What's Extra-Virgin really mean?

The #1 question I get is, "what makes an oil "extra-virgin"?  There are many posts online that outline the requirements for "extra-virgin" status, and it can get detailed and lengthy, but it's worth knowing what you're buying and why "extra-virgin olive oil" comes at a premium price. 

It comes down to one simple concept: purety.  Extra-Virgin olive oils are free of chemical and sensory defects.  Identifying those defects can be difficult to the untrained taste bud, which is why producers rely on a certified lab to conduct chemical analysis on the oil, and a trained tasting panel to determine if any sensory defects are present.  If the oil meet or exceeds the parameters set, the oil qualifies as "extra-virgin".

Let's take a closer look at what this really means.

Chemical Analsyis: Olive oils are tested for Free-Fatty Acid (FFA) content. Why is this important? A low FFA number equates to a) properly handled olives prior to milling, b) olives of sound quality and free of pests (ie. olive fly), c) good milling technique and d) proper storage of the oil.  The threhold set are as follows:

* International level is 0.08%.  

* California level is 0.05%

Olive oils with a FFA at or below the below thresholds qualify as "extra-virgin".  

Sensory Analysis: Sensory analysis, in my opinion, is the most important measure of a quality oil.  Olive oils samples are sent to a certified sensory panel, who then conduct a blind taste test of the oil.  There can be zero detectable defects in the oil.  Additionally, the panel ranks the "positive" attributes of the oil on a number scale. The three positive attributes are Fruitiness, Pungency and Bitterness.  

A failure in either the Chemical or Sensory test will not allow an olive oil to be called "extra-virgin".  Based on the scores of the FFA, the oil will received a designation of "Virgin" or simply, "Olive Oil".  

When purchasing olive oil, look for a certified seal (such as the COOC: California Olive Oil Council") or ask the producer to show their results from sensory and chemical analysis. To see Olio De Nardi's results, click here



Laser etching on ceramic


For our new 500ml ceramic bottle, we wanted a unique, permanent logo that would compliment the matte black color of the bottle.  Tapping my good friend Rick Pepper at, he suggested trying to etch the logo using his laser machine.  The challenge came in finessing the laser to etch evenly over a curved surface.  With millimeter nudges here and there and a few hours of testing, the machine coordinates were locked in.  Each bottle was manually placed into the laser box, with a total laser etching time of about 1 minute per bottle.  The color was achieved by having the laser remove the top layer of black glaze and reaching the natural color of the ceramic material.   The result: a permanent logo, that won't peel, deteriorate, or fade in time.  

Rick uses his laser machine to craft elegant personal ID tags, using high-grade titanium.  He's able to etch individual contact information on one side (emergency contact, address, etc) and what's more remarkable, add color logos and designs on the backside.  It's really amazing what he's doing with this technology.  Check out the Crashtag product at



2016 Harvest

For the past month, I've been taking daily walks through the orchard to assess the maturity of the olives, which gives me some insight when to actually harvest the olives.  There's a peak picking window of about three weeks, where if you're able to harvest during this optimal period, you're maximizing oil quantity in the fruit, maximizing polyphenols and getting that robust, spicy flavor profile that defines the tuscan EVO profile. 

This past week, Sofie and I traveled to New Orleans.  Sofie had a work conference, and I tagged along for my first trip to NOLA.  I was amazed by the genuine friendliness of the locals, the very laid-back vibe of city, the gorgeous architecture of the French Quarters, riding the oldest trolley in the US dating back to 1839 (St. Charles Line), eating local cuisine and listening to live music along Frenchman Street. 

It was on Frenchman Street one evening where I passed three men and a woman, sitting in chairs in front of small folding tables, with antique typewriters (well, they looked old!) and a sign reading "Pick a Subject, Get a Poem".  Randomly, I selected this guy named David to write me a poem. "So, what's your topic?", asked David.  "Olive oil", I replied.  He scratched his head, sat there in silence for a while, then asked me a few questions.  A few minutes later, the "peck peck peck" of the typewriter began, then stopped.  It started again, then stopped.  A few more questions.  Fifteen minutes later, David pulls out the neatly typed paper and hands it to me. 

Here is David's poem, on olive oil. 

Thank you David for reminding me that I'm doing what I love, no matter how hard, tedious and unpredictable the farming life may be. 



Harvest 2015

The 2015 olive harvest began on a warm Sat. morning on Oct. 10, that turned into an unseasonably hot day.  The harvest was 2 weeks earlier than the previous year, and 3 weeks earlier than in prior years.  About 25 volunteers showed up bright and early to roll up their sleeves, lay down tarps and begin stripping the olives off the heavy fruit-laden branches.   Some pickers preferred the over-the-shoulder picking baskets, others formed teams of 3-4 and tackled one tree at a time.  Moving up and down the 15%-20% slopes provided a tough workout but I heard nary a complaint (except for the cry of "when's lunch!??).  Once a tree was complete, the olives would get rolled into 45lbs crates and hauled up to the storage area.  My 82-year old father had the task of running the leaf-blower machine (patent-pending!).   A nifty invention from a neighbor friend, the olives are unloaded into a gently sloped holding container, and as they slowly descend the ramp, a heavy GenAir blower blasts away the leaves, twigs and small particles, leaving just clean fruit to drop below into a holding crate.   The workers grew weary by noon (some at it since 7:30am) but I coaxed them into picking until 1pm when we feasted on paella (made by my lovely wife Sofie and my mother), oven-roasted tomato and goat cheese tarts, salads and sangria.   

Forty crates later, the harvest was complete. Time of death, 7:05pm.  The mill wasn't able to take the fruit that evening but fortunately, I was able to keep them in a cold room at 57F and take them the following morning.  About 45 minutes away in the golden Capay Valley lies the Seka Hills Olive Mill and their state-of-the art Alfa Laval mill.   After unloading the macro bin and crates, the Aussie worker weighed the fruit and started the mill.  I got to talking with the mill operators, a trio of contracted Australians who go around the world working the olive harvest.  We talked about the incredible Spanish area of Jaen, the largest olive growing region in the world, where they had worked the previous year.  From start to finish the elapsed time took 1 hour 40 minutes.  I could tell from the yellow-green/asparagus color that it would be an exceptional oil.   Though only my 5th harvest, the color and smell of the oil is indication enough on the quality of the oil.  The yield was quite high, coming in at 12.44 lbs of olives per liter of oil.  The yield is predicated on so many factors, such as type of mill, olive varietal, ripeness of the fruit and malaxation time.  I can control my varietals and ripeness and then it's up to the mill operator to optimize the oil yield.  This is my 2nd time with Seka Hills and I've been extremely pleased with the way David Olander runs the operation.  It is first-class all the way.

Now, it's time for the oil to settle so that all the micro-particles fall to the bottom of the container. When I bottle (mid-November), the oil should be clear (not cloudy) but perhaps with some very minor sediment present.  As an olive producer, I've chosen to not filter the oil, believing that there the flavor quality is best when the oil is left "as is".   

The other decision producers make is when to release the oil.  In Italy, the new oil, called "olio nuovo", is considered the best of the best.  The oil is at its peak freshness, which often comes with a spicy, peppery finish.  For the uninitiated, olio nuovo is a slap in the face, a 6am wake-up call, sort of a bucket-challenge if you will.  But to those who've tried it, there's really no comparison.  It's nothing short of exceptional and if you've never heard an angel me!