For the first time in the 14-year history of the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, a Best of Show has been awarded to a L.A. County-produced olive oil. Even more fascinating is that it wasn't an established olive farm but rather a local college that won. Were you thinking Caltech? Not surprising, since they've been pressing their own campus grown olives since 2007. But no, their famous centrifuges did not spin them the gold this year.

Caltech's rival in campus-grown olive oil craft is Scripps College, one of the eight Claremont Colleges that dominate the Pomona Valley town of Claremont. The students of Scripps only had to stroll to the campus Olive Walk for inspiration. A large portion of the olives used for the pressing came from those trees, some of which are over 80 years old.

But wait, there's more. This was the college's first-ever press and as such its first ever entry in the competition. This unlikely victory was almost squashed before the student who originally dreamed this up was even born. If you save it, you will win? More details about this extra virgin olive oil coup after the jump.

1970: Rescued olive trees being craned back into place at Scripps College in Claremont,CA; Credit: Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College

1970: Rescued olive trees being craned back into place at Scripps College in Claremont,CA; Credit: Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College

Scripps College was positively picturesque when it was founded in 1928. Only a few buildings dotted the young campus at the time and in an effort to lay claim to land for future use, the college planted an olive orchard on a portion of the campus' land. Scripps started expanding in the late '60s and proposed a new building on the site of the olive orchard. Students, enraged at the planned destruction of the old grove, staged a protest, climbing into the branches of more than 60 trees, refusing to come down and preventing their destruction. They succeeded. A majority of olive trees were dug up, boxed, stored and replanted around the campus once the building was finished. Eight of those original trees still flourish in Lyddon Court.

Fast forward to 2007, when Scripps student India Mullady sparked by the course, “The Politics and Culture of Food,” taught by Professor Nancy Neiman Auerbach, wrote a business plan for harvesting and processing the olives grown on campus. After years of discussion, including consultation with Caltech about their olive harvest program, Scripps' Director of Grounds Lola Trafecanty, with funding support from Scripps President Lori Bettison-Varga, scheduled the first harvest for Fall 2012.

“The President gave us the go ahead,” said Trafecanty. “We needed funding to make this work, which came from the president's discretionary funds. This is part of an overall sustainability project. We were seeing all this fruit go to waste. The students were seeing it and asking, why don't we do something with this? We already had the business plan, which we modified after some research and discussion.”

The 35 Mission olive trees that line the campus Olive Walk and Lyddon Court yielded 1500 pounds of olives. An additional 600 pounds of Arbequina olives were added from Regalo Farm, an alumni's father's grove in Ojai. The final press yielded 767, eight-ounce bottles, or approximately 48 gallons. Each bottle was decorated with a student designed label and they were initially sold to student and alumni groups.

“They hand-delivered the oil from Scripps College,” said Mary Ellen Cole, Supervisor for Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, which is held at the Pomona Fairplex each year. “And when they told us their story we were so thrilled that a local college so lovingly bottled it.”

Over 500 extra virgin olive oils were entered into competition this year. A total of 12 judges sip and smell about 45 different oils each, cleansing their palates with Granny Smith apples, Greek yogurt and water. The final Best of Show tasting is a blind taste test of all the oils that scored a 94 or above in their class. Scripps' oil was in the Domestic Delicate class.

“We're thrilled,” said Trafecanty. “And so is the entire campus.”

Demand, as expected, is now high. Eight-ounce bottles have been offered at select campus functions for $45 a bottle, with all funds going towards future community outreach programs. The Best of Show win has prompted a review of the pricing and future plans for selling.

“We were looking at possibly selling at the local Claremont Farmers Market (Sundays), and we'll be offering some for sale at the Claremont Earth Day celebration on April 20th,” said Trafecanty. “We'll also have to set some aside for the L.A. County Fair in September, too.” All competition winners are featured in olive oil tastings in the Wine and Spirits Marketplace at the fair, which is being held August 30th through September 29th.

To hear more, head over to KPCC for Steve Julian's interview with Scripps' faculty and staff.

See also:

Caltech's 2010 Olive Harvest: Olive Oil Tastings, A Brining Recipe + Math Jokes

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