Most people who are familiar with Southern California associate Temecula with wine (there are a slew of wineries in the Temecula Valley), but the area has also gained a stellar reputation for turning out another kind of liquid gold – olive oil.
In 2001, The Temecula Olive Oil Company had a few groves of olive trees that yielded 100 gallons, but since then it has developed into a multimillion-dollar business selling not only olive oil and balsamic vinegars but also artisan foods, bath and beauty products, olive wood products and even small olive trees. Although a good portion of their sales are on-line, they now have tasting rooms where products can be purchased at Old Town Temecula, San Diego, Seal Beach, and Solana Beach.
Twice a year usually in June (June 2nd in 2018) and October, they work with the “Outstanding in the Field” organization and host a 6 course dinner at the olive grove in Aguanga. Long tables are set up in the middle of the grove. Check out this video! This looks like an incredible event!
Ranch tours at the Aguanga grove are offered on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month at 10:00 am. The cost is $20.00 per person and admission for children 12 and under is complimentary. Advance reservations are suggested.
Being a lover of olive oil and having been to a number of tasting bars during our travels, getting a behind the scenes look of the ranch, seeing the olive groves and learning about how the oil is produced from start to finish, this tour was at the top of our “must do” list during our stay in Aguanga. And it is literally around the corner from our RV resort, less than a 5 minute drive!
When we checked in at the tasting bar, we were greeted by Catherine Pepe, one of the co-owners who explained to everyone that the 90 minute tour would be given by Thom Curry also a co-owner (along with his wife, Nancy). Thom manages the day to day operation of Olive View Ranch in Aguanga as well as groves in several other locations. At the end of the tour, we would return to the tasting bar where we would sample several of the olive oils and vinegars. Besides olive oil and vinegar, they also produce and sell artisan foods, bath and beauty products, olive wood products and small olive trees.
Thom started off the tour telling us a little bit about himself, how he had been in the wine business for over 20 years when he and his wife decided to grow a few olive trees. Eventually they, along with Catherine, bought the current 26 acre Aguanga property which once was part of a cattle ranch. In this video, Thom talks briefly about the history of the property and how what today is used as the tasting bar was once a “saloon” that the cattle ranch hands would frequent at the end of a hard day. The other adobe building on the property was built in the 1800’s and was used to store saddles and saddle blankets.
Right from the beginning of the tour, it was obvious that not only was Thom knowledgeable about the olive oil industry but he was extremely passionate about the company’s sustainable growing practices and their olive oil production. He is a certified master taster and a member of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), which is currently the only organization in the United States that provides olive oil grade certification, thus ensuring quality standards and providing consumers assurance that the oil they purchase is actually extra virgin.
Here’s an overview of what we learned during this educational and fascinating tour!
About the grove and the trees:
- They cultivate an experimental grove with over 32 different varieties of olive trees from all over the world. It is considered experimental because they don’t do anything to the trees so they can study how tall they grow, how they adapt to the climate, what kind of ground cover to use, how to fertilize and irrigate, etc. Check out this video!
- Temecula Olive Oil farms more than 120 acres throughout CA and produces 10,000 gallons of high-quality olive oil per year.
- The difference between an orchard and a grove is that the trees in an orchard lose their leaves while those in a grove don’t. Apples, cherries, peaches, etc. are grown in orchards while olives and citrus fruit grow in groves.
- Olive trees grow well in Southern California and specifically the Temecula Valley because the climate is similar to the Mediterranean. In Aguanga the climate is know as “transitional”. Not seacoast, not desert, but with influences from both providing an idyllic mix of the two that is just perfect for olives.
- Olive trees are self maintaining, requiring very little care. They grow well in drought conditions.
- They can grow up to 20-30 ft. tall and can live for hundreds, even thousands, of years.
- They don’t start bearing fruit until 3 – 4 years old. Olives are considered fruits because they have a pit and develop from a flower. Thom considers the extract from olives as technically a fruit juice.
- Olives are bitter tasting so birds and most bugs don’t bother them. After he told us how bitter they were, he tried to tempt us to try one. There were no takers!
- The olive fruit fly is one of the few pests that is of concern as it can infect an entire grove. They spray the grove with 100% natural kaolin clay which coats the leaves, protects the trees from infestation, does not affect the taste of the olives and is easily washed off. No pesticides of any kind are ever used by Temecula Olive Oil.
About the harvest:
- Harvesting olives (video) is done by hand from October through February. Thom explained that finding workers has become more and more difficult primarily because workers are now being paid higher wages to harvest cannabis in CA.
- Once harvested, the olives must be pressed within 6 hours, otherwise they begin to ferment. If the olives are allowed to ferment, the olive oil becomes “fusty” or rancid, ruining the flavor of the oil.
- Olive oil bottles should be labelled with the harvest or mill date, not the “best buy” date which is typically two years from the date it was bottled.
About pressing the oil:
- They use a one-of-a-kind, 100 percent stainless steel press which was designed specifically for them. Check out this video!
- They don’t use a stone mill because of concerns about rancidity that could be caused by the porous stones trapping the oil.
- The olives are poured into a large steel container where the mills rhythmically circle around and crush the olives into a tapenade-like mixture.
