Is Olive-Oil Tasting the Next Big (Local) Thing?


“What’s the next big plant-based product — crafted from fresh Northern California fruit — set to be adored at tasting-parties where trendsters compare varietals, finding floral notes here and nutty notes there?

Not wine. Not anymore. And neither tea leaves, coffee beans, nor cacao beans grow here.

It’s slick. It’s smooth. It’s straw-gold or jade-green or some hue in between.

It’s olive oil.”

The Definition of Ripe


“Americans don’t know what real olive oil is supposed to smell or taste like,” says Tom Cortopassi, Senior Managing Parter of Lodi, California’s Corto Olive Co., which has devised a system to harvest and process olives in a matter of minutes, for maximum freshness. “They’re being sold rancid oil and so that’s what they’ve come to think olive oil is supposed to taste like.”

Corto, along with a handful of other olive growers in California, has abandoned the old-fashioned traditional method of shaking ripe purple olives off full-size trees before scooping them up from the ground; instead, they now plant their olive trees in perfectly straight rows and trim them so they’re small enough to be enveloped entirely by specially-adapted grape-harvesting machines which can knock loose the stubborn green olives directly into the collection bins. From there they are driven straight to the oil mill where within an hour they’ve already been crushed and processed into hyper-fresh green oil.

David Garci-Aguirre is the olive miller in charge of Corto’s futuristic processing line, but he takes time out to help explain his next-generation product: “Antioxidants produce a peppery note which, when you’re tasting fresh olive oil, can make you cough. That’s how you know it’s good. Most olives worldwide are harvested when they’re overripe. If you’re consuming oxidized or fermented oil, you’re drinking oil that’s lost its freshness, its flavor and most of its health benefits.”

Testing Reveals European Olive Oil Fraud in Germany

It makes us mad that the European olive oil industry is so deeply corrupt. One just has to regularly check European news reports for plenty of examples of ongoing olive oil fraud.

As of 2/1/2015, Olive Oil Times relayed European news that a consumer watchdog group testing the quality of European olive oils being sold to German consumers as “extra virgin” has recently found 50% to be fake (substandard).

Additionally, the consumer group reported that 5 of the 26 samples “were highly polluted with mineral oil hydrocarbons” and that 20 in 26 contained measurable pesticide residue.

A nutrition expert from the German consumer organization was quoted saying: “Olive oil is probably the most frequently manipulated agricultural product. It is almost impossible for consumers to know what’s in the bottle. Olive oil at the moment has an image problem. That’s unfortunate because it’s actually a very healthy and tasty food.’”

The reason that fraud is even worse among imported European olive oils in America is that the US government (FDA) does not regularly test olive oil quality. Some experts estimate that as much as 80% of imported “extra virgin” olive oil in America is fake (substandard and/or adulterated).

This latest case from Europe is another reminder of why American buyers simply cannot trust European olive oils to be what their labels claim.

Corrupt European Industry Pushes to “Decriminalize” Olive Oil FRAUD

Following huge back-to-back European olive oil scandals in November and December, Italy’s Agricultural Ministry surprised consumer advocates and olive growers by proposing legislation aimed at decriminalizing olive oil fraud altogether. According to the Olive Oil Times, Italian olive growers responded with angry protests.

Earlier news reports from European newspapers Teatro Naturale and Il Primato Nazionale outlined the thinly-veiled Industry proposal as follows:

  • Jail time would be replaced by a civil fee up to $10,000.
  • Paying civil fees would give violators immunity from further prosecution.
  • One agency would be responsible for all fraud investigation/civil fee collection.
  • Other law enforcement agencies would be legally prohibited from investigating or publicly reporting olive oil fraud.

It is hard to imagine this legislation passing. What is most disturbing is that this very real proposal was made by government officials who are responsible for protecting olive oil quality. The fact that they would respond to fraud by proposing it be decriminalized demonstrates who they must really be working for.

(Hint: Foxes are guarding the henhouse!)

This latest news provides another reminder why American buyers cannot trust imported European olive oils to be what their labels claim.

