A California version of our Olive Oil Taste-Off was inevitable, if only in short-order form. And it's just in time for an updated report from the UC Davis Olive Center and crew, the folks who brought us the highly controversial reports last summer questioning whether many extra virgin olive oils on the market are truly that (Olive oil importers have since claimed the report was unfairly biased towards California and Australian producers). We'll leave that to them to battle out.
Like the Italian edition, there are so many California extra virgins to taste that we couldn't possibly do it all in one sitting. OK fine, we could, and we'd be in grassy green heaven, but we were counting our greenbacks. And so we kicked off this California tasting with about ten olive oils. It turns out our three blind tasting winners were a surprisingly democratic bunch. One is produced by a mega corporate chain grocery store, one is from a pretty large but local olive oil producer (and happens to be the brand preferred by chef Evan Funke of Rustic Canyon), and one is from a small family run operation. Turn the page for more.
Best Value For the Quality: California Olive Ranch Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil
About $11 for 500 ml/16.9 ounces at many grocery stores (including Ralph's) and specialty food shops.
Some restaurant diners pontificate the merits of a restaurant dish for hours, others get straight to the point by asking their server for the brand name of the olive oil on that burrata cheese appetizer at Rustic Canyon with stinging nettle pesto. We were convinced the fruity olive oil, vibrant but not overpowering, surely had to be from some high-priced producer. Turns out that Funke uses California Olive Ranch's Arbequina, a similarly delicate, fruity oil for about $2 more than their Everyday Extra Virgin, a bargain brand the company introduced in late 2009. As the latter has been popping up with increasing frequency at grocery stores around town for about $11, we snapped it up for our tasting (check the bottle's neck, as lately it has included an instantly redeemable $1 off coupon). In our tasting, this oil was the resounding value-for-the-quality winner. The taste wasn't too overpowering to overwhelm a delicate dish but definitely let its fresh, fruity presence be known. Pour it on.
Best Value: Ralph's Private Selection California Extra Virgin
About $7 for 17 ounces at Ralph's and Kroger stores.
When we spied the $6.99 price tag on this olive oil at our local Ralph's, we had to try it. Kroger, the parent of Ralph's, has released a line of well-priced extra virgin olive oils from various regions (Spain, Italy, Australia, California). They're not single-origin in the sense of coming from one olive growing region, and it comes with a little corporate buyers remorse when there are so many great small artisan operations around. But their California extra virgin blend was surprisingly good for that price, with a very subtle almost candy-like finish (sounds odd, and it was, but also oddly nice). Even though the oil is a blend of olives from various locations, they're using the same three varietals as California Olive Ranch -- Arbequina and Arbosana are Spanish varietals, the Koroneiki is from Greece.
Color-wise, it was surprisingly the greenest of the bunch, and we were happy to see it was packaged in an extra virgin-appropriate dark glass bottle to keep damaging sunlight out. It's certainly not as tasty as the California Olive Ranch, but at nearly half the price, it was pretty impressive. We've replaced our everyday, color and flavorless extra virgin olive oil with this one, and yes, we're using this "good" extra virgin olive oil to flash fry our veggies guilt-free, simply because now we can afford to.
Best Gift-Giving Value: Calivirgin
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About $26 for 16.9 ounces online and at specialty markets such as Monsieur Marcel and at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market the third Sunday of the month.
This is the prettiest bottle of the bunch, the sort of thing you really should give away as a gift but wind up keeping for yourself. Calivirgin, the front running label of Coldani Olive Ranch, is an unfiltered Arbequina and Koroneiki olive blend made by an Italian-American family in the San Joaquin Valley. Funny, we didn't know anything about the family until after we tasted the oil, but we felt the flavor was very much that cultural blend. A great balance.
By that, we mean lighter in flavor that those super grassy Tuscans that tend to be very much like their makers, as Joe Bastianich describes so well in regard to Italian winemakers: "A typical Tuscan, genuine and exuberant, [is] never timid about sharing his ideas of convictions." The same tends to apply to Tuscan olive oils, which is great some nights, but for those when we just want to settle in quietly and cook something more subtle, we're going to reach for the Calivirgin, which has more of that fresh olive flavor that we've seen in many good California oils.
This is an estate blend, meaning the olives are harvested from the Coldani family's ranch, not blended with bulk olives like the Ralph's blend, so the price is justifiably higher. Still, we felt this was still a pretty good value when looking at some high-end olive oils that creep well past the $35 mark. We just wish the glass bottle was darker. Yes, it's pretty, but a classic metal tin or dark green glass to keep that flavor bright would make us feel better about leaving that bottle within arms' reach on our sunny SoCal kitchen counter with our other favorite oils for the next few months. Especially after reading in that just-released UC Davis updated report that several California oils failed the test for excessive exposure to light and heat, which quickly damages olive oil.