Sunday, November 21, 2010

Oregon Olive Oil Update feat. Red Ridge Farms

Harvest is here and Winter is just around the corner.  It had been a while since I looked into how the Oregon oil farms were doing. The trees have had a chance to root and grow all summer.  But winter is coming and winter has not been nice to Oregon olive oil in recent years. To find out how things are looking, I visited Red Ridge Farms in Dayton.

Drive an hour out of the city, and you can find Red Ridge Farms owned by the Durant family.  On a hill top, surrounded by Oregon wine country, step out of your car it almost feels like you've been transported to another place.  Manicured gravel pathways.  Herb gardens and green houses.  Fountains and teak patio sets from which you can survey olive orchards, clusters of birch, oak, and distant golden rows of autumn pinot vines under the pale autumn sky. 

Although the Durants have been Oregon wine pioneers since the early 70's, now it is the olive trees that are the hot topic. 

Arbequina olives.
Because of the cooler climate, most olive growers in Oregon are planting super high density Arbequina trees.  Although most olive trees thrive in warmer weather, this variety can withstand temperatures down into the 20s.  But even that may not be enough.  For the past two years Oregon winters have had cold snaps down into the single digits, and this has devastated the industry.  

"We lost about 60-65% of the Arbequina last year," says Paul Durant.  And that was not the worst of it. The Durants also planted a acres of Arbosana and Koroneiki.  Not quite as cold tolerant as the Arbequina, both of those crops took almost 100% losses.  The impact was great enough that the Durants have decided to move on from Arbosana.  The few bottles left in the gift shop from last year's harvest are all that is left.

The Koroneiki is another story.  After milling what little crop they harvest and combining with olives bought in California, the results were outstanding.  "We're thrilled with the Koroneiki this year," says Paul.  And I have to agree.  Koroneiki is a darker green Greek variety with a smooth and buttery richness that is outstanding on bread with a little salt. 

Fresh Oil and A Fresh Start?
 At the Olio Nuovo Festa this weekend, the excitement about the new oils was clear. The parking lot was full and the tasting room was bustling.  There was wine tasting of the Durant Vineyards Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.  Caterers set out bruschetta and crushed garlic with, of course, olive oil to drizzle over the top.   But the focus was the tasting tables featuring the three types of oil Red Ridge is producing this year--Arbequina, Koroneiki, and a Tuscan blend of three northern Italian olives which the Durants are experimenting with to replace the Arbosana. 

Fresh olive oil tastes really different than aged olive oil.  It is cloudy with fruit particulates that have not had time to settle.  In fact, all the oils had been pressed just a few days before the Festa started.  Having so much fruit still suspended in the oil gives the oil a heavier texture.  Low quality fresh oil tastes pungent, bitter, and burns your throat.  Good fresh oil catches you off guard with its penetrating flavor of herbs and black pepper.  Here again the Koroneiki was the favorite. 

It's because of its amazing flavor that the Durants replanted their Koroneiki orchard this year, even though it took devastating losses last year.  "We just like it that much," says Paul. 

Hopefully the excitement and good wishes of this year's Olio Nuovo Festa can hold back the harsh winter weather.  A third deep freeze in a row could be a catastrophe for Red Ridge Farm and the handful of other Oregon olive oil pioneers.  Like Red Ridge, all the other Oregon farms, such as Belle Ragazze, have been taking a heavy beating.  For a fledgling industry it is a lot to bear. But as more people and restaurants realize how good Oregon olive oil is,  the risks may all be worth while.
Fresh Tuscan Olive Oil


  1. I had no idea we had locally grown olive oil in Portland! Fantastic!

  2. Hi Improv. Yeah, they are trying! The oil you buy is actually a blend of California olives and Oregon olives. Red Ridge oil is about 10% Oregon grown (which is the most of anyone as far as I know). The orchards are having a hard time getting started so all the growers are pulling from California to help them get through the growing pains. But it is really good oil and definately worth supporting!

  3. We try to buy locally whenever possible. Thanks for the heads up, Jason!