California Olive Oil

Heroes, In Season, Local Heroes
on October 1, 2008
Mark Boughton Photography / styling: Teresa Blackburn

Just down the road from the two dozen wineries of Southern California’s Temecula Valley sits a different kind of tasting room. Here, co-owner Thom Curry mans the bar, answering questions about the characteristics of his many varietals. But he’s not talking about grapes. Instead, he’s selling artisan olive oils made from fruit grown at his nearby ranch. Though most Americans associate olive oil-making with Europe, U.S. production is on the rise, thanks to an influx of California-based producers like Curry’s Temecula Olive Oil Company. What’s the benefit of buying oils produced stateside? These oils make it from the press to your kitchen faster than their internationally made counterparts.

“That makes a big difference. It’s much fresher,” says Curry. “When someone comes in, the first thing they say is, ‘Wow, this tastes like olives!’ That’s what olive oil should taste like.”

Over his decade-long wine sales career during the 1990s, Curry often traveled abroad, where he fell in love with the olive oils made in Spain, Italy and France and was impressed with the pride producers took in their craft—so much so he decided to turn his new passion into a new career.

“I started visiting small olive oil production facilities to try to learn how olive oil was made, about the different trees, basically any information I could glean from anyone,” recalls Curry.

The more he learned, the more excited he was to get started making and selling his own olive oil. First, Curry and his wife, Nancy, imported Tuscan olive trees and planted them in their backyard in Temecula (60 miles northeast of San Diego), where the climate (warm days, cool nights, little rain) couldn’t be better for growing olives. Then, he enrolled in a class at the University of California at Davis to further study the process. When the couple’s good friends, Catherine and Ernie Pepe, learned of the plan, they jumped on board too.

In 2001 the foursome opened their dream shop and have happily watched business boom. “We have a hard time keeping up with demand,” Curry reports.

Last year the company unveiled its very own stainless steel olive press, designed by Curry. Modeled after the old-fashioned presses he saw in Europe, the contraption squeezes oil from the olives similar to the way you’d get juice from an orange. Without the help of heat, chemicals or additives, it takes a whole lot of olives to make a small batch of oil, which is why artisan olive oils are often so expensive. But, insists Curry, the end result is well worth the cost. “People go home and use it and come back for more,” he says. “They’re addicted at that point.”

By Lizbeth Scordo, a writer in Marina del Ray, Calif.