Nearly a dozen small producers in Sonoma County mill olives onsite within hours of harvest into olio nuovo, or new oil, and backyard growers bring their olive harvest to custom mills at neighboring farms. The resulting oils are fresh, much higher in antioxidants, and deliver wildly complex flavors on the palate. Gold Ridge Organic Farms has 70 acres of olive trees in the rolling hills of Sebastopol and is the newest establishment to open their Tasting Salon to the public. A tour of the property is gifted with a 360 view of West Sonoma County and an educational guided tasting of their medicinal quality oils.
It’s the season for olio nuovo, the fresh-pressed olive oil that marks the start of the holiday season.
Olive oil is never better, never more compelling, than it is at the moment it first streams into the world, straight from the press. It is the purest expression of the olive, an elixir that delights with field-fresh flavors and a texture best described as both lean and rich.
This is olio nuovo, the new oil.
Olio nuovo is a treasure of early winter in Sonoma. It cannot be separated from its season and cannot be preserved, as its bold flavors begin to fade not long after pressing. The decline is subtle at first, but within a month or two, the new oil loses its unique spark and begins to mellow. By early spring, it will be a memory until the next vintage.
“When olive oil comes out of the funnel during pressing, there is always a feeling of renewal and exuberance. The vibrant green and gold hues, the fresh aromas, and the healthy vegetative and fruity flavors are intoxicating, full of the strength and health of the trees, only an hour removed,” says Brooke Hazen, who oversees 70 acres of olive trees at his Gold Ridge Organic Farms in the rolling hills southeast of Sebastopol.
Typically, quality olive oil rests in bulk for a few months after being pressed, a process that allows it to settle and become shelf-stable. Olio nuovo, in contrast, is bottled and released straight from the press, skipping the step during which the oil rests, allowing fresh, peppery, straight-from-the-tree flavors to shine. Until quite recently, only a handful of local growers, including Healdsburg’s DaVero and Petaluma’s McEvoy Ranch, celebrated a separate release of the new oil before the more widely available extra virgin olive oil came to market.
Sonoma County’s olive harvest begins around the time the grape harvest concludes, typically in late October or early November, and continues for several weeks. By the winter holidays, prized bottles of olio nuovo are available locally, many of them from small-scale, family-owned farms and olive mills. These days, there’s recognition that Sonoma County-grown olio nuovo holds its own alongside prized oils from Tuscany such as Ardoino, a favorite of olive oil pioneer Ridgely Evers at DaVero, and Poggio Lamentano, the favorite of renowned food writer M. F. K. Fisher.
“There is al ways a feeling of renewal and exuberance. The vibrant green and gold hues, the fresh aromas…full of the strength and health of the trees, only an hour removed.” ~ Brooke Hazen
Producer Stephen Singer of Baker Lane Vineyards likens olio nuovo to the elusive white truffle, another early-winter treasure. “The early vivid expression of olive oil doesn’t last long, nor does the flavor of the truffle,” he says. “Both are transitory, deeply seasonal, momentary, and ephemeral.” Singer, the former wine director at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, used to be in the business of importing premium olive oil from Tuscany. Now, settled in the hills outside Sebastopol, he makes wine and produces estate olive oil.
Growers say that to understand olio nuovo, it is essential to understand olive oil itself. The characteristic flavors of an olive’s oil are determined almost entirely by which type of olive tree the olive grows upon (over 2,000 types of trees exist). The trees must be properly tended and pruned, and farmers must choose the right moment to pick. The olives must be harvested gently, without stems and leaves, then transported as quickly as possible to the mill, before they begin to ferment. It is the job of the miller to press the oil out of the olive as gently as possible. Nearly all premium oils are made with olives processed and pressed within 24 hours of being harvested.
The best olive oils are made with a mix of green fruit and ripe fruit. Green fruit has the bitterness and peppery qualities considered essential; when olives ripen to purple-black, as they all eventually do, their oil takes on more buttery characteristics. The mix of both green and purple olives at different stages of ripeness creates the complexity of flavor that makes olive oil lovers wax poetic.
Six local mills serve the olive growers of Sonoma County. Recently, these mills have also become home to a new seasonal tradition: the community milling day. At one of these events, typically held in November or early December, anyone with an olive tree or two can be part of the magic of olio nuovo. Small-scale growers and backyard hobbyists bring their freshly-picked fruit—in buckets, bags, and bins—to the mill on the day of the press. After checking the olives for pests and for ripeness, the miller adds the fruit to the press to become part of a community blend. This is grassroots local food production at its best: Each grower gets back containers of the fresh-pressed oil in proportion to what they contributed. The more olives you bring, the more oil you receive.
