Winters olive oil producer Karen Bond was puzzled about why she was getting a call from the California State Fair, but she picked up the line and received one of the best surprises of her life: Her estate extra-virgin olive oil, Bondolio, had won best of show in the California Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition.
“I knew they didn’t normally call people if they won a gold medal or a silver medal or anything like that,” Bond said Thursday. “The caller said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve won best of show.’ I was in disbelief, and I was so proud and so excited. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband.”
Karen and her husband, Malcolm Bond, had never entered the California State Fair competition, which started in 2015. Their extra-virgin oil had racked up gold ribbons at long-running contests such as the New York and L.A. international competitions. It also had won the highest honor at the Yolo and Napa county events.
The Bonds bought their farm in 1986 but didn’t plant their olive trees until 2006. The property had almond trees on it when they acquired it, and they tried unsuccessfully for years to make a healthy profit off them. Karen Bond talked with me about the property back in 2014 for an article about the fast-growing medical technology company she founded with her husband, Davis-based Cedaron.
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“We would farm the almonds and sell them to Blue Diamond,” Bond said at the time, “But we were lucky if we could make $200 or $300 a year on those almonds. We spent thousands of dollars to take care of them, harvest them. … The trees were planted in 1947, and they weren’t producing.”
They began to consider planting olive trees because Bond loved cooking, and she loved the taste and health benefits of olive oil. They spent two years tasting olive oils in Italy to decide which varieties to plant.
“My husband would buy all these bottles of olive oils with the names of the olive oils on the bottles,” Bond said Thursday. “We put them in brown paper bags, and I would taste them. I’d say, ‘Oh, I like that one. Oh, I like that one.’ We kept on doing that for a couple of years until it turned out that it was all the same olives that I liked, and they were all from Sicily.”
They couldn’t find a U.S. supplier for any of the olives they wanted to grow – biancolilla, cerasuola and nocellara – so they had to import them. That was no mean feat.
“We found a grower and we paid for the olive trees,” Bond said. “They are not allowed to come into the U.S. with any soil on the roots. They are normally packed in vermiculite, and they are grown hydroponically. ... When they arrived, we were called to the agricultural department. We had to go to some clean rooms, and they showed us that soil was on them. They opened up the incinerator and threw our trees into the incinerator.”
Heartbroken but still determined, the Bonds gave it another try. The second grower did everything right, but the trees arrived in the United States on Christmas Eve, just ahead of a three-day federal holiday. Bond said she and her husband frantically worked with U.S. agricultural and food regulators to get their 2-inch seedlings through customs and regulatory inspections to avoid a potentially devastating delay.
“Lufthansa’s plane landed about 2, and of course, the agriculture department and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) were going to close at the San Francisco Airport at 5. … We’re going, ‘Hope Lufthansa gets them there before it’s closed.’ Lufthansa sent them over at like 4:30 p.m. We were able to clear them through Customs, and our whole family was coming (Christmas Day) to help us plant them in little tiny pots in the greenhouse. You have to quarantine them for two years, any time you import any plants.”
It isn’t only judges who have agreed with Bond’s choice of olive varieties. The Bonds typically sell out of their latest pressing of Bondolio by August or September every year. They set aside a couple of cases of their artisanal oil to sell at a year-end open house.
Those bottles sell at half the retail price, said Bond, noting that many working-class families can’t afford a 500-milliliter bottle. Each one costs $35. They’re sold at Corti Brothers in East Sacramento, the Davis Food Co-op, RootStock Gifts in Winters and online at www.bondolio.com. The Bonds also offer tours and tastings of their farm by appointment on their website, and they sell the extra-virgin oil on site.
The couple will sell their extra-virgin oil each Saturday and the final Sunday at the State Fair. Other locals receiving State Fair awards include: Lodi’s Calivirgin Lusty Lemon Olive Oil (best of show flavored oil); Oregon House’s Apollo Olive Oil Mistral and Sierra Organic; Dunnigan’s Buckeye Creek Tuscan Blend, Frantoio and Coratina; Capay Valley Ranches‘ Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki; and Davis’ Grumpy Goats Farm Organic Coratina and Organic Picual.
The award-winning olive oils will be featured and at the fair, which runs July 14-30, and at the Best of California Tasting Event on June 22 at Cal Expo.
When Bond called her husband to tell him about the State Fair win, she said, he almost cried.
“I’m almost crying now,” she said, her voice breaking. “It was a long journey. All we wanted to do was make the best olive oil that we could make.”