November 29, 2006
Olive Oil: Tomorrow's Wine

Ten small blue cups, each holding a different olive oil, were arranged before each of the eight participants in a tasting at the home of Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti. Four of the oils were pressed from the same batch of olives, but by four different mills, showing the dramatic impact that assorted technology can have on the final product.

Each of the other six oils was made from a different variety of olive, all processed by a revolutionary new mill that's been installed at Apollo Olive Oil of Oregon House. One goal of the new mill is to help retain more of the healthful polyphenols - antioxidants - found in olive oil and credited for its rising popularity.

What struck me, however, was how varied in flavor, texture and weight each of the six Apollo oils were. The oil from the olive variety pendolino was leafy and floral in smell, complex and smooth on the palate. The moraiolo was fresh, spicy and complex. The oil from the Spanish variety picual appeared to be the overall favorite, smelling and tasting fruity, pungent and kind of limey. All were experiments, not yet intended to be marketed.

Most olive oils are blends of two or more varieties of olives, but that's changing, with more varietal oils showing up on grocery-store shelves. Another participant in the tasting, Florentine olive-oil expert Marco Mugelli, who was instrumental in developing the new mill at Apollo, one of just four in the world, said that in the future all great olive oils will be mono-varietals. What's more, two principals of Apollo, Steven Dambeck and Gianni Stefanini, said they expect to start releasing small-batch varietal olive oils from either their current harvest or the next.

You can see where olive oil is headed. It will be tomorrow's wine. Critics will start grading it on a 100-point scale. Consumers will start debating the merits of this varietal and that, eventually settling on one as their favorite. Hosts will be throwing olive-oil tasting parties. Vintages will be crucial. And culinary magazines will be running articles suggesting that one kind of olive oil be showered on salad, another on fish.

We'll weigh in first: The pendolino was superb with the pasta, perking it up with just the right note of fresh fruitiness. Both the moraiolo and the picual were splendid with the swordfish. I'm not sure what the future will hold for California olive oil, but it looks like it will be fun.

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