When we started planning out the Tablas Creek vineyard, we decided to line the roads within the vineyard with olive trees. Olives are traditional in the Rhone, and they have the added advantage that they aren't much work, won't grow so big they'd shade the grapes, and don't share any pests with grapevines. The trees grew beautifully, and in about ten years we started getting an olive crop.
This posed a bit of a problem.
As we'd chosen the olive trees primarily for their looks, we hadn't really thought through what we'd do with the olives once the trees started producing. You can't leave the olives on the tree, because they rot and attract pests, but we did not have the capacity to press them here (wine presses are woefully unsuited to breaking down olive pits). The first few years we just cured the olives that we harvested, though our harvest soon overwhelmed our needs for cured olives.
In 2004, we got our first harvest in sufficient quantities to press, and took them to a local olive oil producer to press. They did it for a year, and then (very nicely) asked us to find somewhere better set up to handle small custom-crush lots. Keeping lots separate is difficult, and machines that are designed to process dozens of tons of olives waste a lot of time and effort on half-ton lots.
So, for the last three years, we've been taking our olives down to Figueroa Farms in Santa Ynez, which has done a very nice job for us. But, the modern processing equipment is a far cry from the pastoral ideal of the stone-ground press (like the one at right, which is a detail from a photo I found on Wikipedia of a Roman press; the photographer is David Shankbone).
Modern olive presses use crushing blades and centrifuges to crush the olives and separate the oil from the water and the solid materials (pomace). The process is noisy, industrial, and very far from our ideal of minimal processing, much more so to my mind than a modern bladder press is from an old-fashioned wooden basket press for wine. Plus, we've wanted to be able to label our olive oil as organic, and in order to label a food product as organic it needs to be processed in an organic-certified facility.
Enter Pietra Santa Winery. Pietra Santa, located in Hollister (not far from Calera) is an artisan producer of olive oil as well as wine, and their facility is certified organic. Even more exciting, they use stone grinding wheels to crush the olives into pomace.
Of course, technology of stone grinding has advanced from the Roman press (above) which would have been turned by oxen. The press is powered by electricity rather than bovines, and the pomace, once it has been crushed, is still separated by a centrifuge rather than by being pressed between fiber discs (to remove the solids) and then decanted (to separate the oil from the water).
In December, our winemaker Neil Collins brought the olives from the 2008 harvest up to Pietra Santa for pressing. His photos follow the path of the fruit as it becomes oil. First, the olives are sorted and moved by conveyor belt up to where they will be washed:
Then, the olives are washed vigorously in water:
Next, the olives are crushed under the stone wheels:
The liquids (oil on top, water below) are separated:
And the oil streams out of the centrifuge:
And into the carboy:
The end result will be Tablas Creek extra virgin olive oil, for the first time certified organic in 2008, and available exclusively in the Tablas Creek tasting room!