Napa Valley vintners also produce fine olive oil
Pittsburgh Post Gazette Thursday, January 25, 2001
By JANE CITRON
NAPA VALLEY, Calif. -- The neatly arranged bundle of slender haricots verts caught my eye at the St. Helena's Farmer's Market, and Laddie Hall and I started chatting. Laddie picked the beans herself. I bought a pound, then added a dozen organic eggs with pale green shells after Laddie assured me only the shells were green.
I met Laddie and husband Ted at the Friday morning market in Napa Valley, Calif. They were among the vendors selling eggs, olive oil and organic vegetables from the garden.
I sampled Prato Lungo, the Halls' estate-grown extra-virgin olive oil and even at 8 a.m. the olive oil tasted phenomenal. At that moment I knew I wanted to know more about the "gentlemen farmers" of St. Helena Winery.
The next week, I drove south from St. Helena, turned onto Whitehall Lane and followed the winding mountain road toward the Mayacamas Mountains. The narrow road twisted and turned; tree branches brushed against the car as I traveled up, up, up, on a mile-and-a-half forest road to Long Meadow Ranch.
The 650-acre working ranch produces small quantities of premium cabernet sauvignon and a limited production of premium extra-virgin olive oil. In addition to grapes and olives, owners Ted and Laddie Hall breed and train Appaloosas and POAs (Pony of America, which are typically spotted, like Appaloosas) and raise Scottish Highland cattle and Australorp chickens.
The Halls live in a beautiful mountaintop home, whose architectural design, interior style and award-winning gardens have been featured in several magazines and newspapers. The winery, efficient and modern in plan and stunning in design, uses construction materials aimed to minimize impact on the environment.
Ted Hall hired the San Francisco architectural firm Tumbull Griffin Haesloop, whose goal, Hall said, "is to create special places rooted in the landscape, which enhance the lives of their occupants."
For example, the exterior and interior walls of the building are constructed from Pise, a formed-earth product made from the cave tailings when the cave for wine storage was excavated.
Pennsylvania to paradise
Ted Hall grew up on a small farm between Monaca and Aliquippa in Beaver. His mother, several cousins and aunts and uncles remain in the area. Hall's mother was an organic farmer in the late 1940s, in an era when such practices were deemed suspect by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his followers.
In 1971, Hall made his first wine in partnership with two of his graduate classmates at Stanford University and continued to make wine as an amateur for 17 consecutive vintages. His business career had done well, and he became a partner at the international management consulting firm of Mc-Kinsey & Co. in San Francisco. In 1980, Ted Hall acquired the Napa Valley property that would become Long Meadow Ranch. He hoped to create an organic farm and to provide his family with what he had experienced as a child.
The stunning house, the winery and acres of beautiful land create a glamorous setting for living the Napa Valley dream, but spend a morning driving around the ranch in Ted's Land Rover and you'll discover quickly that a lot of hard work and long days complete the picture.
The 650-acre property had been in a state of deterioration since Prohibition. Through hard work and much money, the property was restored and brought back to life. Hall was fascinated by the historic olive grove and rehabilitated the orchard, adding new trees and combining his wine-making facility with olive oil production.
The two products have their own cycle and season. After wine harvest in the fall, the olives are ready for picking and processing. One part of the winery, named "Frantoio," is used to press and make olive oil. Hall has accessed the latest technology and invested in state-of-the-art equipment from Italy. "This is the first new facility in the Valley in 50 years," he said.
Prato Lungo is estate-produced (using only olives from the property) extra-virgin olive oil. The designation extra-virgin is reserved for oils having a maximum acidity of less than 1 percent. Low acidity makes for lack of greasiness and fresh clean flavors. Prato Lungo olive oil has an acidity 20 times below the standard set for extra-virgin olive oil.
The olive oil is priced comparably with the best oils from Tuscany and Umbria; a 500-milliliter bottle sells for $50, including shipping, and may be purchased from the winery or on the Internet.
A flavor to savor
The boutique olive oils from Napa Valley are expensive and should be considered a condiment and never used as a cooking oil. Heat destroys the pure and delicate flavor.
Ted Hall poured a small amount of Prato Lungo into a shotglass.
"No bread, no crackers," he said. "First smell the oil, inhale the wonderful aroma, then drink it all, but do not swallow. Hold the oil in your mouth and feel the smoothness. When you swallow, feel the piquante in your throat, the natural peppery finish.
"This olive oil is a natural seasoning; just a few drops will enhance any ingredient."
