Séka Hills extra virgin arbequina olive oil is nutty and peppery, with an essence of ancestral homeland.
Produced since 2011 by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation – the tribe behind Cache Creek Casino Resort – this premium olive is available at the Sacramento region’s Corti Brothers, Taylor’s and Nugget markets. A hit with chefs, Séka Hills oil also goes into dishes at Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse and San Francisco’s acclaimed Tosca and Foreign Cinema restaurants.
One of Sacramento’s best new restaurants, Hawks Public House, deepens the flavor and cuts the acidity of its lemon sorbet with Séka Hills’ arbequina.
For those who don’t read restaurant menus’ fine print, there are more prominent signs of the Yocha Dehe’s growing agricultural operation and restored connection to its historical homeland in western Yolo County’s Capay Valley. Like the Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room, a large, barn-style structure just off Highway 16 and past the casino. The mill, which processes its own and other growers’ olives, opened in 2012. Last year, the tribe added a country-elegant tasting room, attached to the mill, that holds a reclaimed-barn-wood floor and offers sample portions of Séka Hills olive oil and wine.
In the past dozen years or so, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation has increased land holdings in the agriculture-rich Capay Valley, where rolling hills and the coastal mountain range beyond provide a dramatic backdrop for rows of olive and almond trees, from 1,000 to 14,000 acres, said Jim Etters, the tribe’s director of land management.
Those man-made orchards were not there 300 years ago, but the Yocha Dehe were, hunting and gathering in the valley and in those green hills, which in certain lights can look blue, or “séka” in the tribe’s native Patwin language.
1,500acres in active production of crops
Relegated by the U.S. government to a barren part of the valley in the early 1900s, the Yocha Dehe lobbied for and won relocation in 1940 to the more fertile Brooks. But large-scale farming operations were not possible for the small tribe (it now numbers around 100 people, Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation tribal secretary James Kinter said) before Indian gaming took hold. The tribe started with a bingo hall in 1985, and in 2004 opened the $200 million Cache Creek casino and hotel.
“Our history is one that we were kind of in the way,” Kinter said. “When we were on the farming land in the beginning, we were moved out of the way. With the economic engine we have, we are able to give our people a better living, and provide education and health care.”
The tribal citizens’ welfare inspired the first acquisitions of neighboring farms, Kinter said.
“It was really just to give us a buffer from getting over-sprayed (by pesticides) and things like that. … We acquired these lands, they were farm lands – obviously, we live in a farming, agricultural area – and so (farming) is just kind of a natural progression.”
For the first few years, the tribe relied on existing tenant farmers to tend the land. But Etters urged the tribe to bring operations in-house, to ensure better efficiency and that good care be taken of the tribe’s ancestral homelands. It did so in 2006.
“When you’ve got a tenant farmer on your land who may be on a year-to-year lease, they may not care for the lands in the way the tribe wants the lands cared for,” Etters said during a tour, by pickup, of some of the tribe’s farm and range land, which runs (non-continuously) from just south of Esparto to the Yolo-Colusa county line. “A grower in a situation like that tends to take what they can from the land without putting a whole lot back.”
Most of the tribe’s acreage is range land roamed by its 500 head of cattle. (The government holds 1,120 acres in trust, 850 of which are being used for farming and grazing). The tribe has 1,500 acres in active production of crops including olives, wine grapes, almonds, walnuts and asparagus, with 250 of those acres devoted to organic farming.
We want to make sure the land is taken care of long term
Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation tribal secretary James Kinter
The olives are grown conventionally, but as with all the crops, with sustainability always in mind, Etters said. The operation uses beneficial insects, cover crops, mulching and drip systems. The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation’s desire to protect its land seems to dovetail with the sensibilities of neighbors such as Capay Organic and Riverdog Farm.
“A lot of people in the valley have been committed to organic and sustainable practices for a long time,” Etters said. Capay Organic markets the tribe’s organic produce. Riverdog is still a Yocha Deche tenant, growing some of its organic crops on land leased from the tribe.
