Striking Oil: Long Meadow Ranch develops ancient olive groves. Long Meadow Ranch's Ted Hall aims for unheard-of quality and unheard-of prices for oil from ancient olive groves.
The Napa Valley Register January 1999
By KEVIN COURTNEY
Register Staff Writer
On a hillside covered with blue tarps, a crew of men swarms like locusts over ancient trees. They run their hands along the lower branches and shake the upper reaches with a flapping mechanical device resembling an angry duck on a pole.
With the pitter-patter of hail, hard black fruit rains down on plastic. This is Long Meadow Ranch Winery's second harvest.
Three months ago, this picking crew stripped adjacent vineyards of grapes that will be turned into cabernet sauvignon selling for $45 a 750 ml bottle.
This January afternoon, the pickers are bringing in the olive crop, which will have an equally pricey fate. These black nuggets will be turned into an ultra-premium, extra-virgin oil selling for $45 a 500 ml designer bottle.
It will be some of the highest-priced olive oil in the world, ranking with the best of Italy's Tuscany and Umbria regions.
Ultra premium wines, ultra premium olive oils. Only products that command world-class prices can earn their keep in the rarefied world that is Napa Valley agriculture, said Ted Hall, owner of Long Meadow Ranch Winery with his wife, Laddie.
A profusion of boutique olive oil producers have sprung up within the past few years. Many are Napa Valley vintners suddenly aware that the trees bordering their manicured driveways produce a marketable fruit.
Olive oil is a hot niche agricultural product, said David Whitmer, the county's agricultural commissioner. It's so new that he doesn't have production figures. Olive cultivation is probably less than 60 acres, but growing, he said.
Hall, a senior partner with McKinsey & Associates, an international management consulting firm, bought his first acres on Whitehall Lane south of St. Helena in 1989, intending to grow grapes and vegetables organically.
As he explored the property, he discovered olive orchards dating from the 1880s that had been enveloped by madrone and oak forest.
At first he counted 100 or so trees, most of them in sad shape after decades of fending off native species. Ranging deeper into the woods, he found more hidden survivors, and the idea for a commercial olive oil operation was born.
"As recently as August 1996, I was still discovering orchards I didn't know I owned," said Hall, who has assembled more than 600 acres to reestablish the Long Meadow Ranch as it existed at the turn of the century.
While resurrecting olive orchards, Hall also began an ambitious plan to replant hillside vineyards that produced wine from the 1880s until Prohibition. The vines had died when the forest took over, but stakes from the original plantings could still be found.
Hall made his first wine in 1994. His first commercial release -- a 1996 cabernet -- will occur this year.
Last year, olive oil began to flow in tiny amounts -- a mere 600 bottles -- from seven acres with 700 trees that originally arrived on these shores from Provence, France, after being shipped around Cape Horn as cuttings.
To boost production, Hill is filling in gaps with cuttings from his heirloom survivors. On another 25 acres, he will be planting classic Italian olive varieties.
With new and old plantings, Hall hopes to be making 3,000 gallons annually within a decade, enough estate-grown, estate-produced and estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil to make the operation profitable within a few decades.
"If I can sell at my price points and harvest four tons per acre, I will make as much as growing cabernet. Mind you, it will take 15 years to prove all this," said Hall, who figures he has invested more than $2 million in his wine and olive operations.
Unlike some wealthy professionals who come to the Napa Valley to make grapes an avocation, Hall said it mattered very much that his agricultural enterprise be diversified and make a profit.
"It's time we had more than a monoculture. The land needs to be used in balance," said Hall, who doesn't enjoy the sight of vineyards stretching from horizon to horizon.
"I believe in grape farming, but in the right places," Hall said. Some hillsides aren't conducive to vineyards and all the mechanical care they require, he said.
Making money on all that he grows is a way of separating himself from the dilettantes. If his products weren't profitable, "that would destroy the whole point," he said.
Hall, 50, acquired his taste for growing things as a child living on a small family vegetable farm in western Pennsylvania. His mother was one of the nation's early organic farmers, which in the 1950s meant being "a freak," he said.
While getting his MBA at Stanford, Hall became an enthusiastic home winemaker, but he always knew there was more to agriculture than just grapes.
In time, while serving as a high-paid advisor to high-tech and financial services companies, Hall began scoping out the Napa Valley for a place to make wine and indulge his other horticultural interests.
That's why he found the Long Meadow Ranch property so appealing. "It had been a real farm," with apple orchards, herds of cattle, vineyards and wine grapes, he said.
Today, the Halls, including son Christopher, have the beginnings of a most diversified agricultural operation. Besides wine and olive oil, they have a one-acre vegetable plot that supplies the St. Helena Farmers Market.
They are starting a herd of Scottish Highland cattle -- the same beef grown by Great Britain's royal family -- with the goal of selling to restaurants willing to pay twice the price of ordinary beef.
There's also an Appaloosa horse breeding project and an egg-producing poultry flock.
Everything at Long Meadow Ranch is organic, meeting the rules of California's Organic Foods Act of 1990.
For his family, organic isn't a marketing strategy, it's a deeply held value, Hall said. Organic farming means sustainable farming, with man and his crops living more or less in harmony with nature, he said.
Advisors said he was "nuts" to plant a hillside vineyard if he couldn't fight disease and bugs with the modern arsenal of chemicals, Hall said.
His vines will be more vulnerable to mildew and pest attack than conventional vineyards, but that's a risk he is willing to live with, said Hall, who is one of only 18 organic vineyardists in the county.
The centerpiece of the Hall operation is a dual-wing production building of rammed earth designed by the late architect, William Turnbull, with wine processing on one side, olive oil on the other.
The facility was constructed using earth excavated during the digging of the wine caves. Mixed with cement and water, the earth was pounded into thick walls 32 feet high, making it perhaps the tallest rammed earth structure in the United States, Hall said.
"We wanted to illustrate that truly high-quality things could be done with timeless methods," said Hall, who also used timbers salvaged from a railroad station and stone harvested from his property.
Every agricultural operation contributes to every other, with the ranch becoming self-sufficient in fertilizer production, Hall said. He's proud that olive waste, once mixed with wood chips, becomes a rich fertilizer for the olive trees.
This winter's olive harvest lasted just six dozen days, with workers rushing each day's pickings to the processing room. That's the key to the best extra virgin oils.
By definition, extra virgin oils must gave an acidity of 1 percent or less. This means the fruit has to be pampered, since bruising and aging kicks up acid levels, Hall said.
His premium product, sold under the Prato Lungo ("long meadow" in Italian) label, had .054 percent acidity last year or one-nineteenth the permitted level.
Using equipment imported from Italy, Hall runs his olives through a water bath, then crushes them into a brilliant purple slurry using two stone wheels -- a total weight of eight tons -- of Italian granite.
After going through a fancy decanting system, the slurry emerges as a golden oil ready for consumption within two months.
"The oil has a total lack of greasiness," said Hall. "It's like tasting nectar of olives. It's like perfume. It's extraordinary."
At Long Meadow Ranch prices, such olive oil is best used as a condiment or flavoring, not as the core ingredient for salad dressing or stir-fry.
Prato Lungo is available at the Culinary Institute of America store in St. Helena and by phone or Internet from the winery. The phone number is: (877) NAPA-OIL. The Web site is: www.longmeadowranch.com.
The winery also puts out a second label, Napa Valley Select, using olives grown at nearby properties. Napa Valley Select sells for $25 for a half liter. At the St. Helena Farmers Market, the price is $19.