Olives In the Wine Country?

One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’ But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’
—Judges 9:8-9

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.
—Psalms 52:8

Move over grapes, the olives are coming. As olives thrive in much the same micro-climate as grapes, our wine growing regions have seen thousands of new olive trees being planted recently. They are not only being planted for their economic benefits, but people are lining their drive-ways and placing them in their gardens for their beauty as well.

Who grows olives?

The United States is the third largest supplier of olives and olive oil in the world with 11.2 % of the world market. 98% of U.S. production comes out of California. U.S. olive production is behind Spain with 26.1% and Turkey with 13.4%. Greece has 9.3%, Morocco 8.1%, Syria 6.2% and Italy with 5.8%

Olive history

The olive tree, known as Olea Europaca has been around since the beginning of recorded history. The first tree is believed to have come from Syria in the year 3000 B.C. The Semitic people cultured the olive and traded in its oil. Numerous biblical references to the olive, its cultivation, and its oil date it from 2000 B.C. Semitic influence spread olive cultivation northward into what is now Turkey, and south intoEgypt.

Three to four thousand years ago, the Egyptians would bury olive branches and preserved and cured olives with their Pharaohs for food in the afterlife. The Egyptian olive culture spread west in the Arab world through Africa to southern Spain.

The ancient Crete people were responsible for the spread of olive culture to the early Greeks and Romans around the year 900 B.C. Olive oil has been used as a weapon of war (pouring hot olive oil on the enemy), to a symbol of peace.

Olive oil has been used as a healing ointment and as a food for thousands of years.

In the early 1700’s the olive was brought to California by Franciscan padres led by Father Junipero Serra. The Franciscans established Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1776 and within 2 decades olives were being grown at the mission. As settlers moved from the new San Diego, they would develop their olive orchards. Today 35% California’s olive production comes from Sacramento Valley. San Joaquin Valley produces approximately 65%. All other olive production equaling about 3% comes from the rest of this great state.

You will notice that the preeminent growing locations, have “Valley” as an important clue to their success. Its no wonder that Napa, and Sonoma Valley’s have now gotten on the bandwagon with this ancient fruit tree.

Guess who leads the world in olive growing technology?

From a modest beginning in California, the olive industry began to flourish into a big business. You may be surprised to learn that Californians created the techniques that led the world in proper processing of olives. In 1899 G. E. Colby and Frederick Bioletti of the University of California Berkeley had shown the world that the larger bitter fruit could be palatable and nutritious. They demonstrated that ripe olives could be preserved indefinitely in a weak brine when sufficiently heated and hermetically sealed in glass. Within a decade Bioletti perfected a method of canning olives in tins, that in turn gave growers better control of product supply.

This new technology led to growers all over the valleys in California planting olive orchards to meet the growing world wide demand. Several other olive specialists brought in their ideas and more varietals were born into this boom area.

In 1919, 35 people died from botulism after eating improperly canned black olives; there was a sudden subsequent drop in demand for canned olives. It took over 10 years and more advanced canning technology for the public to gain their confidence back and begin eating olives again. By 1925 California had a booming 26,000 acres of olives going to harvest each year. The olive business was stable for the next 5 decades. In the 1970’s a new water supply was brought to the southwest San Joaquin Valley and even more olive acreage was planted.

Unfortunately, with this new water supply came a devastating disease called verticillium wilt and olive knot that caused nearly all of the orchards to die in the 1980s. But, by the end of the decade the olive industry was booming again and today appears to be gaining ground for a big future.

Most common olive varietals

Today there are several varietals of olives being grown in California. The top 5 are Manzanillo, Ascolano, Mission, Barouni, Sevillano. Manzanillo represents over 58% of all of the production, followed by Sevillano with almost 28%, then comes Mission at approximately 9%, then Ascolano with 3.68%, Barouni at just over 1% and all others at less that 1/2 of 1%.

Each varietal of orchard has its own unique needs, and require different spacing, soils, and techniques for harvesting. This new intruder to vineyard territory is very much like the grape vine. A root stock is planted, then the olive varietal is grafted to the root stock later. The soils that grapes thrive in are much like the soils that the olive tree likes. The harvest times are about the same.

The process of making wine: Harvest, de stem, Crush, Ferment, Bottle

Grapes vs. Olives, handling differences

There are a few differences in handling olives versus grapes. The olive grows on a tree that can reach 30 or more feet, while the grape grows on a vine that is no more that chest high. The grapes come in neat little clusters equaling a pound or more each, the olives are spread all over the tree and require the picker to pick them one by one. Ladders are required for most olive harvests, while just a basket and a vineyard knife are the tools of the trade for harvesting grapes. These are just a few differences that make the economics vary.

The economics of commercial olive production

Where is the economics in the olive business you ask? It’s in the oil or in canning although real money is being made today by producers that market a fancy gourmet special such as Garlic Olive Oil, Rosemary Olive Oil, Onion Olive Oil, Tarragon Olive Oil, or combinations of the above or other spices that enhance the taste. Some boutique olive oil makers sell their extra virgin blends for over $50 for a 750 liter engraved bottle.

It’s only a matter of time before small boutique olive oil makers start springing up all over the winecountry. In the last few years Napa and Sonoma counties have been recognized for some of the top award winning olive oils. Fine olive oil producers presently in production in the California wine country include:

  • B. R. Cohn, Glen Ellen, Sonoma County (800) 330-4064
  • DaVero, Healsdburg, Sonoma County (707) 431-8000
  • Evo, Yountville, Napa County (800) 386-7645
  • Harrison Winery & Vineyards, St. Helena, Napa County (707) 963-8271
  • Lita Jaeger, Napa, Napa County (707) 255-4456
  • Katz & Company, Yountville, Napa County (800) 455-2305
  • McEvoy of Marin, Petaluma, Sonoma County (707) 778-2307
  • Nick Sciabica & Sons, Modesto, Stanislaus County (800) 551-9612
  • Stutz, Berkeley, Contra Costa County (800) 221-7714
  • Wente Vineyards, Livermore, Alameda (800) 959-3683

These are a just few of the olive oil makers that are known for their superior quality. The next time you are visiting the wine country, you may find that a number of tasting rooms offer olive oil tastings as well as wine samples.


The olive tree, its branch, and its magnificent oil have served mankind since the beginning of recorded history. It’s only fitting that this magnificent fruit should find a place of distinction in the wine country. When one drinks wine and uses olive oil in combination with garlic and fresh, low fat foods, one can expect to live a long, healthy life.

Most of the information and statistics in this article came from the “Olive Production Manual” from the University of California, Davis, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

John Bergman is celebrating his 30th year in real estate this year. He specializes in vineyard, estate, ranch and winery sales in the wine country. John’s commercial real estate background has offered him the ability to crunch the numbers for performance on almost every type of real estate investment available. Why not vineyard estate living?

John also writes many articles that can be found on the Internet on his own Website. Other articles include “How to buy a Vineyard”, “What does it cost to produce a glass of wine,” “Vineyard values, past, present, and future,” “Vineyard values for 1996.”

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