What is becoming the tribe’s signature product, its olive oil, began with the acquisition several years ago of “pasture land, with a kind of undulating terrain and limited water” near the town of Guinda, Etters said. The soil type, climate and water supply lent themselves to olives, he said while surveying one section of the 82 acres of high-density arbequina trees that resulted.
Yolo County already had boutique olive oil producers taking advantage of what Etters calls the Capay Valley’s “perfect Mediterranean climate.” Olive oil looked like a growth market, he said.
What was verdant during the Etters-guided tour in April will turn gold and brown as temperatures heat up in the valley. The arbequina trees that in April held buds yet to flower will yield fruit, at harvest time in October, that has benefited from 100-degree days in July and August. “The heat intensifies flavor,” Etters said.
Preserving that flavor means milling olives within 24 hours of when they come off the trees. “Ideally, it’s 12 hours, depending on weather conditions,” Etters said. “Having your groves in close proximity to the mill is important for that.”
Rather than lose time by trucking its olives elsewhere, the tribe built its own olive mill, a complex operation involving a “hammer mill,” networks of pipes and the fruit being turned, pit and all, into a paste before paste and oil are separated.
Etters would not reveal the cost of the mill, and tribe representatives did not supply olive oil sales figures. But they did provide some production numbers. Last fall, the mill processed 55,000 gallons of oil, 45,000 of which carries the Séka Hills name (the tribe grows some of its Séka Hills olives on nearby land it does not own).
The other 10,000 gallons were produced for growers unaffiliated with the tribe, Etters said, some from as far away as Live Oak and Sonoma County.
“We really had two goals with the Séka Hills (mill),” Etters said. “The first obviously to produce super high quality oil from our own fruit. The second is making the facility available to other local growers for their processing.”
The olives are grown conventionally but with sustainability in mind
Each year since it started producing, Séka Hills has sold out of its olive oil by the time of the next harvest. The 28,000 gallons produced in fall 2014 were gone by last year.
Etters attributes part of the oil’s success to its pricing. “It may be cliché, but we always wanted to offer a quality product at a reasonable price,” Etters said. “We’re not the $30 boutique oil. We are somewhere in the middle.”
At Corti Brothers, a 500-ml bottle of Séka Hills arbequina runs $14.99 – $2 more than a same-size bottle of olive oil from fellow Yolo County grower Bariani and $12 less than a 375-ml bottle of organic oil from Petaluma’s McEvoy Ranch.
The secret to Séka Hills oil’s popularity with chefs might lie in its versatility. Hawks Public House, which features the oil in its lemon sorbet, also uses it to finish pastas, in some vinaigrettes and in “some sauté work,” chef Justin Green said. “It is a really delicate oil, and it is very universal. It has a well-rounded flavor. It is buttery, grassy and peppery.”
In Séka Hills tasting room, one can taste the arbequina as well as oils made from taggiasca and picual olives. Or try wines made from tribe-owned vineyards, or Séka Hills’ highly floral-tasting local honey, which pairs well with the bleu cheese included on a charcuterie plate available on the tasting-room’s deli menu. That menu, designed by tribal executive chef Casey Willard, also includes sandwiches and salads made with local ingredients, including, on our visit, beef from tribe-raised cattle. That beef also is for sale, at the tasting room, in jerky form.
The ranch and farm enterprises still compose a small part of the tribe’s business operation. The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation recently announced plans to add 377 hotel rooms to the mainstay of that operation, Cache Creek Casino Resort.
But the tribe also plans to increase its olive oil acreage in the near future. It is as intent on making “Séka Hills” as recognizable a brand name to gourmands as “Cache Creek” is to gamblers.
“We will continue to grow it,” Kinter said of the tribe’s farm and ranch operations. And do it sustainably.
“We want to take care of the land out here,” he said. “Our trust land is here, and we want to make sure the land is taken care of long term, for the future generations coming down the road. We are not in it to turn a quick buck. We are long-term investors.”
Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room
Where: 19326 County Road 78, Brooks
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Information: www.sekahills.com, 530-796-2810