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Tasting California Olive Oil

Make your way to theses seven ranches, mills, and storefronts to sample the state’s best olive oils

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Spanish missionaries planted California’s first olive trees in the late 18th century, at missions from Sonoma to San Diego. It was no divine intervention; the savvy padres knew that California’s warm, sunny climate—similar to the olive-producing regions of Spain, France, and Italy—was ideal for growing olives. By the mid-1800s, California had a thriving olive oil industry that led to the rise of olive oil tasting rooms across the state.

California accounts for 99 percent of all U.S. olive oil production, and has earned a reputation as a world-class producer. At least 75 different olive varieties thrive in the state’s microclimates, giving producers a wealth of flavor profiles to work with. “This expansive selection of olive varietals provides a range of oils and trademark blends that are unique to California,” says Lisa Pollack of the California Olive Oil Council.

Much like the state’s wineries, many olive oil producers and purveyors welcome visitors for tastings and tours at ranches, mills, and storefronts across California. “They offer more than just a different selection of olive oil, they’re great learning experiences,” says Nancy Ash, president of Strictly Olive Oil, a Berkeley-based olive oil consultancy. “You’re talking to someone about what you’re buying, and getting ideas for new ways of using it in your kitchen.”

When sampling olive oil, skip the bread and take a small sip of the oil on its own. “Hold it in your mouth for a bit, and then, with a little smile, suck in air through the corners of your mouth,” says Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of the book Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil. Then, swallow. If you feel a peppery tickle at the back of your throat, it’s a sign of quality.

Almonds, tomatoes, and tomato leaves are all common descriptors for good olive oil, Jenkins adds, along with freshly cut grass and green apples. Want to try it for yourself? Here are seven destinations, listed from north to south, for sampling California’s golden nectar.

Tina Caputo

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