ST. HELENA, Calif. -- When Californians talk about varietals, harvests and pressing these days, they may have olives, not grapes, in mind.
The same undaunted pioneer spirit that over the years has successfully conquered the gastronomic frontiers of wines, goat cheeses and sun-dried tomatoes is now tackling olive oil.
"With olive oil, we are exactly where we were with wine in the 1960s," said Darrell Corti, an owner of Corti Brothers, a wine and food company in Sacramento that has been selling California olive oils for several years.
There's certainly a niche, considering that 100,000 tons of olive oil were imported into this country in 1990. Most of this oil was inexpensive, refined with heat and chemicals and carried the "pure" designation.
But there also was plenty of the top-of-the-line, unrefined "extra-virgin" variety, costing from $10 to $40 a liter, flowing into this country for consumers to drizzle on their grilled vegetables.
There are no exact figures for total domestic production of olive oil, but it is doubtful that it exceeded 200 tons last year. Yet there are now more than a dozen brands being made in California.
TC The California oils are all cold-pressed extra-virgin oils, designed to compete with the European imports. Several brands, like Sciabica, produced by the oldest olive oil company in the state, and Olio Santo, the brand made for Tra Vigne, a restaurant in the Napa Valley, are sold in stores across the country.
Winery owners like Carolyn Wente of Wente Vineyards, Joy Sterling of Iron Horse and Robert Mondavi have been harvesting olives from trees on their properties to make small quantities of oil for their own use or to sell in winery gift shops and tasting rooms.
Others, like Lila Jaeger of Rutherford Hill and Freemark Abbey, have just begun producing enough olive oil to sell to local food shops. Mrs. Jaeger, one of those who was in the wine business back in the 1960s and is into olive oil now, said, "I looked around and saw those beautiful olives on the ground with cars driving over them and wondered why we couldn't make fine quality olive oil in California."
Why all those olives were being wasted in the first place, instead of being packed into cans, jars or even oil presses, takes some explaining.
Olive trees were first planted in California in the 18th century by Spanish missionaries. It's no coincidence that one of the main varieties grown in the state is called mission. By the late 19th century, olive trees were being planted by the thousands near Sacramento, in the Central Valley and in the San Francisco area, with most of the fruit being pressed for oil.
Until the 1940s, there was a thriving olive oil industry in the state, with about 40 companies pressing oil. This was mostly inexpensive olive oil produced for the nation's Italian and Spanish markets. After World War II, the industry was virtually extinguished by cheaper imports from Italy, Spain and Greece.
Joe Sciabica, who began making cold-pressed olive oil with his father in Modesto in 1936, is amazed at the prices olive oils fetch today. His son, Daniel, who is in charge of marketing for the company, sees it as the future for California oils.
"We want to show the world what we can do," he said. "We are looking at olive oil like wine now. Most olive oil available to the general public is pretty generic refined oil. But there are now people who appreciate better quality."
And it's with that in mind that Mrs. Jaeger, Ms. Wente, Michael Chiarello of Tra Vigne and others have gone into the olive oil business. Some harvest their own olives and some buy olives from friends, neighbors, other vineyard owners and farmers with anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred trees, both well-tended and wild. But the network of suppliers is growing.
For the first time in nearly 100 years, olive trees suitable for making high-quality oil are being planted by visionaries like Nan McEvoy, who is an owner of Chronicle Publishing in San Francisco. She has a 550-acre ranch in Marin County and has hired Maurizio Castelli, a prominent consultant to estates in Tuscany, to help her with her thousand or so trees.
Another is Ridgely Evers, a self-professed Italophile in the computer-software business. Mr. Evers has planted more than 1,000 trees on 81 acres near Healdsburg in Sonoma County and has another 1,600 waiting to go in the ground. He has estimated his investment at around $15 a tree.