Climate is ripe for olives
Northern Yuba County is nothing like Greece, but the Mediterranean-like climate and rocky soils in the foothills are considered ideal for growing olives.
“We’re on a very similar latitude as Athens,” said Steve McCulley, one of four partners who operates the company, Apollo Olive Oil, in the remote community of Oregon House. The partners rent land from Renaissance Winery to grow 6,000 trees on sunny terraced hillsides.
Last year, Apollo was recognized as one of the top 10 producers in the world by using an untraditional modern milling system that limits oxygen from entering the oil. It is one of California’s up-and-coming boutique olive growers that is rapidly gaming popularity in the food world.
On Saturday, Apollo will join two other award-winning olive growers and five wineries based in the foothills of Yuba County during the 6th annual North Yuba Gourmet Harvest Festival. The festival of gourmet foods, olive oil and wine tasting and tours of Apollo’s state-of-the-art milling system will take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The festival will to benefit the Lewis Carroll School in Oregon House.
Growers such as Apollo and others in nearby Loma Rica are waiting for temperatures to drop below 42 degrees, so they can harvest fruit low in sugar and high in oil. Once harvested, the olives will be milled into extra virgin olive oil and sold at specialty markets where they will fetch top dollar for their unique and intense flavors.
There are about a dozen olive growers in Yuba County and more than 200 producers of extra virgin olive oil in California, according to the California Olive Oil Council, which sets standards of quality in the state.
During the past year, Apollo Olive Oil produced 9,000 liters of certified organic extra virgin olive oil from fruit harvested from 6,000 trees. One ton of olives produces 200 pounds or 100 liters of oil. The company plans to increase production to 24,000 liters by 2013.
The expense of producing quality extra virgin olive oil keeps the market relatively small. Large retailers who want to make a profit won’t carry a $20 bottle of oil on their shelves, because most consumers won’t pay for it.
“Their aim is not to make good food, it is to make money,” said Gianni Stefanini, one of the partners of Apollo who is passionate about raising the standards for olive oil.
Apollo markets to smaller local retailers, which prefer supporting organic products and sustainable agriculture. Their market stretches from Portland, Ore., south to Santa Monica and between the Bay Area and Reno.
Stefanini remembers as a boy growing up in Italy, his grandmother fed him spoonfuls of olive oil when he was ill.
“Extra virgin olive oil is really good for you. It’s like a medicine,” Stefanini said as he walked among the 6-foot silver-leaved trees heavy with green and black fruit. Olive oil is said to benefit a healthy heart, the digestive system and its high concentration of anti-oxidants helps prevent cancer and arthritis.
“In antiquity, the best oil was given to the gods,” Stefanini said as he stood in the grove in the fading day’s light.
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@the union.com or call 477-4231.
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