Cathie Anderson

State Fair seal helps consumers find extra-virgin oils that are worth the price

David Neilson, left, and his daughter April Donald prepare a light lunch with Neilson’s olive oil at Neilson Ranch in Dunnigan last Friday. David and Sheri Neilson run Neilson Ranch, where they grow olives for their award-winning Buckeye Creek Farms olive oil. Their frantoio blend recently won best of division in the delicate blend category of the newly instituted California State Fair contest. Their coratina won silver.
David Neilson, left, and his daughter April Donald prepare a light lunch with Neilson’s olive oil at Neilson Ranch in Dunnigan last Friday. David and Sheri Neilson run Neilson Ranch, where they grow olives for their award-winning Buckeye Creek Farms olive oil. Their frantoio blend recently won best of division in the delicate blend category of the newly instituted California State Fair contest. Their coratina won silver. rbenton@sacbee.com

The Sacramento region’s artisanal olive oil producers are betting that a new competition at the California State Fair will further distinguish the quality of their extra-virgin products from the mass-produced oil that consumers can get for half the price at supermarkets.

At Neilson Ranch in Dunnigan, David and Sheri Neilson currently produce only 200 gallons of their Buckeye Creek Farms extra-virgin olive oil a year. Their trees are young, but even when they mature, David Neilson predicts that they will probably mill only 500 or 600 gallons.

Each olive is hand-picked late in the season, Neilson said, and they transport them over to the Séka Hills olive mill in the Capay Valley. Their frantoio won gold and best of division in the delicate blend category. Their coratina received a silver medal. Each 375-milliliter bottle sells for $19.

“Hopefully, validation through a tasting panel is going to be a plus,” Neilson said. “The fair officials give you a little seal to put on the bottle so that when it’s on the shelf, there’s a reason for somebody to consider it. Heck, if you went into a store, and there’s my oil at $19, and there’s another one there for $12 or $14, you wouldn’t buy it unless you knew something about it.”

The Neilsons and olive-oil consultant Alexandra Devarrenne, the chief judge for the State Fair competition, said that consistent wins at competitions have really become a way that producers can assure the consumer that they are getting extra-virgin olive oil that is worth the price. Buckeye Creek also won a gold medal for its coratina and a bronze for its frantoio in the Los Angeles International Olive Oil Competition.

Many of the State Fair’s medal winners also had received honors in the prestigious international competitions in Los Angeles and New York. Oregon House’s Apollo Olive Oil, for instance, produces a medium-blend mistral blend that won best of class in Los Angeles, New York and the State Fair. Judges in L.A. awarded Stockton-based Bozzano Olive Ranch a gold medal and best of class for its medium Dewey’s Manzanillo. At the fair, the oil received a silver.

At Apollo, partners Steve McCulley and Gianni and Diana Stefanini opted to enter their oils in the State Fair’s inaugural competition rather than more-established competitions they had entered before. The 161-year-old State Fair got its olive oil competition under way with a $115,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s specialty crop program.

“We feel that because it’s the California State Fair, it has a higher visibility and more mass,” McCulley said.

Producers have to make these kinds of hard choices as new contests emerge, said Mary Ellen Cole, who supervises both the wine and olive competitions for the Los Angeles County Fair Association. The entrance fees take up a big portion of each producer’s marketing money, Cole said, so small producers in Northern California might opt to enter the State Fair competition.

Cole and extra-virgin olive oil producers say that, after years of successfully managing contests for producers of wine, cheese, beer and the like, the State Fair has cemented its credibility in the eyes of both producers and consumers. The Los Angeles fair association had a similar reputation, Cole said, and quickly gained momentum with olive oil producers, but it took a while to gain visibility with consumers and then to educate them about why these oils cost so much more.

Its inaugural olive oil competition was in 2000. That year, the L.A. competition had 28 oils submitted, Cole said, but last year, it had more than 700. Every year, the association tries to buy and sell the gold-medal-winning oils, but it wasn’t until two years ago that this market exploded.

“We called it olive oil mania because we sold out of every olive oil we had,” Cole said. “Before that, it had been very slow and now people come to the fair just to buy olive oils because they know that we’ll have olive oils that they can’t find throughout the year.”

Once you educate consumers about farming practices, differences in milling and the polyphenols and other cancer-fighting antioxidants in fresh, real extra-virgin olive oil, McCulley said, they begin to understand reasons for the price difference between artisanal products and those farmed with machinery and more pesticides.

Because many competitions post award-winning companies online and keep them up for at least a year, McCulley said, consumers, restaurateurs and retailers can check those lists and contact producers. Indeed, he said, the lists have been how a number of consumers and boutique grocers have found his extra-virgin oils.

Apollo’s products sell at Whole Foods Markets throughout Northern California, as well as at Corti Brothers, Taylor’s Market and the Natural Foods Co-op in Sacramento. Buckeye Creek Farm’s oils can be found at the Davis Food Co-op, RootStock in Winters and Three Wine Co. in Clarksburg. Like many small producers, Apollo, Buckeye and Bozzano also sell their products online at their websites.

State Fair judges tasted roughly 140 oils, awarding medals to 78. Best of show honors went to two producers whose oils have been consistent award winners for many years: The Olive Press for its sevillano extra-virgin olive oil and Sciabica for its jalapeño-flavored oil. All the olive-oil winners will be honored June 23, along with winners of the fair’s other food competitions, at the annual press event on the steps of the state Capitol.

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