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.