By LAURA KURTZMAN
Associated Press Writer
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - After the repeal of Prohibition in
1933, the University of California, Davis established a research
department that led to the flourish of the California wine
industry. Now, it hopes to do the same for olive oil.
The challenges to the emerging industry are significant: finding
economical ways to produce fine oil, dealing with unscrupulous
importers and educating unsophisticated palates, among them.
While California olive oil makers have begun to use techniques
developed in Europe to capture the pungent taste of fresh olives,
the American palate may not be ready for it.
"This is the big challenge for all of us here in California -
to expose people to this fresh fruit juice olive oil and not have
them gag on it," said Paul Vossen, a formative figure in the
nascent world of California olive oil who is affiliated with the
new UC Davis Olive Center.
The center opened in January under the umbrella of the
university's Robert Mondavi Institute, which houses the campuses'
Department of Viticulture and Enology, the scientific names for
grape-growing and winemaking.
That is where UC scientists showed California winemakers how to
replant vineyards that had been ripped out during Prohibition and
taught them how to make fine wine.
Olives have been growing in California for more than a century,
but most of the state's 600 oil makers are of recent vintage.
Collectively, they produce 500,000 gallons of olive oil each
year, a tiny fraction of the 75 million gallons Americans consume.
California's output is expected to increase fivefold in the next
five years, as several thousand acres of olive groves come into
production using mechanized pickers that vastly speed up the
The potential U.S. market for olive oil is huge. America is the
fourth largest consumer, after Italy, Spain and Greece. Consumption
has doubled in the last decade, but the average American still uses
relatively little - about the equivalent of a bottle of wine each
The olive center's executive director, Dan Flynn, said the
center will be a resource to delve into essential questions about
olive production and consumption. Undergraduate courses may come
Contributing faculty include researchers from the UC Davis
Medical Center, who are studying the health benefits of
antioxidants in olives.
Others already have done work on genetic fingerprinting of olive
varieties and how irrigation affects growth.
Researchers also make and sell oil from the 1,500 olive trees on
campus and launched this year's oils with a party on Wednesday. The
proceeds will make up half the olive center's budget. The rest
comes from industry and the university.
Charles Shoemaker, a food scientist who is co-chairman of the
olive center, said a possible topic of research - preventing
oxidation, which ruins the taste - could benefit olive oil lovers
around the world.
The answer, he said, may be as simple as selling the oil in
Fine olive oil is a relatively recent phenomenon anywhere in the
world, said Vossen, who teaches an olive oil tasting seminar to the
general public and helped develop California's first panel of
While olive oil dates to antiquity, Vossen said truly fine oil
only came about in the last few decades, as Europeans
revolutionized production with clean, modern techniques.
Stainless steel spinners and decanters replaced the old, smelly
mats that had been used to drain oil from paste made of crushed
olive pits and meats.
The result was an entirely new taste that could be as spicy,
peppery and pungent as the olives from which it was made.
"The new olive oil industry of the world is capturing the fresh
fruit flavor of the olive," Vossen said.
But few in this country have learned to appreciate the fresh
taste. Just as post-Prohibition Americans happily drank wine of
such poor quality it could not be sold today, so do many
contemporary Americans make their salad and pasta with olive oil no
self-respecting Italian would consume.
In his tasting classes, Vossen teaches how to discern the mellow
flavors of oil made from ripe olives, such as nutty, floral,
buttery, tropical, banana and spices such as cinnamon.
He also introduces the pungent flavors of oils made from green
olives, including those of fresh-cut grass, artichoke or even
straw. As his students' palates grow more complex, he says, they
quickly develop an appreciation for bitter green oils, which are
rich in antioxidants.
It is a leap he hopes the greater American public will one day
make, as well.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)