Great Olive Tours
The answer to the question, “What is Napa Valley known for?” seems obvious and, to a large degree, is apparent. Of course Napa Valley’s vineyards are best known for producing some of the finest wines in the world. But the Napa region also provides a lush agricultural backdrop for olive orchards that yield high quality, award-winning olive oils. Artisan olive oils have recently become the new passion in the American culinary experience.
Former San Francisco resident and businesswoman Carol Ainsworth, after years of studying olive oil and touring olive orchards, put together a unique, custom tour company inviting guests to learn about and sample boutique olive oils. Today she takes pride in arranging custom itineraries for small parties, visiting private estates unavailable to other tour companies. Carol is adept at explaining both the science and the art of olive oils, taking her charges through the complexities of boutique olive oil tasting and production.
“Unlike the Napa Valley’s exemplary wines, olive oil doesn’t improve with age,” says Carol. Serving as tour guide, instructor, historian and general bon vivant, Carol clearly relishes her chosen field that’s off-the-beaten-path for most visitors to the Valley. She loves to compare and contrast, pointing out similarities and differences between wine tasting and olive oil tasting. “Freshness is precious in fine olive oil, and our local production doesn’t make that long trip from Europe.” Today’s artisan olive oil industry, she maintains, is similar to where Napa’s wine industry was in the 1960’s, a small, family-owned boutique/cottage industry.
Holding aloft a short stemmed, deep blue glass, she asked us why colored glass is used in olive oil tasting instead of clear. “To purposely disguise its color,” she answered. “Color does not indicate quality,” she explained. “Olive oil colors range from green to golden to pale yellow. Blue glass is used so tasters will not be unduly prejudiced about the oil’s taste and quality.”
Carol was accompanied this day by her husband and business partner David, who cheerfully performed the duties of squire, sitting behind the wheel of his Mercedes and pointing out geographical features to round out the couple’s presentation. Our four-hour tour of two private orchards included the estate of a former coffee magnate—Dos Colinas—as well as Villa Mille Rose in Oakville.
Dos Colinas, named for the “two hills” prominently featured on the estate, produces extra virgin olive oil expertly crafted from its five acre Frantoio olive orchard. Originally planted in the 1890’s, these organically farmed olive trees are located in the Stags Leap District of the Napa Valley. In 1998, Austin Hills, scion of the Hill’s Brothers Coffee dynasty, fell in love with and purchased an old olive grove that had been planted in the 1890’s. The five acre Frantoio olive orchard had been abandoned for many years until his family took over management of it. Cuttings were taken from the old trees in order to replant missing trees, and the orchard has now reached full production.
Touring the orchard and the Tuscan-inspired villa—featuring historical building materials imported from Italy—we gazed over the lush acres of vineyards cascading down from the legendary Stags Leap hills rising in the distance. After tasting two recent renditions of Dos Colinas extra virgin olive oil, we sampled some of Grgich Hills’ famous wines produced by Mike Grgich, the Master Craftsman of Wine who was largely responsible for escalating Napa Valley wines to worldwide fame. There is an important connection, we found, between Austin Hill’s estate and the wine we sampled. As we sat near the lovely gardens just outside the enormous villa, our chauffeur and Carol’s business partner/husband David re-told the story of how Napa Valley shocked the world of French wine tasting experts. In 1976 there was a famous “Paris Tasting,” an event featuring world-class wines. Mike Grgich, a Croatian-born winemaker who made wines in Napa Valley, entered his 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which took first place, beating France’s best white Burgundies and shocking the international wine community of experts. This event put Napa Valley on the map, and the rest is history. A year later Grgich teamed up with Austin Hills to create a new winery, Grgich Hills, in nearby Rutherford. Since 2006, the wines of Grgich Hills Estate come exclusively from 366 vineyard acres Biodynamically farmed – the country’s largest Biodynamic vineyard acreage. The same care and craftsmanship that go into making fine wines for Grgich Hills are similarly found in the Austin Hills’ Dos Colinas label.
