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Tina Caputo

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Petaluma, California

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In her day job, Tina is the editor-in-chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, a wine business magazine based in Northern California. Before joining V&WM, she was the managing editor of Wines & Vines magazine. Throughout her career Tina has written about wine and lifestyle topics as a freelancer for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Review Online, US Airways magazine and Decanter.

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Dungeness Crabs are a Bay Area Holiday Tradition Image

As Americans there are certain holiday food traditions many of us share: turkey at Thanksgiving, gingerbread at Christmas. But in addition to these commonalities, regional specialties, from tamales in Texas to kalua turkeys in Hawaii, contribute local flavor to our celebrations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the holiday table wouldn’t be complete without Dungeness crabs.

This succulent bottom-feeder was first harvested commercially from the San Francisco/Bodega Bay waters in the mid-1800s, and Bay Area residents have been feasting on its sweet meat ever since.

The region’s commercial crab fishing season opens just before Thanksgiving and lasts only as long as the crabs do. Often, the supply runs out not long after the ringing in of the New Year. With such a short season, Northern Californians strive to eat as many Dungeness crabs as possible before they disappear — and what better time to do it than the holidays?

Unlike the ubiquitous Thanksgiving turkey, Dungeness crabs are not associated with a particular winter holiday. Some people have them for Christmas, others for New Year’s Eve, or even Black Friday.

For Joy Sterling, whose family owns Iron Horse Vineyards in western Sonoma County, Thanksgiving is the best time for crabs. “Our tradition is to start with cold, cracked Dungeness crab fresh from Bodega Bay, just 13 miles from us as the crow flies,” she said. It’s served buffet style, as a pre-turkey appetizer, along with the winery’s unoaked Chardonnay. “We like a traditional Louis dressing, which is a Northern California invention, sliced Meyer lemons, bright Rangpur limes and regular limes.”

At the Stony Point location of Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa, people begin lining up at 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve to buy Dungeness crabs for their holiday feasts. Before the day is over, the store will easily sell 1,000 pounds of crab. “It takes at least an hour to get through the line,” crab-lover Kelly Keagy of Santa Rosa said, “but people are nice and in a good mood.”

Keagy’s family has been eating crabs on Christmas Eve for the last 10 years, accompanied by warm sourdough bread and salad. “When the kids were little, crab wouldn’t have been high on their list of favorite foods,” she said. “Now that everybody is older, crab and Champagne are the highlights of our Christmas Eve.”

Supply and demand

Having a family tradition of eating Dungeness crabs at Thanksgiving can be a bit risky, due to supply fluctuations. Some would even call it foodhardy.

“Three things can affect availability at Thanksgiving,” said Scott Lenhart, founder of San Francisco Crabs, which supplies live Dungeness crabs to individuals, restaurants and retailers. “One is a bad crab season, or something like the oil spill a few years ago where they don’t catch any. Second, there can be strikes, when crab fishermen are negotiating for pricing. Then you can also have horrendous weather.”

International orders can also cut into the local crab supply. “China’s taken a huge amount of crab from us, and that’s one reason the prices are going up,” Lenhart said. “There’s a huge Asian market for Dungeness crab for special occasions, and for the rising middle class.”

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis.

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis

And because Northern California’s Dungeness crab season opens before those in Oregon and Alaska, out-of-state crabbers head south to get an early start. “They come to our waters and scour our crabs,” Lenhart said.

Even so, he always has Dungeness crabs on his Thanksgiving table. “I’ve been having Dungeness crab with turkey for a long time,” he said. The crabs are simply boiled with a little sea salt, and eaten without embellishment. “You don’t need garlic or butter. It’s good right out of the pot as soon as it’s cool enough to eat.”

Getting creative with crabs

At Nick’s Cove Restaurant, in the town of Marshall on Tomales Bay, executive chef Austin Perkins gives Dungeness crabs a gourmet twist. For the restaurant’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, as an alternative to the traditional turkey entrée, he serves up wood-fired whole Dungeness crab with fingerling potatoes and rosemary butter.

“Dungeness is a little bit sweeter and a lot milder than most other types of crab,” Perkins said. “We use it in many different ways at the restaurant, from crab cakes to our Dungeness crab mac and cheese.”

