Oil and Vinegar

Olive oils and wine vinegars, that is.

When I did a ride-along on my husband's recent business trip to Napa, I had a day to myself to explore.  The typical Napa activity is wine tasting, hopping from vineyard to vineyard sampling their wares.  That seemed a bit irresponsible for me.  I was on my own and didn't want to drink and drive.

Instead, I headed to Round Pond Estate to sample their olive oils and wine vinegars.  I hadn't even known that was something to do.

A few things I learned about olives:
1) Many vineyards will plant rosebushes at the row ends of their vineyards.  If there's something wrong with the soil, rose bushes will falter or exhibit signs of the problems pretty early.  I was told, "They shout pretty loudly when they're unhappy." On the other hand, grape vines don't let you know something's amiss until it's too late.  Because the roses will broadcast the news loud and clear, a vintner can address an issue before it becomes a crisis.  Interestingly, olive trees are also an "indicator" species of plant.  They're planted along the perimeter of the fields.  They share the news differently, but just as thoroughly.

2) All olives are green..... and black.  Green olives will mature into black olives.  There's not a varietal that starts off black and stays black.

3) There's about a six week window for harvesting olives in Napa: November through mid-December.  The "greener" the olive oil tastes, the "thicker" it feels on your tongue, the more likely it is that the olives in the oil were harvested earlier in the season.  Milder, smoother, "lighter", more buttery oils are made from more mature olives.

4) The proper way to sample olive oil is to taste it straight from a cup.  Just sip it, hold it on your tongue for a few seconds and swallow.  Bread is not involved.

CONFESSION: I don't eat olives on their own.  I don't particularly care for tapenade.  I like to dip bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar in moderation.  Olives on their own don't have a flavor that's on my top-10 list.

You can imagine my surprise at how much I enjoyed tasting the different oils, how intriguing it was to discover how the various olive oils felt on my tongue.  How, in some cases, a lovely aftertaste lingered, and strengthened, after swallowing.  It was all very good.  I also enjoyed adding a bit of garlic and chili powder flavored olive oil to one of my samples.  (That's the orange-ish one.) Yum!


5) Olive trees don't start producing fruit for about five years.  Most producers will wait about eight years before they use the fruit in their oils.

6) Unlike a wine grape, the composition of the soil doesn't really impact the flavor of an olive.

7) Olive trees live and bear fruit for centuries. Apparently, there's a 2,000 year old olive tree in Jordan that's still bearing fruit.

A few things I learned about wine vinegars:
1) Specialty wine vinegars are made from the same grapes as the wines.  The end result is just very different.

2) The proper way to sample wine vinegar is with sugar cubes.  Yes, sugar cubes.  Dip a sugar cube into the sample cup to soak up a bit of the vinegar and then suck out the fluid.  The sugar will neutralize the acid of the vinegar and enable you to taste the flavor of the vinegar.  Until I tried this, I didn't have a sense of the variety of flavors. I responded, more or less, to the acidity of the vinegar.

3) Sugar cubes soaked in white wine vinegar can, if you can get it into your mouth before it crumbles, taste like candy.  Wonderful candy.

4) It's not a given that the grapes used to make a wine, will also work successfully as a vinegar blend.  The winemaker will assess the varietals and percentages that work best in both compositions.  Organic chemistry is a plus here.

I highly recommend this sort of outing to anyone heading to Napa.  It's a bit of fun off the beaten path.  Let me know what you discover!


Norma Schlager said…
Fascinating, Vivien! I did some vinegar and olive oil tasting in Arizona, but we did use bread. What you did sounds much better.