My partner and I meet up in a leaf-strewn parking lot on the outskirts of town last week and hit the road together. The change of season and the upcoming frost signals the time to visit our farmers and select a date for this year's olive harvest. The cool damp morning dictates barn jackets and boots, as we plan to walk the damp orchards, evaluating the ripeness of the fruit. The Tuscan varietal olives for our L'Autunno blend are grown on a variety of small, family farms and vineyards scattered across the Mendocino and Sonoma wine country. Each group of trees occupies its own microclimate, and as with wine grapes, must be harvested according to the correct degree of ripeness. Here in this part of northern California, the olive harvest is often squeezed into the last week of November and the first week of December. Up here, we need to leave the fruit on the trees long enough to develop a workable percentage of ripe fruit, which, due to our mild climate often means we barely beat the first hard frosts. Last year, the frost caught us at our home ranch, Shooting Star, in the Anderson Valley. Luckily, we were able to get the last of the fruit in and over the hill to the press in time, with little or no damage. We pressed at seven that evening, and the steel building housing the press itself was cold and drafty. Bundled in sweaters and jackets, we soaked in the pungent and somehow warming aroma of the new oil.
We walk together with the first farmer, up and down the rows of trees. A misty rain falls as my partner pulls both ripe and green fruit from a sampling of the trees and cuts each olive open with a small knife. Squeezing the pulp between his fingers, he carefully evaluates the ratio of water to oil. He touches the tip of his tongue to the pulp and smiles knowingly. The sharp bitterness of the olives foreshadows the complex peppery flavor of the oil to come, a good sign given the relative ripeness of this fruit. We each leave that afternoon with an unmarked bottle of the farmer's homemade pinot noir under our arms, and move on to the next farm.
When we decide on a date for the harvest, we schedule the press and call the crew bosses. Since we still hand-pick our fruit, we need to make sure there are enough workers available to strip all the trees and deliver the fruit to the press before the day's end. In order to produce the highest quality and most flavorful oil, the olives must be pressed within hours of picking. Even in this cold, foggy weather, the olives will heat up in their large wooden bins and begin to ferment if left to sit too long. Many of our farmers are so small that they produce less than a ton of olives each; so we must also coordinate the picking and delivery so we can take advantage of the economies of scale at the press. The logistical dilemma of delivering most or all of the fruit to the press at the appointed time is a tap dance of sorts, but somehow, each year, we manage to pull it off. It is an annual reunion, as each farmer arrives with fruit, and stories of the growing season are exchanged as we stand around in the gathering darkness. Some of them will be paid for their fruit in finished oil, and look forward to tasting this year's blend.
Late in the day, we return to the parking lot and I climb back into my truck for the trek back over the mountain to the coast. My partner has farther to go, crossing the mountains and valley to the east to return to his own ranch in the western Sierra foothills, where the harvest and pressing are already in full swing. We will return in early December to repeat this ritual that spans generations. Olives are a crop for the long haul, and the trees that we harvest from this year will continue to produce fruit long after we are gone. The air is crisp, the light is slightly golden, and the grape vines stain the hillsides with their reds, oranges and golds. The seasons come and go, the fruit ripens, and the rhythms of the farm continue for yet another year.