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Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2007 10:00 pm

When connoisseurs think of Lodi, they of course think of fine wine. But George Cecchetti and Karen Chandler are hoping that with a small crop of Manzanilla olive trees in their front yard and the power of small-town word of mouth, Lodi will soon be known for yet another high-quality product: olive oil.

And, so far, it seems to be working.

Earlier this year, Cecchetti and Chandler launched Cecchetti Olive Oil, Inc., and though the oil has only been on sale for two weeks, Cecchetti said the local reaction has been a little overwhelming.

"The word of mouth has been amazing," he said. "I've had people I've never even heard of asking for it."

Cecchetti, a Tokay High graduate and former major league baseball player for the Cleveland Indians, has always made Lodi his home. He previously owned The Real Fly fishing shop.

Chandler, his fiancé, grew up in Sacramento and lived in Galt. She now runs a mortgage company from home.

After the couple moved into a sprawling ranch on Sargent Road in October 2005, Chandler soon had the idea to put the olive trees on the land to use. They had already found uses for the other produce trees that grow on the land, but their 100-year-old Manzanilla olive trees proved harder to use.

"It was such a shame to see the olives fall on the ground," Chandler said. "And it had always been a dream of mine to make a product like this. So we took a chance."

In November 2006, they hand-picked and hauled the olives themselves to be pressed in Modesto by a custom press.

The results were well beyond their expectations. The olives harvested from the 20 trees that line the driveway to the couple's home yielded an impressive 42 gallons of extra virgin oil, the highest grade possible for olive oil.

"We didn't know what the result would be," Chandler said. "We were very excited when we found out during testing that it was extra virgin olive oil."

Shown here is Cecchetti Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The oil is harvested from Karen Chandler and George Ceccetti's 100-year-old olive trees. (Whitney Ramirez/News-Sentinel)

The oil has a unique fruity flavor, according to Cecchetti, because of the other fruits that grow near the trees. The trees are dry farmed - not directly watered - so they pick up water from the nearby grapevines and fruit trees. The oil is also unfiltered, which gives it a murky appearance but boosts its robust flavor, Chandler said.

Chandler said aside from the taste, another big draw of their product is the sturdy Italian-made bottle that holds the oil. So sturdy, in fact, that a full bottle merely bounced when Chandler inadvertently dropped it on the hard, packed earth beneath one of her olive trees while talking about the product.

The oil is currently available for sale for $19.99 a bottle at Sheri's Sonshine Nutrition Center in downtown Lodi or directly from Cecchetti Olive Oil, Inc. by sending an e-mail to karenchandler@comcast.com or by calling 410-8103. Chandler said, however, they are looking to expand to more local retailers.

"We really want to keep this product here in Lodi," she said. "We love it here and want to respect the people here."

Looking toward the future, Cecchetti and Chandler plan to plant 1,800 more trees within the next few years and begin harvesting them soon after.

"And who knows where we'll go after that," said Cecchetti. "There are so many things olive oil can do. It's so clean, maybe they'll even start making diesel fuel out of it soon."

Contact reporter Scott Kaul at scottk@lodinews.com.

Extra virgin olive oil

"Extra virgin" is the highest grade possible for olive oil.
To qualify as extra virgin, the oil must:
• Be made from the first cold press from top-quality olives. A hot press will cause the oil to break apart and change.
• Contain no more than one percent free oleic acid.
• Usually made from hand-picked olives to ensure full ripeness and maintain quality

Benefits of extra virgin olive oil
• Rich flavor
• High in monounsaturated fat, which according to the American Heart Association and FDA prevents heart disease and high blood pressure
Source: California Olive Oil Council, http://www.cooc.com.

Cecchetti and Chandler's favorite dipping recipe

• 2-3 tsp of balsamic vinegar
• 1 clove of fresh garlic, crushed
• Pinch of red pepper to taste
• Mix with extra virgin olive oil
• Dip fresh-made focaccia bread and enjoy

First published: Monday, February 12, 2007

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