Olive Oil: The New Wine?

Find out about EVOO, give a tasting party. Learn to love this liquid gold.

I know someone whose first sip of wine was a 45-year-old Port. My inaugural taste could boast no such vintage; it was from my aunt’s bottle of Manischewitz, which was first cracked open three Thanksgivings prior. For years, my wine consumption was limited to gifted bottles or summer sangria made with cheap wine. Eventually, business interests took me to wine dinners, where the origins of a Syrah and a Shiraz, a Grenache and a Garnacha, became important to me. Once I could carve out a budget for great wine, bottles from five continents began rotating through my once-dusty wine rack. Although I’m not yet an oenophile, I cannot imagine going back to “factory wine.”

Similar to my wine choices, what occupied my cabinet for years was store-brand olive oil, the quality of which reflected the budget I’d devoted to it. Once again, professional interests led me to a palate-awakening, and for me there is no turning back to generic olive oil.

If you can tell a Merlot from a Cabernet, or even if you can’t, olive oil may be the next horizon for broadening your palate. From tasting parties to sommelier certifications to health magazines, there are many routes to learning why olive oil is worthy of the same enthusiasm as wine. With U.S. consumption increasing by 250 percent in the last quarter century (compared to worldwide growth of 73 percent), there’s a good chance this “liquid gold” has seeped or will be seeping into your kitchen soon.

Things to Know

Some things to know when shopping for “good” olive oil: extra virgin is the best; it can cost a dollar or more per ounce; reading the fine print is important, and it should impart an unmistakable flavor. That $6 store-brand olive oil probably tastes like any other oil in your cabinet…nothing distinctive, even if it does say “Imported.”

Process and timing is everything. For superior quality oil, olives are gently picked (often by hand), taken to press hours after picking, mashed into a paste, and “cold” pressed until “extra virgin olive oil,” with an acid level no higher than .08 percent, pours out. “Virgin” olive oil is limited to two percent acidity—same process, riper olives. Refining with heat or chemicals can turn imperfect, bruised or old olives into edible oil, albeit devoid of flavor and aroma. “Pure” and “light” oils are all or part refined oil.

Where its olives are grown is part of an oil’s pedigree. Your olive oil is most likely imported from the Mediterranean, where archaeologists have found evidence of olive oil production going back at least 6,000 years. By some estimates, America imports 97 percent of its consumption.

This is not to say there is anything innately inferior about American olives. They grow in California, Texas and the “Olive Belt,” stretching from South Carolina to Mississippi. However, it is a relatively new industry in the U.S. The self-proclaimed “oldest” American olive oil producer is only 80 years old. The largest domestic producer of olive oil has grown its market share somewhat quickly thanks to mechanized harvesters, a newer technology not yet widely used overseas.

Every nation thinks its olive oil is the best, and marketers capitalize on the reputation of a country to sell oil to American consumers. In other words, the phrase “Made in Italy” is on a lot of oil, but you need to know more to determine quality.

Indicators of Quality

Italian olive oils, for example, may have origin labels that are a reasonable indicator of quality. Protected Designation of Origin (PDO/DOP) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI/IGP) labels are guarantees of authenticity, regulated by the European Union. A PDO oil has an attribute that is unique to its geography (in wine lingo, terroir), whereas PGI indicates region alone. The E.U. applies such labels to wine and other agricultural products, like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and champagne and cognac.

Olive oil lovers like to talk about traceability and authenticity. One in 20 people I meet at tastings asks me, “Did you see that 60 Minutes episode…?” about how the Italian Mafia counterfeits extra virgin olive oil. The product is adulterated with inferior oils, possibly oils from outside of Italy, colorants and deodorizer… if there is even any extra virgin content at all. This is a national crisis to Italians, who use 10 times as much olive oil per person as Americans. For them, olive oil authenticity is a matter of national pride, and it has a direct impact on the economy.

I am fortunate in that I can respond confidently when asked about the source of the oil I sell. For the past four years, I have worked for a Wilmington company that is the exclusive American importer of a single-source oil from a family-owned Italian farm and frantoio (olive mill). Olevano Olive Oil is pressed from hand-picked olives grown in Wilmington’s sister city, Olevano sul Tusciano, in Salerno. When I mention the surnames of the Wilmington owners, Delle Donne (Tom) and Fierro (Al), to locals, and describe how it’s their cousins in Italy who pick the olives, Delawareans often recognize some connection to the family, and thoughts of fictional Corleones hijacking our oil supply are quickly forgotten.

Marketing and regulation aside, country and region can be a reflection of your flavor preferences. Oil from northern Italy—Tuscany, for example—can seem lighter in mouthfeel than other oils, but no less flavorful. Further south toward Umbria, peppery olive oils dominate. Southern Italian olives, such as those from Campania and Puglia, produce full-flavored, fruity oil.

Planning a Tasting Party

Armed with what you now know about process and origin, you may be ready to dive into the world of what Rachael Ray calls “EVOO” (extra virgin olive oil). Tasting parties are a trendy way to experience good EVOO, and sites like Williams-Sonoma.com offer party planning tips.

Buy several bottles, or have each guest—ideal party size is three to eight people—bring a bottle, aiming for a variety of origins or attributes (filtered or unfiltered, buttery or peppery, grassy or fruity, consecutive harvests, distinct varietals). Serve room temperature, in order from mild to strong flavor, and observe the swirl and the nose, before loudly slurping (yes, really) and swishing the oil in your mouth, just like wine. Skip the official cobalt glass in favor of wine glasses, which tasters can hold in their palms to temper the oil, or you can opt for single-use plastic tasting cups for beginners.

Search “what wine pairs with olive oil” for beverage ideas. Don’t forget the “spit cup” and palate-cleansing bread or tart apples, and give guests pen and paper to write notes. After the tasting, try your favorite oils on bruschetta, buffalo mozzarella and even vanilla ice cream.

Visit Fusion Taster’s Choice in Wilmington, the Olive Orchard in Rehoboth Beach or visit a vendor (like me) at an arts and crafts festival, for low-key tasting opportunities. No time to taste? Buy your oil where the foodies shop, like Capers and Lemons or Janssen’s Market.

When it’s time to cook, remember “smoke point.” Exceeding any oil’s smoke point creates bitterness and devalues EVOO’s health benefits (in fighting diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis), but is not hard to avoid. At its lowest reported temperature, EVOO’s smoke point is close to that of butter. If you wouldn’t fry a cutlet in butter, don’t fry it in good EVOO. Low acid makes EVOO more versatile than some would have you believe, but pros still suggest saving the expensive stuff for dishes where its subtle flavors will shine: salad dressings, drizzles, dipping, quick sautés or braises.

As a gastronaut, you may even set your sights on becoming an “olive oil sommelier.” OliveOilTimes.com offers a course through the International Culinary Center in New York City. The first of three courses costs $1,200; you’ll taste 100 oils from 25 countries over a three-day weekend, learn the history and process of making EVOO, how to judge the quality and attributes of an oil, and more. Sommelier candidates complete two additional levels of coursework. Alternatively, for $350 plus airfare, you can get a “Master of Olive Oil” certification in Los Angeles (nasommelier.com).

Whatever level of expertise you aspire to, tasting olive oil is perfectly positioned to be a palate-pleasing pastime for trend seekers.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.