A research trip to Italy in 1988 revealed the source of the exceptional olive oil of Fattoria Mansi Bernardini: a grove that was planted near Lucca, Tuscany, over 800 years ago, and which has been under the care of the same family since the XVth century. We brought cuttings back to California in 1990 — the first olive trees to be imported to the United States since the 1800s according to the US Department of Agriculture told us. Like so many immigrants in our country’s history, the “children” adapted beautifully to our soil and climate.
Olive Ridge Ranch, as we named our home farm, now boasts 4,500 of these unique trees, “clones” (sub-varietals) of the Leccino, Frantoio, Maurino, and Pendolino varietals, planted over 22 acres at a ratio of 50%, 25%, 15%, and 10%, respectively. We are also blessed with the opportunity to care for two other groves planted on friends’ lands.
Two other groves planted on friends’ lands
- In Knights Valley, friends are letting us care for a five-acre grove of our trees planted on their land. This beautiful property, which we have certified as Biodynamic, is at higher altitude than our home farm. This means the olives ripen later than ours, making them perfect for our Meyer Lemon olive oil.
- In the valley just over the hills to the West of us is another block of our trees, planted by another old friend, and now owned by a wonderful young couple who have placed the trees in our care. This farm is certified organic, and we hope to complete Biodynamic certification by the 2014 harvest.
The olives are harvested by hand over several weeks in the fall. They are pressed the day they are picked. We use a traditional stone wheel for the early part of the harvest, which emphasizes the richness inherent in the fruit. Towards the middle of the second week, we shift to a blade mill to highlight the pepperiness. The oil is unfiltered, first cold press. It is bottled in small batches throughout the year, with the unbottled oil stored under argon gas to keep it fresh.
Our Meyer Lemon Oil is made from olives harvested a month later when they are extra-ripe. This is not an infused or flavored oil. Rather, our olives are crushed together with the fragrant skins of Meyer and organic Lisbon lemons using a traditional stone mill to bring out the oils of the lemons. (We juice the fruits beforehand, reserving the juice for our addictive Meyer Lemon Curd as well as for lemonade for our tasting room.)
The 1997 olive harvest saw our first significant production. We loved it. Others did too: that oil turned out to be the very first American extra virgin olive oil to win a blind tasting in Italy!
The best was yet to come. Each year, Italy’s Gambero Rosso – sort of a Gourmet magazine meets the Michelin Guide – selects the best Italian olive oils of the new harvest. In December 1998, they brought samples to Mario Batali’s famous New York restaurant, “Babbo”, to show them off. They didn’t know that we had just sent Mario our very own sample of that year’s production. He slipped it into the blind tasting at his restaurant, and – you guessed it – the delegation from Gambero Rosso selected our ’98 DaVero Dry Creek Estate as the top Tuscan oil!
Also worth noting, we became in 2001 the first recipient of the Top Gold Award in the Olive Oils of the World competition, the industry’s most prestigious event and award.
Ultimately, though, what we seek isn’t awards from judges. We have stopped entering competitions. Our most valued prize comes instead from top chefs and home cooks delighting in our oils, and consistently coming back for more.