Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Suisun Valley's Hidden, Oily Secret

Suisun Valley's Hidden, Oily Secret
By Nathan Halverson

FAIRFIELD - California wines were a little-known delight until they made national headlines by winning a blind taste test in Paris in 1976.

Until then, Napa Valley wines were in limited production and primarily enjoyed by a few people in the know. But less than 30 years later, California wine production is a staple of the world market. In 2004, California wineries supplied 494 million gallons of wine to the United States and international market.

People involved in California's burgeoning olive oil industry, which includes growers in Suisun Valley, say a similar if perhaps more modest pattern is emerging in their field.

"We are sort of following the way California wine was discovered. They were sort of thought of as step-children until blind taste tests they won in Europe," said Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, which is based in Berkeley.

Recently, California olive oils, particularly extra virgin olive oils, have garnered international acclaim. They've won top honors at the largest international blind tasting that is annually held at the Los Angeles County Fair. And German gourmet magazine Der Feinschmecker ranked several California olive oils among the top 35 in the world in 2004 and 2005.
As more people become aware of the health benefits, not to mention the culinary incentives, of using top-quality extra virgin olive oil, consumption has increased.

California production has grown by 168 percent since 1996.

This year's harvest is expected to top 500,000 gallons in the state. By 2010, the state will likely be producing 750,000 gallons, as much as France, said Darragh.

What's growing in Suisun Valley

Suisun Valley olive oil is a less-known component of the overall California market.

But the recent combination of a local grower and vendor might change that.

Gordon Valley Farms harvests olives from about 8,000 trees across Suisun Valley, and according to olive oil vendor Joel Quartemont it rivals the quality of the world's best.

"It is as good as the best Italian oils out there. I mean the real Italian oils. The stuff you have to buy online that comes direct from Italy," Quartemont said.

Quartemont and his wife Peggy own Sepay Groves, which bottles and sells the olive oil pressed from Gordon Valley Farms.

Gordon Valley Farms, which is owned by Don Johnson and operated by Jim Parr, doesn't sell directly to the public. Sepay Groves handles that.

"We're like their fruit stand," Quartemont said.

Sepay Groves, located off Chadbourne Road across from the Anheuser-Busch brewery, offers some of the best olive oils perhaps anywhere in the world, and it's located right in Fairfield's back yard. Then there is the price.

The cost of Italy's best olive oils costs about $40 per half-liter. Sepay Groves retails for $14.95.

There is also the freshness. Quartemont received 1,000 gallons of a Gordon Valley Farms batch on Friday.

The olives were picked and pressed starting in October and the early olives are blended with batches picked as late as December. The blending optimizes taste and health benefits, which occur in varying degree depending on when the olives are picked.

Quartemont only bottles what he needs for the next few days. Olive oil deteriorates when exposed to oxygen and loses its health benefits as it ages.

The quality of this latest batch gave Quartemont goosebumps. One key measurement of olive oil is its fatty acid content. To qualify as extra-virgin olive oil in Europe, an oil must have less than .8 percent fatty acid - the United States does not enforce any percentage.

The percentage of Gordon Valley's latest batch is .14 percent.

"It's the lowest ever," Quartemont said. "It's so low it's not believable."

But Quartemont believes it. He has seen the results of the chemical analysis and to say he is enthusiastic is an understatement.

Darragh concurred that it is a strong result.

"That is a fantastic number," she said. "On a worldwide basis that is phenomenal."

Sepay Groves has added itself to the row of tourist attractions that include the brewery across the street and Jelly Belly Candy Co. down the road. But Quartemont said he wants the store to be less of a boutique than a place to buy high-quality oils and vinegar for everyday cooking - the vinegar also originates from Gordon Valley Farms.

"We don't want our oil to be one you put on your counter and just look at, but one that you can use everyday," he said.

Sepay Groves offers tasting at their store. Gift baskets also are available.

Reach Nathan Halverson at 425-4646 ext. 267 or nhalverson@dailyrepublic.net.

Sepay Groves Olive Oil

Owners: Joel and Peggy Quartemont

370 Chadbourne Road Ste. A, Fairfield


California's olive oil

No. of 2005 farmers: 528

2001-02 production: 246,291 gallons

2004-05 production: 383,050 gallons

California production growth: 20 percent annually

State dedicated olive oil acreage: 6,168

Suisun Valley olive oil acreage: 35

U.S. olive oil consumption growth: 15 to 25 percent annually

(Source: University of California, Davis Small Farm Center)

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