For those boiling crabs at home, he offered this advice: “After cooking, you need to remove the top part of the crab’s shell and remove all the intestines. After that, look for grayish gills on the sides and scrape those away as well.” Then the crab is ready to crack and eat, or use in a recipe.

Although Lenhart of San Francisco Crabs prefers his Dungeness crabs unadorned, he said he also likes them deep fried, or simmered in cioppino, San Francisco’s signature fish stew. “There’s nothing wrong with ginger crab at a nice Chinese restaurant, either,” he said. “But for Thanksgiving, you don’t need any sauces. You just can’t beat it.”

Nick’s Cove Dungeness Crab Cakes

Cooking Time: About 6 minutes per batch (3 minutes per side)

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound Dungeness crab meat, cooked and shelled

2 cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 cup panko bread crumbs, plus an additional 1/2 cup for coating

Oil for pan frying (preferably rice bran oil or vegetable oil)

For garnish:

Spicy Paprika Aioli (recipe below)

Arugula and shaved fennel

Directions

1. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and combine with hands until thoroughly mixed.

2. Weigh out 1 1/2 ounce portions and form them into cakes.

3. Roll cakes to coat in more panko, and brown them on the top and bottom surfaces in a hot sauté pan coated with oil (about 3 tablespoons, enough to cover the bottom of the pan).

4. Serve with Spicy Paprika Aioli, arugula and shaved fennel.

Spicy Paprika Aioli

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons smoked paprika

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1/2 tablespoon salt

Directions

Whisk everything together to combine.

Main photo: A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock

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American Brewing Steams Along With Crafts Image

In the early ’90s, I worked in a trendy London pub that served beers from around the world. One of those brews, served in bottles, was Anchor Steam. I had never heard of this so-called San Francisco beer and had my doubts that it actually had distribution in the United States. I was wrong, of course. Under various names, Anchor Brewing Co. had been around for more than 100 years by the time I “discovered” it.

America’s beer landscape was just beginning to shift in those days, from a country with only a few hundred breweries to one with an exploding microbrewery scene. (The revolution was sparked by Fritz Maytag, who rescued Anchor from bankruptcy in 1965 and revived America’s craft brewing industry.) By 1996 there were more than 1,000 breweries in the United States. Today there are nearly 3,000, and the surge shows no sign of abating.

Beer tastes have changed a lot since the ’90s, with hoppy brews taking center stage. While I enjoy the occasional IPA, I find many to be over-the-top hoppy, akin to over-oaked Chardonnay. I usually gravitate toward English or German-style beers. They’re flavorful, but also balanced, and low enough in alcohol that I can drink more than one and remain upright.

In my quest for flavorful, well-balanced beers, I recently rediscovered Anchor Steam. How had I forgotten it? With its creamy head, deep caramel color and malty flavor, it’s practically the perfect beer.

Making steam beer

Anchor’s iconic “steam beer” was introduced in 1896, but it wasn’t sold in bottles until 1971.

During a recent tour of Anchor Brewing Co., I was told that the beer was named for the steam that rose from the brewery’s rooftop as San Francisco’s night air cooled the wort (unfermented beer) after boiling.

Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter, who joined the brewery the same year Anchor Steam made its debut in bottles, offered another explanation.

“Steam beer is just a funny name given to this beer that was developed on the West Coast at the time of the Gold Rush,” he said. “With the Gold Rush came a huge influx of northern Europeans and these guys wanted beer. So brewers started setting up crude little breweries. Some wanted to make lager beer, and one of the features of lager was that it was carbonated.”

This was done through a process called krausening (“KROY-zen-ing”), in which an actively fermenting beer is added to an older one to bring about a secondary fermentation. “It carbonates the beer, and it also has an influence on its flavor,” Carpenter said. When these highly carbonated beers were brought into bars where there was no refrigeration to temper the carbonation, they produced a lot of foam when they were tapped.

“Somebody said it looked like they were trying to tap a keg filled with steam,” Carpenter said, and a nickname was born.

Anchor still makes its steam beer in the traditional way, boiling wort and mashing malt in huge copper kettles.

