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Sciabica's Olive Oil

July/Aug. 2009 California Country magazine
By Ching Lee

Although many Americans have heard about the myriad benefits of olive oil by now, they may not know that some of the best olive oil is being produced here in the Golden State.



Old family tradition brings flavor to the masses

Long before olive oil became gourmet-chic and a buzzword for healthful eating in the minds of Americans, the so-called “liquid gold” had been a main food staple in Mediterranean culture for thousands of years.

Although many Americans have heard about the myriad benefits of olive oil by now, they may not know that some of the best olive oil is being produced here in the Golden State.

Not that the Sciabica family has ever kept it a secret. As the longest-surviving olive oil company in California, Nick Sciabica & Sons has been making and promoting olive oil for 73 years, almost single-handedly keeping the state’s olive oil business alive when Wesson oil and Crisco were the standard fare in American kitchens.

These days with everyone from TV chefs to fitness gurus embracing the Mediterranean diet, U.S. olive oil consumption has exploded. This is a promising trend for seasoned producers like the Sciabicas, who for decades struggled through the lulls and hiccups of California’s olive oil business while other producers folded their tents or planted more profitable crops.

“The olive oil industry is catching on,” said Jonathan Sciabica, vice president of Nick Sciabica & Sons. “Now it seems like it’s finally coming to fruition. I feel like we’re on the tip of the iceberg. We’re just getting over that hump where people are starting to pay attention.”

As the fourth generation to be carrying on the family’s olive oil legacy, Jonathan Sciabica missed out on harder years when his father and uncle worked for free and during any spare time they had to keep the oil flowing.

The company got its start in 1936, when Sicilian immigrant Nicola (Nick) Sciabica and his son Joseph—Jonathan’s great-grandfather and grandfather, respectively—decided to bring some of their Italian roots to California and converted their Modesto vineyard into an olive orchard.

Using olives they grew in the Central Valley and techniques that Nicola learned in Sicily, the family was soon making oils that were uniquely Californian. The challenge was finding people to buy their product.

“There weren’t a lot of people who were appreciating olive oil in those days,” Jonathan Sciabica said. “It was really Italians and maybe some of the Greeks who were buying olive oil.”

He said his grandfather “pounded the ground” for the first 50 years to move the oil, always trying to raise awareness about olive oil’s health benefits. But California offered a limited market for olive oil producers, and for decades the family sent their oils back east to sell in Connecticut, Chicago and New York, places with a strong ethnic base that craved a piece of the Old Country.

With California’s perfect Mediterranean climate, the state was seen as a natural fit for olive cultivation. At one time, there were at least 100 olive oil mills in operation around the state, said Daniel Sciabica, one of Joseph’s sons. Then came the cheap imports, which threw a wrench in California’s fledgling olive oil business, and by the 1960s, only six olive oil mills were left in the state.

“Of course we were one of them,” said Daniel Sciabica. “The other five are now gone.”

While Sciabica oil did enjoy a loyal following of core customers, until the mid-1970s and 1980s, when there was renewed interest in the health qualities of the product, olive oil did not pay. Looking back, Daniel Sciabica said his father kept the business going when it should have been closed “a number of times.”

“But he wasn’t in it for the money,” he said. “He was in it because of the product that he was making. He wanted to give people the very best that they could buy.”

At 93, Joseph Sciabica no longer runs the day-to-day affairs of the family business, leaving that to his two sons, Daniel and Nick, and his grandson, Jonathan. But he is still passionate about the oil and comes to work every day with what his family calls “a missionary zeal.”

He is also highly visible at farmers markets in Modesto and San Francisco as a pitchman for the family’s line of products and loves talking to customers about the high monounsaturated fat content of olive oil. That’s the “good fat” that helps to lower bad cholesterol and boost good cholesterol.

“I believe in olive oil,” he said, “because olive oil makes your food taste better and it’s very healthy for you. If everybody used olive oil, I think we could close some of the hospitals.”

And while U.S. olive oil consumption may be growing, Americans by and large still are not huge consumers of it. And they aren’t necessarily buying California olive oil either. In fact, less than half of 1 percent of the olive oil Americans use comes from California, said Dan Flynn, executive director of the University of California’s Olive Center in Davis.

“We’re the fourth-largest consumer of olive oil in the world, but per capita, we only consume about the equivalent of a wine bottle per person per year, whereas in Greece, they consume 32 or 35 wine bottles a year per person,” he said. “So there’s lots of room for growth.”

And foreign oils are filling that growing demand. According to the North American Olive Oil Association, U.S. olive oil imports have jumped from about 8.5 million gallons in 1982 to more than 75.7 million gallons in 2007.

One factor holding consumers back from buying California olive oil may be the price: The local stuff is consistently more expensive than foreign oils. They’re also a blip on the radar among a sea of imports.

Jonathan Sciabica said the key to nurturing the growth in the olive oil market is educating unsophisticated palates what good-quality olive oil is. He regularly hosts olive oil tastings at the company’s gift shop to expose more people to the many varieties, flavors and aromas of extra virgin olive oil, the highest grade of olive oil.

