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Striking Oil

Local olive growers unite to sell our olive oil to the world

By David Templeton

A BURST OF MIDMORNING light illuminates the high-beamed, sawdust-strewn, construction-site interior of a 100-year-old former winery in downtown Glen Ellen. At first glance, one would think that this was little more than another wine country gift shop­to­be. Then Ed Stolman arrives.

Within seconds, as he colorfully describes what he's been up to here on the edge of Jack London State Park, Stolman has all but transported us--and the building site, too--across the sea to the hillsides of Italy, to one of many tiny villages where each family has its own orchard of 500-year-old olive trees, and each village has its fiantoio, the communal olive oil press to which farmers bring their crops each autumn.

"Our press is on the boat now, literally, and by Thanksgiving, Sonoma County will have its own fiantoio," Stolman enthuses. He unrolls a sheaf of architectural plans, then points to a 1,200-square-foot room in the back. "It will be set up right in there, with big picture windows so everyone can watch the olives being pressed. We pour the concrete tomorrow."

The project, simply called the Glen Ellen Olive Press, is Stolman's fanciful brainchild, supported by a cooperative of 14 local business people, all olive growers, eight of them already with their own labels, all with the same notion: to give California olive oil--and Sonoma County olive oil in particular--the same worldwide prestige enjoyed by the local wine industry.

"We'd like to raise the interest level of people in this country to the goodness and health benefits of good, organic olive oil," says Stolman. "Local makers of olive oil have a product every bit as good as that from Italy or Spain, and we hope to encourage growers here to plant more olives, to expand the industry. Now," he adds, glancing about the spacious site, "we'll finally have a press right here in the county. The rest will take care of itself."

A retired businessman (he founded the Dove Bar), Stolman relocated to Glen Ellen a few years ago, building an elaborate Italianate villa complete with a grove of 1,400 olive trees flown over from Tuscany. In short order, he discovered that Sonoma County has its own thriving olive oil industry. Relatively small, most of these entities are wineries that happened to have olive trees on-site and are just beginning to explore the possibilities of making fine olive oil. With this enterprise still in its infancy, this county is the home of some of the country's premier extra-virgin olive oil makers--B. R. Cohn, V. G. Buck, and Spectrum Naturals among them.

After a fact-finding trip to Europe, Stolman and some of the other local olive growers hatched their plan for the Glen Ellen Olive Press. Along with the $200,000 state-of-the-art cold press, manufactured by Pieralisi in Gesi, Italy, the prominent site at one end of Jack London Village will feature a gift shop devoted to olive-themed items ("including the ultimate martini glass," Stolman grins), a mini-hardware store for growers of olives, and a tasting bar where tourists and curious locals will educate their palates while sipping olive oil, a common custom in most olive-producing countries.

Other local brands of this liquid gold--available, of course, along with the Olive Press' own brand--will be offered in attractive glass bottles or sold by the ounce.

"If they really like it they can bring in a plastic bucket and we'll fill it up for them," Stolman says of his prospective customers. He estimates that the press will attract an astounding 100,000 visitors a year to Glen Ellen, while providing a place for local growers to process their crops, which have previously been sent as near and far as Marin and Modesto to be pressed. "If someone has two trees in their backyard, they can bring the olives in here and we'll process the oil," Stolman says.

"The press fits in beautifully with the local economy and agriculture," says Neil Blomquist, president of the Petaluma-based Spectrum Naturals, an oil import/export firm that is one of the largest bottlers of certified organic extra-virgin olive oil in Sonoma County. For two years the 15-year-old company has produced a California-grown olive oil, tapping into the upper Sacramento Valley for its olives, since local growers still produce a quantity far below the international exporters' needs.

"We have the right climate and geology," Blomquist points out. "The soil is similar to that of the best olive-producing areas of Europe. Local farmers could produce virtually any olive they grow overseas. As the local industry expands, we will see more and more locally produced brands. That's good for the entire California industry."

"There really aren't that many olive trees in Northern California yet," allows Stolman, concluding his tour of the location. "But people are beginning to put in the bigger crops." He lists just a few: Jordan Winery has just planted 8,000 trees, San Francisco Chronicle heiress Nan McAvoy has planted another 8,000 outside of Petaluma, and Glen Ellen Olive Press investor Ridgley Evers has planted 4,000 trees in Healdsburg.

Even so, olive trees grow slowly, taking three to five years to begin producing, and up to 12 years to reach full potential. "Meanwhile," Stolman smiles, "visitors from around the country will be discovering us. They'll take our fine olive oil home, and word will spread. And we will be here, showing off our product while trying to make it easy for people to get into the olive business." He glances around the site and begins to roll up the plans. "This is the fun part."

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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