Although the brewery’s production has increased over the decades and its offerings have expanded, Anchor hasn’t outgrown its artisanal methods. “We only use whole hop flowers,” Carpenter said. “We don’t use extracts and we don’t use pellets. Most small breweries these days do.” Another distinction, he added, is that the brewhouse is run “by people, not computers.”

Expanding and innovating

Carpenter does not expect much to change next year, when Anchor opens a second brewing facility at San Francisco’s Pier 48. The new brewhouse will nearly quadruple Anchor’s annual production capacity from 180,000 barrels to 680,000.

“Wherever it’s better for the beer for us to go high tech, we do,” he said. “For instance, our fermenters now are stainless steel, but originally those would have been pitch-lined redwood — just a nightmare to keep clean. So when it’s better for the beer, we do go modern. Otherwise, we try to stick with simple and traditional.”

Even so, Anchor is not stuck in the past. When Fritz Maytag retired in 2010 and sold the business, the new owners asked Carpenter to start developing new beers for the line.

“When I started with Anchor, we only made Anchor Steam Beer,” Carpenter said. “Then we developed our Porter, Old Foghorn Barleywine, our Liberty Ale — and many of those were the very first of their varieties in America. I think we’re still innovating.”

Anchor still has a traditional, all-copper brewhouse. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

Anchor still has a traditional, all-copper brewhouse. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

One such innovation was Anchor’s Zymaster Series. “The idea was that we would do these one-off beers from time to time and just see how they were accepted,” Carpenter said. “It’s a fun thing that shows our creativity. Not every beer has to be a winner.”

The series has included brews such as Mark’s Mild, Fort Ross Farmhouse Ale, Saareemaa Pale Ale, and (coming soon) Potrero Hill Sour Mash IPA.

With the wild popularity of hoppy beers today, one might be tempted to think that Anchor is jumping on the bandwagon with its Zymaster Series IPA. Not so; the brewery’s Liberty Ale, introduced in 1975, was the first modern American IPA brewed after Prohibition. At the time, Carpenter wondered if the public could handle all those hops. “Lots of people, including us at the brewery, wondered if anybody would drink it,” he said. “That was considered a brutally hopped beer when it first came out. Now it’s mainstream.”

Although he says IPAs are here to stay, Carpenter predicts that the style will become less extreme. “I think they will be a little lower in hops and have more body,” he said. “I think those types of beers are going to be around forever.”

His favorite beer, however, is still the classic Anchor Steam, and this beer drinker is inclined to agree.

Main photo: Anchor Steam beer has been sold in bottles since 1971. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

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Great Rieslings Are Made In America Too Image

When most people think of great Rieslings, their minds wander to Germany’s Mosel, Rheingau or Alsace wine regions. There’s a good reason for that: For centuries, German producers have been making some of the world’s finest white wines from Riesling grapes.

But did you know that there are also some beautiful Rieslings being made in the United States? Cool-climate wine regions, such as those in New York, Michigan, Washington state and Oregon, are just right for growing Germany’s signature grape.

In Washington, the country’s largest producer of Riesling wines, the grape is grown mainly in the eastern part of the state, in the Columbia Valley appellation. Washington Rieslings are typically ripe and floral, with peachy notes and a touch of sweetness.

Oregon grows far less Riesling than its neighbor to the north — the variety was pushed out when Pinot Noir took center stage in the ’90s — but Riesling is making a comeback in Beaver State vineyards. Most of it is planted on the western side of the Cascades, where there’s plenty of rainfall. Compared with Washington Rieslings, Oregon’s tend to be higher in acidity.

Riesling grapes also thrive in the eastern United States, most notably in New York’s Finger Lakes appellation. That’s largely because the region has a truly cool climate (some would say freezing), and its eponymous lakes keep the vines from freezing in the winter, and prevent them from getting overheated in the summer. The resulting Rieslings have incredibly vibrant acidity that lends itself to both dry and sweet styles.

Although it’s lesser known than the Finger Lakes, northern Michigan is beginning to gather steam as a Riesling region. The best examples come from the Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula, which benefit from chilly temperatures and close proximity to Lake Michigan. Michigan Rieslings are clean and crisp, with plenty of acidity to balance any sweetness.