Standing in the orchard, watching as olives are gently tugged from their slender stems, it all comes full circle—the care put into tending the trees, the flurry of harvest day, the quick rush to the press. After an hour or two of picking, you can smell on your hands the subtle aroma of the olive and the oil within— all peppery and grassy, the sunlight and rain together. “Olive oil is priceless,” says Ridgely Evers. “And it is sacred.”
Tasting Sonoma’s Olio Nuovo
There are nearly a dozen commercial olio nuovo producers in Sonoma County, plus hundreds of backyard growers who either do a custom milling for oil to share with friends and neighbors, or who bring their olives to community milling events.
Baker Lane Vineyards: Stephen Singer’s 2021 Occidental Blend is not labeled “olio nuovo,” but is available soon enough after pressing that it is a de facto nuovo, with vivid flavors of artichoke, new mown hay, and green apple. Online sales only. bakerlanevineyards.com
DaVero Farms & Winery: The benchmark estate olio nuovo is sassy and elegant, with complex bitter and pepper flavors—the signature liquid nirvana. It is available by appointment at the tasting room and online, from Thanksgiving through the end of the year. 766 Westside Rd., Healdsburg. 707431-8000, davero.com
Dry Creek Olive Company: A blend of olives from 100-year-old trees and newly-planted cultivars goes into a bright, herbaceous olio nuovo, available shortly after pressing and prior to the release of estate’s signature flavored olive oils. 7878 Dry Creek Rd., Geyserville. 707-431-7200, trattorefarms.com
Eyrie Olive Oil: This delicious Tuscan-style olio nuovo is available on Saturdays at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market, 50 Mark West Springs Rd., and at Lazzini’s Market, 3449 Bennett Valley Rd., Santa Rosa. Email email@example.com for information.
Figone Olive Oil Company: The group releases an olio nuovo blend of Spanish and Italian varieties. 483 First St. West, Sonoma. 707-282-9092, figoneoliveoil.com
Gold Ridge Organic Farms: Brooke Hazen offers four olio nuovos, each made from a different variety of olive, including Picholine, Minerva, Tuscan, and Arbequina. The varieties ripen in succession, not simultaneously, and all are picked a bit later in the season, producing oils with a voluptuous buttery texture. The olio nuovos are released in late December and available through February. 3387 Canfield Rd., Sebastopol. 707-8233110, goldridgeorganicfarms.com
McEvoy Ranch: This olio nuovo evokes the subtle flavors of winter greens – think cardoons, chicories, and dandelions – with a trail of peppery heat, a signature quality of the estate’s seven Tuscan cultivars. Available at the ranch store and online. 5935 Red Hill Rd., Petaluma. 707-7782307, mcevoyranch.com
Monte-Bellaria di California: Proprietor Bill MacElroy typically harvests his olives on the last Sunday of October. His olive oil is available within about 24 hours of pressing, and though it is not labeled as olio nuovo, that’s what it is. 3518 Bloomfield Rd., Sebastopol. 707829-2645, monte-bellaria.com
Olivino: Their olio nuovo is a blend of five Tuscan cultivars from a 2,500-tree orchard that straddles the border of Sonoma and Mendocino counties. It shows classic flavors of fresh grass, fruit, nuts, and pepper. It is released near Christmas and available until Easter. 14160 Mountain Home Rd., Hopland. 707744-1114, olivino.com
Preston Farm & Winery: Chaste Maiden Early Release Organic Olive Oil is a blend of ten Italian and Spanish cultivars. Even in its youth, it is a delicate oil, with a modicum of the peppery heat that defines many other oils. As it ages, the oil softens even more, and develops buttery characteristics, making it ideal for anyone who balks at “two cough” olive oils, as some people call robust olio nuovos. 9282 West Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, 707-433-3372, prestonfarmandwinery.com
The Olive Press: Their olio nuovo is made from the Spanish cultivar Arbequina, which has suggestions of newly-mown grass, artichoke, apple, and banana. 24724 Arnold Dr., Sonoma, 800-9654839, theolivepress.com
Community Milling Days
Community milling days are a special way to participate in the feel and flavors of olive oil production. Some mills require a minimum quantity, while others will take even just a hatful of olives. The mills will generally ask for a specific mix of ripeness in the olives and that participants pick their olives within 24 hours of the event.
They’ll also inspect the olives for signs of damage from the olive fruit fly. For additional information and requirements, please contact each mill directly.