His grandmother, Gemma, has written four cookbooks to help consumers use more olive oil in their cooking. The books’ tried-and-tested recipes use olive oil exclusively and include everything from piecrusts to chocolate chip cookies.

While consumers still commonly believe that the best extra virgin olive oil must come from Italy, Jonathan Sciabica said they’d be hard-pressed to find the high-quality Italian oils in U.S. grocery stores.

Even though many of the oils on the market are labeled extra virgin, according to the North American Olive Oil Association, only about 18 percent of all olive oil sold in the United States is extra virgin, with more than 69 percent of it being a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil, which makes them lower in quality.

“Now there’s a real push for high-end olive oil and they’re turning to California, because California olive oil is so much more fresh than imports,” said Daniel Sciabica. “A lot of the imported olive oils have been sitting on the shelf for months, even years, before the consumers buy it, whereas we give you olive oil that’s fresh-pressed.”

Chefs are among the end users taking note of California olive oil. More than three dozen restaurants in California currently feature Sciabica oil on their menus and tables, including the acclaimed Galletto Ristorante in Modesto.

Today, the Sciabicas leave most of the farming to growers in the Corning and Oroville area of Butte County, a major olive-growing region in California. Joseph Sciabica still lives on the original property that his father purchased in 1925, and the land continues to produce excellent olives that the Sciabicas use to make an estate oil.

With an average annual production of 40,000 gallons, the Sciabicas used to be “the big man on campus, making far more olive oil than everybody else,” said Jonathan Sciabica. That was true 20 years ago. Now with newer varieties of trees that allow California farmers to plant more per acre and their crop to be mechanically harvested, there are producers who are putting out much more volume—in the million-gallon range.

“I think it’s a good way to produce inexpensive extra virgin olive oil,” said Nick Sciabica, who oversees the farming side of Sciabica oil. “But it’s not for us because we’re boutique; we’re like the little winery in Napa Valley.”

The Sciabicas are sticking to tradition: They still handpick all their olives and press each variety separately, just like in winemaking, and bottle the oils according to each variety rather than blending it to preserve the individual flavor qualities and nuances that the varieties offer.

The company currently produces three main varietal oils using traditional California olives: the Mission, Manzanillo and Sevillano. It also works with a few other Italian varietals such as Leccino and Frantoio that are still fairly new to the state. Each varietal has its own distinctive flavor, and olive oil connoisseurs are seeking them out.

“That sets us apart from a lot of manufacturers,” said Jonathan Sciabica. “Typically what you find on the shelf is all from one batch of olive oil. You don’t get to pick your flavor profile.”

The Sciabicas also do seasonal pressings, which give the oils different flavor characteristics. For example, olives that are harvested and pressed in the fall produce a robust, fruity oil that has a strong peppery finish, while oils from winter pressings are less intense. Olives that are allowed to ripen into the spring make a delicate, buttery-sweet oil that is ideal for cooking and baking.

The company offers eight flavored oils made by pressing natural ingredients such as garlic, basil and jalapeño with the olives. There is also a new edible lavender olive oil that the Sciabicas are marketing as a lotion. Next, the company is coming out with an olive oil lip balm.

“Really, the uses are virtually endless,” said Jonathan Sciabica.

Olive oil terms and tips

The quality of olive oil is evaluated much like fine wines—mainly by tasting and also by measuring its acidity level. But unlike wines, olive oil does not improve with age and has a shelf life of about two years, after which off-smells and flavors and eventually rancidity develop. To ensure you’re getting the freshest oil, always check the vintage date. If there’s no date, then there’s no way to know how old the oil is. Here are some common terms to know when buying olive oil:

  • Extra virgin olive oil: This is the highest classification or grade of olive oil. It means the oil was extracted without the use of high heat or chemical processing and has an acidity level of less than 0.8 percent. The oil also passed chemical and taste tests to rule out defects and impurities. To ensure you’re getting real extra virgin olive oil, look for the “extra virgin” certification seal from the California Olive Oil Council on California-produced oils. Authenticity of foreign oils sold in the United States is harder to discern since adulteration is quite common, so it is best to avoid bargain-priced “extra virgins.”
  • Virgin olive oil: Not as high-quality as extra virgin, this oil is also derived from cold pressing olives without any refinement but has an acidity level of less than 2 percent.
  • Olive oil: Often marketed as “pure” or “100 percent pure” olive oil, products labeled as such are really refined olive oil blended with extra virgin or virgin olive oil to give it flavor.
  • Light olive oil: Contrary to popular belief, the word “light” when used to describe olive oil does not mean it has fewer calories. Rather, it refers to oil that is flavorless and often low in quality.

The California Olive Oil Council offers additional information on its Web site: www.cooc.com.

For information about Nick Sciabica & Sons, visit www.sciabica.com.

Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She may be reached at 800-698-FARM or clee@californiacountry.org.


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