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Lodi emerges as center of high-quality olive oil production

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Posted: Monday, May 6, 2013 7:18 am

Though it’s not used to quench thirst, Brady Whitlow, president of Corto Olive Oil, looks at the product simply: as freshly squeezed juice.

“Extra virgin olive oil is juiced fruit,” Whitlow said. “And like with any juice, fresher tastes better.”

While European imports account for 98 percent off all olive oil consumed in the United States, California’s emergence in recent years is starting to command consumers’ attention in the marketplace. The state produced a million gallons of olive oil in 2012 and the number is expected to grow in coming years.

Using efficient farming techniques and innovative marketing, Lodi-based Corto is one such company helping California chip away at Spain, Italy and Greece’s dominance in the olive oil market.

Corto has its corporate office and a small-scale mill at a ranch on North Alpine Road. The mill serves as the proving grounds/test kitchen, Whitlow said, so the kinks have been smoothed out by the time production is amped up at the state-of-the-art mill on Live Oak Road and the oil is shipped to restaurants across the United States and various boutique food stores.

The Corto mill on Live Oak Road is set within walking distance of a massive olive grove, enabling the fruit to be harvested and its processing to begin immediately.

“Time, light and heat are all enemies of olive oil,” Whitlow said. “So the process is best when it’s done quickly.”

Consistency is a cornerstone of Corto’s philosophy. Unlike other oils, which can vary in taste and texture from year to year, Corto’s team of lab technicians work to make sure their product consistently tastes the same.

“Chefs want to know what they’re getting,” Whitlow said. “They want to know an ingredient will consistently taste and perform to their expectations. That they can pair it in a certain dish and it won’t change the flavor profile from week to week.”

The consistency is obtained through meticulous testing and blending. The oil from each of Corto’s olive groves is kept in a separate stainless steel container as technicians test the various flavor components of it.

“We have a lab that makes UC Davis jealous,” Whitlow said.

Once the individual oils are characterized, they are blended to create the consistent taste Corto strives for. Batches that are overly buttery or too earthy are merged to create the signature taste.

Corto is the brainchild of Stockton native Dino Cortopassi, whose father immigated from Italy shortly before the Great Depression. Despite objections from his father, Dino Cortopassi pressed forward with his desire to be a farmer and graduated from a two-year agriculture program at the University of California, Davis.

Cortopassi is a notorious risk-taker, Whitlow said, and he began renting land and double-cropping kidney beans with winter wheat. The strategy was a gamble, since heavy rains could ruin the bean crop.

But hard work merged with luck and Cortopassi’s hunch paid off. Soon he was buying land, leveling it and planting more. During this period he acquired the land on Alpine Road where his home and Corto’s headquarters resides.

At one point, he was the largest producer of kidney beans in the world.

Despite the success, Cortopassi knew diversity is integral to growth, and by the 1960s he began aggressively pursuing the cultivation and harvesting of tomatoes. He invested heavily in mechanized harvesters and helped found Stanislaus Food Products, a cannery in Modesto, which packs tomatoes used in restaurants and pizzerias around North America.

“It’s one of the world’s largest fresh-pack canneries,” Whitlow said.   

Having grown walnuts, kidney beans and cherries for years, Cortopassi saw an opportunity to start growing olives in the late 1990s. Within a few years, Corto’s first bottles were rolling off the assembly line.

Using a technique called super-high-density farming, Cortopassi planted his olive trees in tight rows and trimmed the tops and sides to uniform sizes. Traditional olive groves have about 100 trees planted per acre; super-high-density groves have roughly 700 per acre.

Mechanized harvesters similar to grape pickers remove the fruit from the trees when it ripens in November.

Some of the fundamentals are similar to how it’s done in Europe, Whitlow said, save for a few key exceptions.

“Europe plants high-density, but it’s not efficient,” he said.

In Spain, which is the world’s leading producer of olive oil, the land is characterized by rolling hillsides, which limit a harvesting machine’s ability to navigate. Fruit commonly rots on the trees and is collected from the ground after it finally falls off the limbs in December or January, he said.

“By that time, the fruit is overripe and the juice is basically lamp oil,” he said.

After refining the oil through heating and the addition of flavor agents, the product is labeled “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” and exported across the globe.

In fact, news of underhanded techniques used in the international olive oil market has come to the attention of chefs and consumers in recent years. Three recent studies by the UC Davis Olive Center estimate roughly 70 percent of all olive oil on the market is falsely labeled as extra virgin.

In Tom Mueller’s “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” the New Yorker writer exposed how oil is adulterated along the supply chain with vegetable oils and artificial coloring.

Yet the changes do not make the oil unhealthy, simply a diluted product.

Such is the battle Whitlow and those at Corto fight daily. Americans can commonly associate European ingredients like olive oil as superior, Whitlow said, but their company continues to press forward.

“Once people taste our oil, they immediately can tell the difference,” he said. “You can see the difference in color, texture and flavor.”

This dedication and conviction has helped Corto establish itself.

Taking advantage of existing connections to retailers and restaurants also aided greatly in Corto’s growth, Whitlow said.

“Corto built off the history and reputation Stanislaus Food Products had with its customers,” he said.

Once the restaurants using Cortopassi’s tomatoes in their pasta sauces and pizzas heard the company had ventured into olive oil, they were more than willing to try out a couple cases, Whitlow said.

“They already knew our existing products, so we didn’t have to sell them on trying it,” he said.

But old-fashioned sales techniques remain a part of Corto’s business model.

“We’ll go into restaurants and talk to the chef and ask them to give us a chance,” he said. “They’ll compare ours with what they have and it blows them away. They ask me what’s in it and the answer is always the same: ‘Olives.’”

While restaurants are the main customers for Corto, the oil can be found at retail outlets like Podesto’s and Whole Foods or through third party vendors online through Amazon.com.

The Pasta Shop in Berkeley is one place where Corto’s Californian olive oil lines the shelves. It has been featured at the boutique food store for about six years.

Corto is the best-selling California olive oil at The Pasta Shop’s online marketplace and is one of its top-selling olive oils inside the specialty foods shop, said Sara Feinberg, director of online sales for The Pasta Shop and www.markethallfoods.com.

The process to have a product sold at The Pasta Shop is rigorous, Feinberg said, and only quality ingredients are selected.

“We only have so much shelf space,” she said. “Our customers are discerning and some are adamant about tasting things before they buy them.”

The Pasta Shop mostly carries European olive oils, but in the last few years have featured more California oils as the market exploded, Feinberg said.

Corto’s efficiency makes it a powerhouse in California’s emerging olive oil market.

Last year was the first time the state’s acreage devoted to olives for olive oil production was more than that of land dedicated to table olives, according to the California Olive Oil Council.

Additionally, the council predicts this year’s harvest, which will run from October to January, will produce 2.4 million gallons of olive oil — essentially doubling 2012’s harvest.

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