Long Meadow Ranch does not use herbicides or pesticides, and its products are organically grown and produced. The winery acts as a cooperative processor and currently presses for a few other facilities. Before agreeing to take on another farmer or winery's olives, Hall inspects the orchard, has some involvement in the harvest and requires a signed affidavit.
In return for his services, Hall will keep a percentage of the olives to use in a second, less costly oil blended from select olives he has acquired.
Oils of the Valley
Spottswoode Winery in St. Helena uses Long Meadow Ranch to make a small production of olive oil from the winery's manzanillo olives. Beth Novak, president of Spottswoode, brought a bottle and the tasters' consensus was "spectacular." The oil captured the aroma of fresh herbs and green apples with a delicate accent of black pepper finish.
During my seven summers in Napa Valley, I have tried several olive oils and visited many boutique facilities. B.R. Cohn Winery in Sonoma produces a delicate French-style estate olive oil using picholine olives, and DaVero Extra-Virgin is condiment-quality oil appropriately green with a slightly bitter Tuscan edge.
Lila Jaeger, pioneer and leader in the development of Napa Valley olive oils, started making olive oil as a hobby, using olives from trees at the family-owned Rutherford Hill Winery. Jaeger's oil is highly regarded.
Nick Sciabica (pronounced Sha-bee-ka) & Sons from Modesto, Calif., have been pressing and selling olive oil since 1936. Sciabica runs a large operation, much of it wholesale and mail order. The company produces varietal oils from eight different olives. On Saturday, Sciabica sets up at the San Francisco Farmer's Market. Lines quickly form. Tasting and choosing from the many oils can be confusing, but the vendors are friendly and helpful.
For a commercially produced oil, Sciabica is a very good product and prices are fair. A catalog and price list can be obtained by contacting Nick Sciabica & Sons, Modesto, Calif., 800-551-9612.
A "girl" and her olives
I had heard the name Nan McEvoy many times and envisioned a hip California girl who bottled and sold expensive estate-bottled olive oil recognized for stunning graphic design as well as quality. In Napa Valley, those who know olive oil know McEvoy.
"What a smart young cookie," I thought, as I paid $24 for the relatively small bottle of liquid gold.
When I learned McEvoy Ranch was outside of Petaluma, a little more than an hour from Napa Valley, I made an appointment to see Nan McEvoy. How shocked I was to discover my trendy California girl had celebrated her 80th birthday and was still going strong.
Often in life and especially in California, the unexpected occurs. When McEvoy, chairwoman and heir to Chronicle Publishing Co., retired, she opened the door to a second career. In search of a country property, she fell in love with an old cattle ranch in Northern Marin County only to find the area was zoned for agriculture and required an agricultural permit to do any renovation.
McEvoy had recently returned from a cooking class in Italy. In love with all things Italian, she decided upon olives. Today the hillsides are covered with 11,000 olive trees and McEvoy is producing fine estate-bottled olive oil.
Planting olives requires big money. McEvoy has invested millions of dollars in buildings, roads, terraces, olive trees (2,000 imported from Tuscany), consultants, graphic designers and a Sinolea press, which gently lifts, rather than squeezing, the oil from the crushed olives.
McEvoy makes a certified organic estate-grown California extra virgin olive oil using six varieties of Italian olives and produces a Tuscan-style oil with a fresh, fruity olive scent and a full, buttery, peppery and savory taste. McEvoy Ranch 1999 Harvest Extra Virgin Olive oil retails for $24 for 375 ml and $46 for 750 ml.
McEvoy Ranch may have been conceived on a whim, but now it's established, McEvoy aspires to produce the best extra virgin olive in the world. According to experts who taste and test California olive oils and local consumers, McEvoy has a winner.
Finding your oil
How does all of this affect the consumer? Most olive-oil buyers pay little attention to the origin or history of the oil, and many would-be buyers are confused by the terms "extra-virgin" or "pure" on the label.
Ted Hall encourages tasting the oil, but unless a store, such as Williams-Sonoma, sets up a tasting, it is impossible to smell or sample the oil. Price is a consideration when buying these lovely boutique oils, and while many cooks collect and use a variety of expensive extra-virgin oils, it is unrealistic to expect the same from a mass market.
I love to buy olive oils and carry (never in my luggage) bottles home from Napa Valley, France and Italy. In Pittsburgh, I regularly check the shelves at Penn Mac for David Sunseri's newest oil. Sunseri does an excellent job researching oils and offers a large selection of Tuscan and California oils at good value.
For cooking , I use an inexpensive extra-virgin oil and save my boutique oils for salad dressings or for any recipe that requires olive oil as seasoning or garnish. Use the finer-quality oils in dishes where you can taste the oil.