- They actually throw whatever they want to flavor the oil right into the press with the olives so their flavored olive oils are not considered fusions. For example, the Basil Oil crushes 20 pounds of fresh basil with 100 pounds of Olives. In the case of garlic oil, roasted garlic is used to prevent potential issues with botulism that would arise with fresh garlic.
- The pulp is sent through another machine that presses it out to workers who push it onto steel-mesh mats that are then stacked onto a press.
- Gravity works the oil out of the mash like teardrops, what Thom called “tears of gold.”
- Because the mixture still contains water, it’s fed into separators to remove the water and then the pure oil is stored.
About the oil:
- Many leading olive oil producers (overseas) wait until olives fall from trees where they will sit on the ground for several days. Eventually they will be picked up off the ground, the dirt and stones will be sifted out, but they may not be milled for up to a week or two later. By then, the olives have probably turned rancid.
- Spain is the biggest producer of olives. They sell the oil to Italy and other countries who may or may not mix in other bad oil, chemicals or other ingredients (even Canola oil).
- The U.S. does not have any standards that apply to imported olive oil. Other countries can label them however they want, even calling them extra virgin when they are not.
- America is widely known as the dumping ground of bad olive oil that no one else wants. We have become accustomed to the “fusty” or rancid oils and basically don’t know any better. See this article or this one. Now perhaps these articles are simply marketing ploys but when you taste a store bought oil next to one of these fresh ones, even we can tell there is a huge difference in flavor and taste.
- Olive oil should be stored in a colored bottle, not in a clear bottle which will cause it to oxidize and affect the taste. It should be used within a year.
About the tasting:
Now that our knowledge of olive trees had increased, it was time for the tasting. After grabbing a seat at the tasting bar, we eagerly awaited our first sample. A lot of tasting shops give you bread to dip into the oil but not here. Why? Because the bread will mask any off or “fusty” tastes, so instead the tasting is done using small plastic cups. Thom went on to explain that when they do tastings at the COOC, they use small blue glass cups so the tasters don’t get distracted by the color of the oil, it is more the aroma and taste that is important. Check out this video!
I don’t remember how many olive oils and vinegars we sampled but it was quite a few. Note all of these olive oils and vinegars that we tested can be found on their website. For olive oils, there was Olivum (they use a variety of olives, thus the name “olivum”) Reserve Late Harvest, Rotture di Oro (a Tuscan oil, the name is Italian for Tears of Gold) Olive Oil – Fall Harvest, Roasted Garlic Reserve, Fresh Basil, Picante Pepper with Jalapenos, Hickory Smoked Olive Oil (who needs bacon with this olive oil), Fresh Blood Orange Olive Oil and Just Dip It (for dunking bread) to name a few.
The sample of vinegars included Hatch Chili Balsamic Bianco, California Balsamico Bianco Oo La Pomegranate, California Balsamico Bianco with Fresh Apple, California Balsamico Bianco with Honey, and Vanilla & Fig Balsamic Vinegar.
As we sampled, we were told to leave a few drops of oil in the cup so balsamic vinegar could be added to the oil, then whirl it around to get the flavor of what it would taste like as a marinade or vinaigrette. As we tasted, Catherine shared a lot of information on how she uses the oils and vinegars in baking, on salads or on fish or chicken. OMG, our taste buds were truly in seventh heaven!
I guess seeing a bunch of adults (myself included) licking the inside of a little plastic cup trying to get every little drop was humorous but definitely proof of how impressed everyone was!
Quite a difference not only from the supermarket olive oil I typically buy but also from olive oils we have purchased from other olive oil shops and tasting bars. Guess nothing can compare to truly fresh olive oil.
Did our credit card find its way out of Rob’s wallet? Yep, you betcha! California Balsamico Bianco with Fresh Apple, Basil Olive Oil, an Olive Oil sampler pack (Olivum Reserve Late Harvest, Citrus Reserve Late Harvest and Roasted Garlic Reserve Late Harvest) and a Vinegar sampler pack (California Balsamico Bianco with Honey, Vanilla & Fig Balsamic Vinegar and California Balsamico Bianco Oo La Pomegranate) and a jar of blue cheese stuffed olives has now taken up residence in my pantry. We sure were a happy campers!
If you are ever in the area, we highly recommend this tour but if the timing doesn’t work out at least visit either the ranch or their tasting bar at their retail store!
Speaking of the retail store, being so impressed with their oil and vinegars, we couldn’t resist a visit to Old Town Temecula to visit the original Temecula Olive Oil Company retail store the day before our departure date.
In the tasting room (which is in the back), the sales person, Heather, who was excellent, helped us re-sample, making suggestions of what oil should be combined with what vinegar, how both could be used in cooking and even writing them down for us. Seemed strange to be sipping olive oil right after breakfast!
Once again we didn’t walk away empty handed (hmmm, wonder how that happened)! A couple of new bottles were added to my collection (Rotture di Oro Olive Oil, Picante Pepper with Jalapenos, Fresh Blood Orange and California Balsamico Bianco with Honey). I think we have enough olive oil and vinegar to last until we return to Temecula next December!
Though if I do run out, I was happy to learn that if you spend over $100 (5 bottles), you get free shipping. That’s a good deal! Otherwise the shipping cost would be $12.50 which still isn’t bad.
After sampling, we walked around Old Town Temecula for a bit. Below are some photos that we took during our walk. Such a cute town!