Dry Creek Olive Company, Geyserville: Oct. 31, Nov. 21, Dec. 5. 5 pound minimum, $1 per pound. 707-431-7200, trattorefarms.com
Figone’s Olive Oil Co.: Saturdays and Sundays, Oct. 9-Dec. 12. 5 pound minimum, $1.12 per pound. 707-244-9148, figoneoliveoil.com
McEvoy Ranch, Petaluma: Nov. 14; register by Nov. 10. $1 per pound. 707-778-2307, mcevoyranch.com
Olivino, Hopland: Call for information. 707-744-1114, olivino.com
The Olive Press, Sonoma: Nov. 7 and Nov. 21. 800-965-4839, theolivepress.com
In Wine Country, the grape harvest ended in October, but another star of the table is waiting in the wings for its golden moment: the Italian, French and Spanish varieties of olives that will be harvested beginning this month, when the small green fruits begin to ripen and turn purple.
At Gold Ridge Organic Farms, founded in 2001 by farmer Brooke Hazen in the western hills above Sebastopol, the coastal fog and sun that slowly ripens the region’s chardonnay and pinot noir grapes also create the ideal growing conditions for 88 acres of organically farmed olives, apples, citrus and herbs.
Hazen, who has blanketed 70 acres of the estate with 13,000 olive trees, started building his own olive mill 10 years ago, featuring a state-of-the-art Rapanelli olive press from Italy, so he could have more control over the quality of his olive oil. The mill also helps support the farm by providing milling services for about 150 clients all over California, from the flatlands of the Central Valley to the hillsides of the North Bay.
“Pressing olives is a romantic thing,” Haven said. “With the amount of olives I have, it would be really expensive otherwise. … And our customers can bring from 50 pounds up to 50 tons to be custom milled.”
Like other olive oil producers in the North Bay, Hazen is gearing up for mid-November harvest of his own olive trees, which include Spanish varieties like Arbequina, Picual and Manzanilla as well as French varieties like Picholine and Italian varieties such as Frantoio, Leccino and Minerva.
“I look at when the first killing frosts are coming, generally around Christmas, so I usually start picking in mid-November,” he said. “We finish the olive harvest in four weeks, by mid-December.”
All the olives are milled on-site within hours of harvest for peak freshness and flavor, including healthy, antioxidant boosting polyphenols concentrated in the bitter flesh of the fruit.
His organic line of olive oils have already won gold and silver awards from the New York International Olive Oil Competition as well as from the California Olive Oil Council, a nonprofit trade group that supports certified extra-virgin olive oil standards.
Hazen credits the climate of Sonoma County for helping nurture the complex flavors in olive oils grown and made here in the cool coastal hills.
“People wonder why olive oils vary so much,” he said. “Yes, farming is involved, but climate is the biggest factor. … The oil here is very robust. The reason is the cool fog we get here in NorCal. The flavors and colors have a longer time to develop nuances and do not get cooked out.”
When he first started planting olives back in 2000, Hazen sourced his Italian olive varieties from McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, one of the North Bay’s revered pioneers of high-end Italian-style olive oil production.
“But I also have 21 varieties,” Hazen said. “I wanted to diversify with the French and Spanish blends.”
Gold Ridge Organic Farms grows and mills four of its own olive oil blends: the Tuscan, Picholine, Arbequina and Minerva blends, each a mixture of four to six varieties of olives.
In the kitchen, the Arbequina blend is mild and perfect for salad dressings and marinades. The Tuscan blend, a favorite among chefs, is ideal for cooking. Minerva, another Italian blend, starts out robust and pungent, with the highest polyphenol count, but it mellows over time. Foodies love it for its buttery mouthfeel. The Picholine blend made from French varieties is delicious right out of the bottle.
“My favorite Picholine is when it’s new,” Hazen said. “It’s rare to find.”
Recently, Hazen started milling his olives together with some of the citrus he grows at the farm, a method that originated in Abruzzo region of Italy that is known as Agrumato. They started with a refreshing Meyer Lemon Agrumato and a Mandarin-Kumquat Agrumato.
“This is the first year making them,” Hazen said. “It’s made with a pure process — pure fruit, the peel and the juice.”
For the past few years, Gold Ridge also has been diversifying with a line of value-added products made from the organic apples, olive oil and herbs grown at the farm.
Director of Business Operations Andrea Lederle joined the sales and marketing team a few years ago to help raise the profile of the farm, then Naomi Ansbergs joined to head up sales and marketing.