Olive Oil Times article “Decree to ‘Decriminalize’ Olive Oil…”

Flavor Robbing Air

Why did CORTO choose Bag-in-Box packaging over tins and jugs?
In authentic Italian cooking, the role of olive oil is to enhance the flavor and aroma of the foods it accompanies. That’s why Corto insists on harvesting our fresh olives at green-ripe flavor maturity, rushing them to our mill, and immediately protecting the fresh oil from flavor-robbing heat, light, and air.

To keep our oil tasting its freshest, we store it in tall stainless steel casks within our climate controlled cellar where it remains a constant 65°F year round. We top the inside of each cask with nitrogen gas (the biggest component of breathable air) to chase out flavor-damaging oxygen.
Then, only after we receive a restaurant distributor’s order, do we actually package our oil “just in time” to complete the shipment. As we fill and seal the containers, we add another shot of nitrogen to keep air at bay.

Choosing the right container for the job.
We work so hard to maximizing fresh-olive flavor on our end, we wanted to find a container that would keep protecting our oil’s flavor after it is opened on the customer’s end.
This is important because restaurateurs typically use olive oil in smaller portions as needed, leaving the remainder stored in the container in which it came.

The problem with conventional jugs and tins is that whenever they let oil out, they let an equal amount of air in. Air exposure is compounded if the container is punctured (to allow faster pouring) or left uncapped.

Keeping air out and flavor in.
What make’s Corto’s Bag-in-Box unique is the pushbutton tap which keeps air from re-entering the container when oil is removed. (Unlike rigid-walled containers, the bag inside the box collapses over time.)

The tap’s location at the bottom edge of the box also allows chefs to easily dispense oil from a counter or shelf without having to lift the entire container.

The Dream of Corto Olive Oil

Once Dino Cortopassi figured out how growing olives in tight vineyard-style rows and harvesting them with modified grape harvesters would produce extremely fresh tasting consistent olive oil he had to decide whether the risk of starting a brand new company in California to grow and mill ultra premium olive oil was worth it.

On the one hand, for years, European producers had been flooding the American market with substandard olive oil falsely labeled as extra virgin at impossibly low prices.

On the other hand, he saw the popularity of premium tomato products made by his other company, Stanislaus Food Products, appreciated by America’s best independent Italian restaurants and pizzerias. Dino was convinced that, when properly educated, plenty of restaurateurs were willing to pay more for premium ingredients which made their food taste dramatically better.

As a result, he resolved to build a state-of-the-art mill capable of milling and protecting truly ultra-premium quality olive oil. Combined with New World vineyard-style planting and harvesting, the dream of Corto was born!

Making Extra Fresh Olive Oil

During harvest, truckloads of fresh olives arrive at Corto’s high tech mill, from trees in our vineyard style groves. They’ve been picked at the perfect time and are uniformly green-ripe. Extra bits of leaf or twig are removed. The fresh olives are ground into a paste and then go into a malaxer, where the fresh paste is gently mixed, to encourage juice to bloom and separate from the olive pulp. The mill is filled with an incredible aroma, much like when you drizzle extra virgin olive oil over a warm pizza!

Out of the malaxer comes fresh olive juice. (Brady likes to remind us that olive oil is the only oil made from fresh fruit juice.) This juice is separated again: this time it’s the oil separating from the fruit waters and we now have very fresh, high quality extra virgin olive oil.

The oil is immediately stored in our tall stainless steel casks, which protect against damaging heat, light and air. The tanks are nitrogen topped, so no oxygen can get to the oil. Our cellars are cool and temperature controlled. The bottoms of our casks are conical, so any solids left after the separating can settle and are easily removed from the pure high quality oil without reintroducing light or air. [Video of the process.]

Here our fresh olive oil stays, safe and sound, until someone in our family of Italian restauranteurs places an order with their distributor. Grazie!

