Olives roll into harvest at McEvoy Ranch in Marin County

A traditional blend olive oil was tapped for a Good Food Award for McEvoy Ranch which includes these 58 acres out of a total of 550 devoted to olives. (James Dunn / North Bay Business Journal)

JAMES DUNN,

Visions of olives danced in her head. Nan Tucker McEvoy, granddaughter of M.H. de Young, founder of The Chronicle newspaper in San Francisco, in 1989 bought a 550-acre ranch in Marin County and turned it into a significant business with 58 acres now in olive production.

McEvoy, who shipped olive trees and a mill from Italy, served for years as chairwoman of Chronicle Publishing. The company struggled in the 1990s, and the family sold it to Hearst Corp. in 1999. She turned her attention to olive ranching.

In 2015, McEvoy died in San Francisco at age 95. Her son Nion McEvoy now owns the ranch and serves as chairman and CEO of Chronicle Books.

The North Bay Business Journal toured McEvoy Ranch at the peak of its olive harvest in early December. The company has about 70 employees.

During harvest, teams of farmworkers used specialized blue shakers, each equipped with a pair of large blades shaped as forks. As workers shook the olive-laden branches, the multicolored orbs flew to the ground where they were gathered into bins. The bins were loaded onto a cart and trucked down to a nearby mill and processing plant on the ranch.

McEvoy Ranch expects nearly 120 tons of olives this year from its 15 orchards, according to Samantha Dorsey, general manager. Last year’s harvest was 162 tons.

Ripe olives yield roughly 30 percent of their weight in oil, so about 72,000 pounds or 9,500 gallons of oil will be produced this season. A gallon contains about 10 bottles of oil at 375 milliliters each, which sell for $25 to $30.

The ranch reaps between $2 million and $3 million in sales from olive oil, based on estimates by the Business Journal. It also grows and sells wine grapes and beauty products, and does events. Some sales are made from the tasting room at the ranch; the company also has a storefront in San Francisco’s Ferry Building at the Embarcadero.

Half the company’s sales come from the Bay Area, Dorsey said, and the rest from Southern California, New York, Chicago, Seattle and other fine-food markets.

McEvoy Ranch is one of the North Bay’s biggest producers of olive oil, contributing to a global market of nearly 3 million tons, according to the International Olive Council’s November 2017 newsletter. Spain was the largest producer with nearly 1.4 million tons, followed by Greece at 215,000 tons and Italy at 200,000 tons. The United States produced about 16,000 tons.

Most commercial olive acreage in the United States is in California, especially the Central Valley, according to the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Other North Bay olive-oil producers include B.R. Cohn Winery and Olive Oil Co. in Glen Ellen and Dry Creek Olive Co. at Trattore Farms in Geyserville.

Olives and their oil are good sources of monounsaturated fat, the university said, noting that “the olive was cultivated and its oil traded as early as 3000 B.C.” (Christmas was first celebrated in Rome on Dec. 25 in year 336.)

McEvoy Ranch produces certified organic extra-virgin olive oil. The freshest oil — olio nuovo — comes from olives harvested during the first couple of weeks and boasts pungent, fruity flavors. It is bright green in color and cloudy, as solids have not yet settled. Production of olio nuovo is also a celebration of harvest.

About 10 percent of the ranch’s olives go to olio nuovo, Dorsey said, and the rest into a traditional blend. Any leftover oil at the end of the season is made into beauty products such as soap, lotion, and body balm and scrub, with the Ode Natural Beauty brand.

“The oil settles in tanks,” Dorsey said. “We rack the top part off, leaving sediment at the bottom. That beautiful oil, rich in polyphenols and organic matter, goes into beauty products, where it stabilizes. It has antioxidant properties — good for the skin.”

Ria D’Aversa, director of ranch operations at McEvoy, said olive growers send samples to a lab to ascertain the proportion of oil to water in the ripening fruit and choose the optimum harvest time. While winemakers test for brix, the sugar content of grapes, D’Aversa said, in olives “we’re looking for oil development.”

Seasoned growers also test olive ripeness by touch, picking an olive then crushing it with fingers and breaking it open. An experienced farmer can feel the oiliness.

“We walk the orchards weekly,” D’Aversa said.

Dorsey is one of the decision-makers on harvest launch, which may be adjusted because of rain or frost. Once harvest begins, the push goes nonstop for about three weeks until the last olive rolls into the mill.

McEvoy has its own on-site milling equipment. Picked olives are crushed and processed within 24 hours. Oil is separated from other components of olives using a centrifuge and decanter after malaxation (mixing) and crushing with giant stone wheels.

This year, the first bottles of olio nuovo were finished on Dec. 1.

“It has a lovely, bright, peppery and yet soft flavor,” D’Aversa said. “It’s beautiful. We have a great following here” of people who swoop in when the olio nuovo is ready, sometimes serving it drizzled over vanilla ice cream. A bottle sells for $29.95.

As oil sits in tanks, water and sediment settle and the company racks off the clarified oil. Paste is composted and spread onto soil beneath trees. Sometimes McEvoy Ranch creates a special limited-production oil.

“It depends on how we want to highlight the year,” D’Aversa said.

Starting last year, McEvoy made olive oil flavored with lemon oil, called agrumato. “We mill the lemons with the olives,” D’Aversa said. “You can taste the brightness of the lemons.”

This year, the company added jalapeño peppers to some of the oil for a fresh flavor twist.

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.