A perfect wine for fall

Although American Rieslings, especially the crisp, drier styles, are wonderful to drink in the warmer months, there’s something about them that’s perfect for fall. This is especially true at the dinner table.

According to restaurateur Amanda Danielson, co-founder of the annual City of Riesling festival in Traverse City, Mich., Riesling is a particularly good match for fall foods. “Riesling’s acidity has a cleansing effect and makes each bite taste like the first,” said Danielson, who owns Trattoria Stella and The Franklin restaurants in Michigan’s Riesling country. “The apple character in many Rieslings evokes memories of fall and, if accompanied by some residual sugar, can pair beautifully with multiple courses. Think butternut squash soup and apple salad with lardons. Many Rieslings will also pair nicely with roasted birds, from chicken to squab.”

With Thanksgiving just over the horizon, what better way to bring local flavor to the table? With styles from bone-dry to lusciously sweet, there’s a great American Riesling to pair with every dish on the table.

Here are six delicious Rieslings to try this fall:

Tierce 2012 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling ($30): This wine is a collaboration between a trio of Finger Lakes winemakers: Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards, Johannes Reinhardt of Anthony Road Winery and David Whiting of Red Newt Cellars. Made in a dry, austere style, the wine has aromas of petrol (a classic Riesling characteristic, and a positive one), citrus and orange blossom. It’s crisp and tangy, with lovely mineral notes.

Blustone Vineyards 2013 Leelanau Peninsula Riesling ($18): This wine is an excellent example of how pretty the Rieslings from Michigan can be. It has an enticing peachy aroma, with just a suggestion of sweetness on the palate. Tanginess, crisp acidity and mineral notes provide perfect counterpoints to the wine’s richer elements.

Chehalem 2012 Chehalem Mountains Riesling, Corral Creek Vineyards ($29): This wine from pioneering Oregon Pinot Noir producer Chehalem needs a little time in the bottle to come out of its shell, but fans of subtlety will enjoy it right this minute. With a slight petrol aroma, it’s crisp and quite dry, with notes of granny smith apples and stone fruits.

Gill’s Pier 2013 Leelanau Peninsula Semi-Dry Riesling ($16.95): Along with a pleasant sweetness and some peachy notes, this Michigan Riesling has plenty of bracing acidity and zesty lemon-lime flavors to balance its residual sugar. The wine finishes with a bright kiss of lime.

EFESTE 2012 Columbia Valley Evergreen Riesling ($20): This especially fine Washington state Riesling has aromas of apples and mineral, along with bright, tangy flavors of citrus fruits and green apples. The wine is crisp and dry, with a lemony finish.

Black Star Farms Arcturos 2012 Old Mission Peninsula Winter Harvest Riesling ($15/375 mL): Although this is not an ice wine — for that, regulations require that the grapes freeze on the vines before picking — this Michigan beauty has similarly luscious characteristics. The wine has wonderful aromas of apricots and honey, with flavors to match. It’s intensely sweet and viscous, yet expertly balanced.

Main photo: Rieslings from Michigan, Oregon and New York are excellent with fall foods. Credit: Tina Caputo

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How Artisans Harvest Wine Corks In Portugal Image

The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.

This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.

Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.

Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.

In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.

The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!

Skill and strength

Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.

As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”

As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.

Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:

First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)

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Portugal's "debarkers" are the highest-paid agricultural workers in the world. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.

Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.

The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.

Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

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Summer’s Not Just for White; It’s OK To Chill Red Wine Image

When the temperature climbs near triple digits and you’re outdoors feeling the heat, there’s nothing like a nice refreshing glass of … red wine. I know what you’re thinking: red wine on a hot day? You must be crazy!

But before you head for the cooler full of ice-cold beer or chilled white wine, answer this question: What’s going to taste better with the juicy burger or gorgeous rib eye you’re grilling? “Lite” beer or Pinot Noir? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course.)

The trick to making red wine suitable for summer is simple. Just chill it.

I’m not talking about keeping the bottle in the refrigerator for days or plunging it into an ice chest for hours. I’m merely suggesting that you bring the wine down to a more hospitable serving temperature by popping it into the fridge for a short period or putting it on ice until it’s lightly chilled.

