherford, are using their olives to produce their own oil. Round Pond offers a daily tour of its olive mill and a closer look at some of the Italian and Spanish olive trees that the estate grows. On our recent visit, our guide Julie Bath showed us how olive trees are pruned early in the season to maximize sun exposure. At the end of the season — usually November for the Italian olive varietals and January for Spanish — Round Pond’s 2,200 trees are picked by hand with small electric rakes.
After pressing its olives in one of two mills — a process that must happen within hours of the harvest — Round Pond creates both Italian and Spanish extra virgin blends. Our look at the mills was followed by a tasting of the oils, which we smelled, sipped and slurped like professional tasters. Olive oils are often tasted out of small blue cups that obscure the oil’s color (which shouldn’t be a factor in evaluation) and fit neatly into the taster’s hand, allowing the oil to gently warm. The oils were accompanied by plates of fresh vegetables and cheeses.
Unfortunately, many olive growers in California are girding for a less-than-stellar harvest this year. Olive trees are “alternate-bearing,” meaning a robust harvest like last season’s is often followed by an off year. Rain earlier this year also knocked many buds off the olive trees, further minimizing the crop.
Which means that this is a good time to get out there and support local olive oil producers. Round Pond’s olive tour costs $25, and reservations are required. For a more informal tasting experience, you can visit St. Helena Olive Oil (where I work) in either Rutherford or St. Helena, and try several exclusive oils pressed from olives grown locally in the Napa Valley. Other companies that offer tastings and tours include McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, The Olive Press in Sonoma, DaVero in Healdsburg and Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena.
Join the Epicuring team during this year’s olive harvest at the McEvoy Ranch community olive milling days on November 13 and December 4th. The Olive Press also hosts a community press day November 27, and Round Pond welcomes guests to its “fresh olive oil day” December 10.