Harvesting Very Fresh Olives

When Amerigo Cortopassi came to California from Lucca, Italy in the 1920s, olive oil imported from Europe came from groves with large olive trees spaced far apart. Back then, contadini families would still climb ladders into the trees to pick only the freshest green-ripe olives by hand. By making olive oil from only the freshest tasting olives, imported olive oil in Amerigo’s day tasted like fresh, green-ripe olives.

With the changing times, mechanization of harvests became an economic necessity, and this practice came to the olive grove. Mechanical tree shaking replaced the contadini, and olives needed to turn black and become overripe so their stems were weak enough to allow the olives to fall out of the tree. Once on the ground, the overripe and bruised fruit would be collected to make into olive oil. Since old, black, overripe olives don’t taste fresh, their oil doesn’t either.

By the time Dino Cortopassi was a young man, this was the kind of oil that was imported into the United States. As a cook, Dino had long thought about how to improve olive oil. As a farmer and grape grower he realized that if olive trees could be planted close together like wine grapes they could be harvested at the optimal green-ripe stage using modified grape harvesters. The result would be extremely flavorful, extremely consistent olive oil as good as the best hand-picked olive oil produced in Amerigo’s day. Video: Why Can’t European Mechanical “Tree Shaking” Harvest Green-Ripe Olives?

In order to use modified grape harvesters which move over the top of olive trees, we keep our trees pruned to a height of 9 feet and in a way that the maximum amount of olives get the same amount of fresh air and sunlight. This technique allows the olives to ripen evenly and we can pick them at the perfect moment.

Today, in our family’s groves, we make one trip down each very straight vineyard style row and remove the olives from every tree with a gentle shaking motion. The olives go from the tree to the truck, never touching the ground, and never waiting to be picked up.

Cousin Ray is in the groves, constantly in contact with Master Miller David, and they keep the truckloads of fresh olives going to the mill 24/7. The large harvesters have lights and it’s thrilling to see them moving through rows in the moonlight. Once the trucks are full, they are off to our family’s state of the art mill and the milling process begins.

The Freshest Olives Make the Freshest Oil

To capture maximum fresh-olive flavor, cousin Ray harvests them at peak green-ripe maturity, row by row, “just in time” to keep up with demand from the mill. By minimizing time between harvest and pressing, we get fresher tasting oil. This requires constant communication between the farmer in the grove and the crew running the mill.

The reason for pressing the olives quickly after picking is simple. In nature, the olive’s end game is to sprout and grow into another tree, ensuring propagation of its species. So like all fruit, once the olives are picked, they naturally soften and eventually begin fermenting, which helps release nutrients beneficial to helping the pit (seed) sprout into a seedling.

After picking, the longer the fruit is allowed to break down, the more the tiny droplets of oil trapped within the fruit also change flavor. In short, the freshest olives make the freshest oil.

It is true that from an efficiency standpoint, it would be cheaper and easier to keep lots of truckloads of picked olives at the mill waiting to be processed. But that would defeat our purpose in maximizing fresh-olive flavor from our emerald green-ripe fresh picked fruit.

Tasting the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Corto Master Miller David brings in oils from all over the world for our monthly tastings. Some are excellent, some have flaws. Some are labeled “extra virgin” when they are actually “lampante” grade, so defective in flavor and aroma that the oil is only fit for use in lamps! We taste them all, the good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s distressing how much ugly is out there.

The UC Davis Olive Center released a report in 2011 in which they tested the best selling imported olive oil brands found in California grocery stores. They found that 69% of these imported brands, the ones we all grew up with and know by name, failed the international extra virgin standard.

In fact, so much inferior quality olive oil is sold to consumers labeled as “Extra Virgin,” that some have never tasted the real thing. But luckily for us, there is a growing movement, especially among foodies, to help educate others about what great, fresh-tasting olive oil really tastes like!

As David says, high quality olive oil worthy of the extra virgin designation tastes extremely fresh, with a crisp flavor and a noticeable boldness. Imposters taste bland or hollow, a result of having been stretched with colorless, flavorless (and really cheap) refined or deodorized olive oil. That is why one sure sign of fake extra virgin olive oil is a price too cheap to be true.

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