This may sound like blasphemy to some people, but I’ve seen many a winemaker chill down their reds before serving them on hot summer days. They are also not above dropping the occasional ice cube into a glass of wine. If winemakers do it, why can’t you?

The right reds

When choosing a red for the cooler, steer clear of big, oaky wines. Don’t even think about chilling a Brunello di Montalcino or Napa Cab, or you’ll be sorry. The cold mutes the fruit and complexity in those big reds, amplifying the oak and alcohol.

What you do want is a fruity red with some finesse. Beaujolais is a classic example of a chillable red, but other wines, such as Pinot Noir, Grenache and lighter styles of Zinfandel, can also benefit from the ice bucket. Sparkling red wines — not rosés, but true reds — were born to be chilled, and the drier styles (think sparkling Shiraz from Australia) are excellent with grilled meats and sausages.

Dry red sparklers, served cold, are refreshing and pair well with grilled meats. Credit: Tina Caputo

Dry red sparklers, served cold, are refreshing and pair well with grilled meats. Credit: Tina Caputo

Just cold enough

There’s a very good reason most people avoid drinking red wines in hot weather: Reds served at “room temperature,” which in the summer can easily be 75 degrees Fahrenheit, are not at their best. Warmer temperatures can render them flat and lifeless, and far from refreshing.

In my home experiments, I’ve found the ideal temperature for red wines to be around 65. Any colder than that and they begin losing their aroma and flavor complexities. In a refrigerator set to 38, as mine is, it takes about 30 minutes for a bottle of wine to reach the desired serving temperature. The timing is a bit less for chilling a bottle on ice. (If a chilled red seems dull and muted, warm the bowl of the glass in your hands for a few minutes and it will perk right up.)

Cool reds for hot weather

Here are five chiller-ready wines, tested by yours truly, to help you beat the heat this summer:

A to Z Wineworks 2012 Oregon Pinot Noir ($19): Light red in color, this light- to medium-bodied Pinot has aromas of raspberries, cherries and spice, along with bright acidity. The wine loses a little of its brightness when chilled, but retains its lovely red fruit character.

Cantiga Wineworks 2011 El Dorado County Grenache ($28): Light, transparent red in color, this juicy wine has aromas of berries and spice. The wine has some tannic backbone and acidity, along with raspberry and vanilla flavors. Don’t let this one get too cold, or the tannins will start to take over.

Dry Creek Vineyard 2012 Sonoma County Heritage Vines Zinfandel ($20): This medium-bodied Zin has black and blue fruit aromas, with some woody notes. The wine has blackberry and cherry flavors, with moderate acidity. The chiller brought out its cherry and spice notes.

MacRostie 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($34): With aromas of red fruits and spice, the wine has bright flavors of raspberries and cinnamon. The spicy quality comes out a bit more when the wine is chilled, along with a tart cherry note on the palate.

Korbel Champagne Cellars Sonoma County Rouge ($14): This sparkling red has a base of Pinot Noir, with a tiny bit of Merlot added. The wine has a beautiful dark purple color, with fine bubbles and a black cherry aroma. It’s full bodied and flavorful, with black cherry flavor and a dry finish. Serve this one nice and cold.

Main photo: On warm days, red wines can benefit from the ice bucket. Credit: Tina Caputo

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What’s The Difference In Single-Variety Olive Oil? Image

When you buy a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, how much thought do you give to the variety of olives used to make it?

Two months ago if you’d asked me to name all the types of olives I knew, I would have managed to come up with a few: Kalamata, Mission … uh … green ones. Somehow it hadn’t crossed my mind that, like wine, olive oil reflects the variety of fruit that goes into it. And just as there are wines made with a single grape variety, there are single-variety olive oils, each with its own character.

This revelation came to me during a visit to B.R. Cohn Winery in the Sonoma Valley. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery is known for its range of extra virgin olive oils, which includes an estate oil made entirely from a French variety called Picholine.

B.R. Cohn’s Picholine olives are the size of soybeans, and yield only about 25 gallons of oil per ton compared to 50 gallons for other varieties. “Because of its low yield at the press, not many people make olive oil from the Picholine,”  winery president Dan Cohn said. “It’s very labor intensive.”