The farm, which also grows 12,000 apple trees on 15 acres, is producing a Gravenstein Apple Syrup in collaboration with well-known preservationist Merrilee Olson of Preserve Farm Kitchens in Petaluma. The syrup is expected to be ready in time for the holiday season.
Gold Ridge Organic Farms earned three Gold Awards and a Silver Award at the 2021 NYIOOC. The owner said organic production was the key to their success.
Gold Ridge Organic Farms is among the California producers leading the way in sustainable and organic olive oil production methods, despite the dominance of imports in the North American market.
At the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, the Northern California producer earned three Gold Awards and a Silver Award for all four of its entries.I was inspired by a great love affair with the grace and elegance of the olive tree. I believe it is the most beautiful of all crops to grow.- Brooke Hazen, owner, Gold Ridge Organic Farms
“It felt truly amazing [to receive these awards],” owner Brooke Hazen told Olive Oil Times. “We are so honored and grateful to receive such special appreciation for all of the hard work, time, dedication and determination that went into producing such exceptional olive oils.”
“Our harvest was excellent last year,” he added. “I was able to obtain 4,500 gallons for my four signature blends from my groves in Sebastopol.”
For Hazen, these awards further validate the authenticity of his brand and the hard work it takes to achieve a quality standard that is not easy to imitate.
Gold Ridge Organic Farms is located in northern California’s West Sonoma County. Sitting approximately 80 kilometers north of San Francisco, the city of Sebastopol is a near-perfect region for olive cultivation due to the optimal soil and ideal climate.
“Our farm sits 10 miles (16 kilometers) inland from the beautiful Sonoma Coast and the Pacific Ocean,” Hazen said. “The proximity to the ocean influences our climate and our soils and makes our oils unique and lively. Our growing season is long and cool, which contributes to the high polyphenol levels in our oils.”
Growing olives organically is a crucial component of Hazen’s vision. He believes that organic cultivation yields olives that are both healthier and more flavorful. He added that his organic farming practices help create olive oils rich in flavor, taste and antioxidants.
“I was inspired by a great love affair with the grace and elegance of the olive tree. I believe it is the most beautiful of all crops to grow,” Hazen said. “It started with planting and growing olive trees and naturally expanded into pressing the olives into olive oil.”
“Olives are planted once in their lifetime,” he added. “They are known as the ‘Grandparent Tree’ because they live for many generations… The trees can live for millennia.”
In the cool coastal environment of Sebastopol, Hazen usually begins harvesting his olives in mid-November and continues until Christmas.
However, even before the harvest begins, Hazen spends plenty of time among his trees. Ensuring they receive plenty of water, nutrients and pruning improves the quality of the fruit.
After harvesting, the olives are processed at an organic mill, which was built in 2001. Hazen installed an Italian Rapanelli press, which processes the olives within a few hours after harvesting.
Hazen and his team then craft their four carefully selected blends of Italian, French and Spanish varietals, of which the producers take great pride.
“Our four olive oil blends are also unique,” he said. Gold Ridge Organic Farms earned two Gold Awards for olive oils blended from Italian varieties.
The Tuscan Blend is crafted from mostly Frantoio and Leccino olives, with a small amount of Maurino and Pendolino cultivars as well. Meanwhile, the Minerva Blend is made from Minerva, Frantoio and Maurino olives with a touch of Cerasoula and Ladoelia.
Hazen and his team also earned a Gold Award for a medium Piccholine blend, which contains Aglandau, Bouteillian, Solonenque, Grossane and Cayon olives. The producers won a Silver Award for a medium Arbequina blend, comprising Empeltre, Leccin de Seville, Hojiblanca, Picual and Manzanilla olives.
Certification is an important part of this process, and all of the company’s olive oils are certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers and extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council.
Hazen said his products stand apart from competitors as a result of a methodical production process, uniquely crafted blends and quality certifications.
Despite all the work that Hazen and his team put into each harvest, the producer sees the California olive oil sector as being prone to market trends and consumer behavior like any other industry.
According to Hazen, the availability of cheap and low-quality imported olive oils is the biggest challenge faced by the industry.
“Cheap imported oils have flooded the market, driven down prices and confused the consumers,” he said. “Most consumers have no idea what healthy fresh olive oil actually should taste and look like.”
“The Californian olive oil industry has been making attempts to change this through legal channels and lobbying,” he added.
However, Hazen said his awards from the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition go a long way in demonstrating to consumers what differentiates high-quality extra virgin olive oil from the rest of the pack.
“Our team is grateful for the recognition of quality,” Hazen concluded. “Farming is a difficult journey with many long days invested into raising the fruit. So, the acknowledgment feels good.”