Hills discovered that the terroir and microclimate that produces world class wines is also capable of producing olive oil of outstanding quality. Frantoio, one of the most highly acclaimed oil varieties in the world. It is grown commercially in most olive growing regions including Italy, North Africa, Australia, Argentina and California.
Dos Colinas oil is Tuscan in style, having complex flavors, a medium body and a pungent finish. Extra virgin olive oils, Carol informed us, can be fruity, nutty, mild, peppery, grassy, intense, bitter, pungent and sweet. This oil makes for a superlative condiment, excellent for drizzling over grilled vegetables, poultry or meats, and perfect for a tasty salad dressing.
David poured us each a glass of Dos Colinas olive oil and Carol showed us how to hold the glass in our hand, gradually warming the oil to release its full flavor. She swirled the oil in the glass and invited us to smell the bouquet of the fluid before tasting, commenting on the aromas we were likely to find. She then demonstrated the technique of tasting olive oil, a technique that differs from wine tasting. Tipping her glass toward her lips, Carol took in a small mouthful of oil and kept her mouth partially open, slurping air over her tongue in order to maximize the oil’s impact upon her taste buds. For those unused to eating or drinking with their mouths open, this initial experience seems a little awkward. However all four of us took a small draft of oil in our mouths and began moderately inhaling, seeking to unlock the complexity of flavors with our tongues. Yes, you indeed swallow the oil and it is recommended to cleanse the palate afterward with some bread which Carol made available. Another taste, this time with bread dipped in the oil, proved even more delightful, as some of the pungency was removed. In truth, oil tasted alone carries much more pungency than oil used as a condiment. That is, of course, the point: Extra virgin olive oil is meant to be tasted and enjoyed as a condiment, its flavor complementing and enhancing the food item to be eaten.
In 1996, Maria Manetti-Farrow, an international leader in the fashion industry, planted a three acre olive orchard boasting 350 olive trees imported directly from her birthplace of Tuscany. Accompanied by one of her staff, we walked through the orchard and learned how caretakers tend the trees and prepare them for harvest. Manetti-Farrow’s opulent estate is located in Oakville, a world-renowned wine appellation of the Napa Valley. Today her award-winning olive oil is a blend of 55% Frantoio, 35% Leccino for sweetness, and 10% Pendolno. After the tour, we were invited inside to the villa’s kitchen where the tasting began. The oil we sampled was pungent, grassy and peppery.
Villa Mille Rose (the villa of a thousand roses) gets its name from the 500 rose bushes that are prominently featured on this 60-acre estate, consisting of vineyards, organic olive and fruit trees, rose gardens, and a stunning 12,000 square foot authentic style Tuscan Villa. A wisteria covered pergola adorns a majestic landscape flowing with hedges, free-standing artwork, manicured lawns and a even a bonsai demonstration area.
In addition to its extra virgin olive oil, the estate produces balsamic vinegar and cabernet sauvignon wine. The balsamic vinegar was like nothing we’d ever tasted before. It was smooth and somewhat sweet, so that it could be drizzled equally over steak, strawberries or risotto. This particular balsamic vinegar made in the Tradizionale (traditional) fashion was the result of a lengthy, time-honored process. Over a nineteen-year period the initial vinegar concoction of cooked grape juice (mosto cotto) is reduced and transferred to barrels made from six different wood types: Chestnut, mulberry, oak, cherry, locust and ash. The differing wood types of each barrel contribute to the vinegar’s complexity while the aging process of gradual evaporation further intensifies the sweet-sour flavor as natural sugars combine with acetic acid. The result is pure delight. A four-ounce bottle of Villa Mille Rose’s 19-year old Balsamic Vinegar Tradizionale sells for $125.
For a memorable visit to celebrate a special occasion or to set up a retreat or business meeting that features a tour of some of Napa’s exquisite artisan olive orchards, contact Great Olive Tours right away.
Great Olive Tours