When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When it gives you olives, make extra virgin oil.
Jim and Andrea Mayer, who started the Frate Sole Olive Oil Company, have taken that lesson to heart – and built a growing business in the process. Frate Sole is a small-production, high-quality extra virgin olive oil produced in Yolo County on the Mayers’ 20-acre farm outside Woodland, Calif. I met Jim and Andrea in late July, sampled their oil, and spent part of a warm Sunday afternoon talking to them about how they got started in the olive oil business.
As it turns out, producing olive oil was not necessarily their plan. But when you’re given lemons…
The Mayers had lived in Sacramento since the mid-1980s, and began looking for land in Yolo County in the early 1990s. They value environmental stewardship and were especially interested in land restoration. Their goal was not merely to own land, but to find a space where they could have a positive impact.
The parcel they acquired offered an opportunity for the Mayers to put their values into practice. Although it was in the heart of Central Valley farmland and was surrounded by other farms, this particular 20-acre parcel had been fallow for many years. Too small for crops like tomatoes or alfalfa, with relatively poor soil and drainage, the land was not appealing to a large commercial farmer. And it was in desperate need of TLC. It was a perfect spot for a small family like the Mayers to begin their farming business.
Although they did not have prior farming experience, the Mayers found themselves in a good environment for learning. Yolo County has long been a significant agricultural region, especially for growing canning tomatoes. (Often on summer mornings, the smell of tomatoes from the local processing plant in Woodland is thick in the air.) The county is also home to the University of California Davis, a major research center for agriculture and food sciences. And the area supports an enthusiastic organic farming community and lively farmer’s markets, including the well-known Davis Farmers Market. As a result, the county nurtures an environment where small farmers can grow, experiment, learn, and, with hard work and persistence, succeed.
Having acquired their land, the Mayers had to decide what to grow. They needed a crop that could thrive there while offering commercial potential. After considering various options, they invested in olives. They knew olive trees would do well in poor soil. Olive trees also do well in very dry climates, an important consideration since it rarely rains in California’s Central Valley between May and November and the Mayers wanted to avoid heavy irrigation. Along with land restoration, environmental concerns such as water conservation are important to the Mayers.
Olives, which have been known to grow and produce for a thousand years, also offered the Mayers an opportunity to create something that would live well beyond them. As they say on their website, their goal is to create a sustainable enterprise “that will be worked and enjoyed by our children’s children.”
In keeping with that philosophy, the Mayers are careful stewards of the land. They avoid artificial chemicals or fertilizers. They’ve planted cover crops to naturally increase the fertility of the soil. They’ve graded the orchard to restore seasonal wetlands, provide a natural habitat, and replenish the aquifer. And they’ve planted native oaks and grasses to encourage wildlife like hawks, rabbits, and snakes. The Mayers have never had illusions that growing 20 acres of olives would make them wealthy, but they did want to build a business that would endure.
It all sounded great in theory. There was just one problem: the Mayers knew virtually nothing about growing and processing olives.
Needless to say, they had a lot to learn. Extensive research led them eventually to focus on Tuscan-style olives and olive oil. The market for California-produced, high-quality extra virgin olive oil is growing, but it’s still small, with relatively few competitors. This gave the Mayers an opportunity to develop a product in a market that was not already saturated. They selected Tuscan olive varieties – Frantoio, Leccinio, and Pendolino – to create a style of olive oil they felt would appeal to consumers.
The Mayers grow a variety of olives for their Tuscan-style, extra virgin olive oil
They started planting trees in 1999, and by 2003 Frate Sole was born. Inspired by a thirteenth-century hymn written by St. Francis of Assisi, Frate Sole (or “Brother Sun” in Italian) expresses the relationship between farmer and nature. As they say on their website, their venture is a partnership, which includes not only Brother Sun, but also Sister Rain and Mother Earth.
The olives are usually harvested in November, sometimes as late as December, and then processed by Butte View Olive Company in Palermo, Calif, about 90 minutes north of Sacramento. Jim mentioned the importance, especially for small olive farmers like the Mayers, of having a good relationship with the company that processes the olives. Olives begin to break down quickly, and for best quality it’s critical to begin the processing within 24 hours of harvest. That often requires flexibility on the part of the processor and a willingness to adjust schedules as needed. As with wine, high-quality olive oil begins in the orchard, but it also requires attention to detail at ever step, from picking to bottling. In this respect, Butte View is an important partner in helping Frate Sole to produce the best possible extra virgin olive oil.
Tasting Frate Sole Olive Oil
But what about the oil?
The first thing you notice with this olive oil is the color. It’s not the dark green you often see in extra virgin oils. (Unfortunately, that green color you find in olive oil is not always “true.” As Tom Mueller discusses in his comprehensive book, Extra Virginity, it’s not uncommon for the flavor and color of olive oil to be manipulated. And many “extra virgin olive oils” are anything but.)
Jim explained that the color of the oil, like its flavor, depends a great deal on when the olives are picked. Less ripe olives will have a darker color and spicier flavor. As the olives ripen, the flavors become softer, more buttery. Their goal with Frate Sole is to produce an oil that is a blend of early and ripe olives with complex flavors. The Mayers pick their olives by hand and wait until they’ve achieved the right level of ripeness.
I found their oil to lean more to the buttery end of the spectrum, but with a sturdy backbone of that spicy, peppery quality that you find in the best Tuscan olive oils. It’s a good oil for dipping bread into or serving with bruschetta and prosciutto.
Clearly I’m not the only one who appreciates the quality of this oil. Frate Sole has an ardent following among consumers and restaurants. Robert Masullo, who owns the wonderful Masullo Pizza in Sacramento, is such a loyal fan that Frate Sole is the only olive oil he uses – and he uses it on everything. (In fact, having dinner at Masullo one night is how I discovered Frate Sole.) The Press Bistro, also in Sacramento, is another good customer.
Frate Sole also has racked up an impressive number of gold medals at the Yolo County Fair, their local venue, and the highly competitive and international Los Angeles County competition. This year’s oil won gold medals in both events.
To learn more about Frate Sole or order a bottle or two (one for yourself, one as a gift!), visit them online at www.fratesole.com.
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