Even so, he believes the variety deserves to stand alone.

“Most of the wines we produce here are 100% Cabernet,” Cohn said. “I believe there’s something to be said about being true to the varietal.”

Cohn looks for a specific flavor profile in the Picholine oil that reflects the olive’s character. “I like a little grassiness in the front of the palate, then a little apple, then a little butter and just the right amount of pepper in the finish,”  he said.

Seeking out varietal olive oil

Talking to Cohn about the winery’s prized Picholine oil made me wonder how common single-variety olive oils really are. A visit to my neighborhood market confirmed my suspicions: Of the two dozen extra virgin olive oils on the shelves, nearly all were multi-olive blends.

However, further investigation turned up a handful of merchants selling varietal olive oils online. Among them was a local operation called The Olive Press, which runs tasting rooms in Sonoma and the Napa Valley to showcase its blended and single-variety oils from California.

“Blends are popular because they allow millers to manipulate the overall delivery of an oil,”  production manager Chris Gilmore said. “Some millers prefer to either round out or, in some cases, bolster robustness through the introduction of other varietals. This effort produces some very interesting oils, much like the blending of the central five Bordeaux varietals produces exceptional diversity in wine rather than highlighting just one.”

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The Olive Press in Sonoma offers samples of several single-variety extra virgin olive oils. Credit: Tina Caputo

But there is also a dark side to blending. “Internationally, blending is largely an effort to mask inferior export oils headed for the United States,” Gilmore said. “The grim truth is that foreign exporters will ‘blend’ a high volume of defective oil with perhaps a bit of fresh oil in the hopes of giving some life to the product. The lower prices of these oils make them attractive despite the fact that they contain none of the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.”

Gilmore likes making single-variety olive oils because it allows him to showcase the aromas and flavors of individual varieties. “Each varietal displays characteristics unique to that type of fruit, much like a pinot grape holds vastly different potential than Cabernet,” he said. “To make a well-balanced single-varietal oil is both challenging and rewarding, and it’s what gets me excited every fall.”

Tasting the difference

To taste the differences for myself, I dropped in at The Olive Press and sampled an array of varietal olive oils. Vicki Zancanella, the tasting room’s resident olive oil expert, guided me through the offerings.

OILVE OIL LINKS


To order single-variety olive oils online, visit:

» theolivepress.com

» nvoliveol.com

» oliandve.com

» allspiceonline.com

“A good extra virgin olive oil should have three things,” she said. “It should have fruitiness at the front of your palate, bitterness at the back and pungency as it goes down your throat.” And just as there are common descriptors for tasting wine, there are classic aromas and flavors in extra virgin olive oil, such as freshly cut grass and tomato leaves.

The varietal oils I tasted varied in intensity from delicate to robust, and showed a fascinating range of flavor profiles:

Arbosana: A delicate oil with a subtle aroma of banana peel, and mild bitterness at the back of the throat. Best for salads, mild greens and roasted vegetables.

Mission: Buttery, with aromas of grass, plums and tomatoes. Rich, with some bitterness on the finish. Ideal for cooking and baking.

Ascolano: Stone fruit aroma, and buttery on the palate, with peppery, pungent notes. Great for fruit salads and fresh tomatoes, or for baking.

Arbequina: A medium-intensity oil, with aromas of tomato leaves and forest floor. Some astringency on the palate, produces a nice burn at the back of the throat. Good for salads, or cooking chicken or fish.

Koroneiki: Robust, with fruity, herbaceous aromas. Smooth, creamy texture and prominent bitterness. Blend with balsamic vinegar for salad dressing or use for cooking hearty Greek fare.

Picual: Powerful “green” aroma of tomatoes, greens and tomato leaves. Quite bitter on palate, with green tomato notes and pungency at back of the throat. Drizzle lightly over caprese salads or simple pasta.

With so many flavors and uses to explore, it looks like I’m going to have to make room in my pantry for a few new bottles.

Main photo: B.R. Cohn likes to harvest its Picholine olives when they are half green and half purple. Credit: Courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery

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