Leave It to the Professionals
On the first day of the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York, June 30-July 2, Nancy Ash lifted a blue-tinted sifter to her nose. She inhaled the scent of the olive oil in the glass, and then took a small sip, coating her tongue in the oil and swirling it in her mouth to decipher its retro-nasal aroma. Finally, she swallowed, paying close attention to its affect on the back of her throat—one of the ways she measures the pungency of the oil.
Ash, the taste panel leader and education coordinator for the California Olive Oil Council, has been professionally assessing the authenticity and rating the quality of the olive oil produced in the Sunshine State since the panel’s inception 15 years ago. The California Olive Oil Council, a non-profit trade and marketing association, is tasked with determining whether an olive oil meets the high standards of the extra-virgin grade through its Seal Certification program.
“When we taste an olive oil, it’s always the same temperature,” Ash explained. “You take away all the variables to make the tasting as scientific as possible.”
The International Olive Oil Council sets the criteria for judging oil. First, a panel of at least eight rates the oil on negative attributes or defects: fusty/muddy sediment, musty, winey/vinegary, frozen, rancid or other. Then it assesses the positives: Is it fruity, bitter, pungent?
The California Olive Oil Council also created a list of descriptors to help them differentiate between oils. “That part of the sheet isn’t scientific, but we’ll say, ‘gee, this oil is a little grassy and buttery,’ or ‘that screams banana,’” Ash said.
Among the small handful of highly esteemed olive oil producers who traveled from California to the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York was the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation’s Séka Hills. In the tribe's native Patwin language, Séka means blue; the name honors the Blue Ridge range that borders the western flank of the Capay Valley.
The Séka Hills brand launched in 2011, and in May 2013, it inked a deal with ItalFoods, a discriminating, San Francisco-based distributor and importer of Italian specialty foods, including high-end extra virgin olive oils. The addition of Séka Hills to the ItalFoods line signals a recognition that the Yocha Dehe's extra virgin olive oil meets the discerning criteria of buyers, retailers and consumers, the tribe said in a press release.
Now Séka Hills is looking to expand its east coast presence and distribution—a goal that has started with the introduction of Séka Hills Premium Arbequina extra virgin olive oil to New York distributors and vendors at the Summer Fancy Food Show.
Proof Is in the Olives
Séka Hills Premium Arbequina extra virgin olive oil is produced and milled by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in Northern California's Capay Valley, nestled between the Napa and Sacramento Valleys. The serene agricultural region has a climate similar to the Mediterranean with long hot summers, mild winters and undulating well-drained soils, providing the ideal environment for growing high-quality olives.
The tribe has 82 acres of super high-density Arbequina olives, and additionally grows Picual, Frantoio and Taggiasca in medium-density planting as an expansion of the Séka Hills estate line of single varietal extra-virgin olive oils.
The tribe’s olive oil is certified extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council. The medium-body oil imparts a balanced, fruity and peppery flavor with aromas of fresh-cut grass.
A State-of-the-Art Italian Mill in California
The certified organic Séka Hills Olive Mill, custom built in Florence, Italy by Alfa Laval, is temperature-controlled and limits oxygen exposure, thus preserving the olives’ natural flavor and health benefits. Housed in a 14,000-square-foot facility, the mill offers full service—from cleaning and milling of olives to bottling and temperature-controlled storage of the oil. A tasting room is in the works.
The mill in Brooks, California is strategically located to minimize the transportation time from the region’s finest groves. Olives are pressed almost immediately after harvest to maintain the freshness critical to creating the highest quality oil.
The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation also makes its mill available to the tribe’s neighbors and partners for millings, bottling and storage. Before the introduction of Séka Hills’ mill, Yolo County’s olive farmers would truck their fruit as far as 112 miles to Sonoma, Corning or Stockton for access to a high-quality mill. “Now [other olive oil producers] have a facility close by, rather than having to ship their olives,” Jim Etters, the tribe’s director of land management, told ICTMN last summer.
Expanding Séka Hills and Other Consumables
Séka Hills is the overarching brand name for a variety of the Yocha Dehe’s premium products. In 2011, the tribe launched the label for wine, olive oil and organics.
Under the Séka Hills label, Yocha Dehe produces four varietal wines from its Capay Valley estate-grown vines. The grapes are sent to Revolution Wines in Sacramento for custom crushing. The wines, available for purchase at sekahills.com/Wine, include a 2012 white of 100 percent Viognier grapes; a 2012 rosé of 75 percent Syrah and 25 percent Viognier grapes; a 2011 Tuluk'a (meaning red in the Patwin language), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah grapes; and a red 2010 Tribal Reserve of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah.
In addition to wine grapes, Yocha Dehe farms 10 crops on tribal land: alfalfa, almonds, oat hay, olives, rye grass, safflower, sunflower, sorghum, walnuts and wheat. On its 250 acres of certified organic fields, the Nation grows organic wheat, blueberries, asparagus and squash. Beyond farming, the tribe runs 250 head of cattle in the Capay Valley, following a sustainable grazing program on the tribe’s 9,000 acres of rangeland.
Take a Bottle Home
Séka Hills is stored in temperature-controlled conditions and bottled to order. Consumers can find Séka Hills at specialty food purveyors, grocery stores, many e-commerce sites, and at www.sekahills.com. Average retail prices range from $16 – $18/500ml.
“I think the Seka Hills is a lovely oil,” Ash told ICTMN at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York. “It’s balanced, …and Seka Hills has enough of a backbone to it with the pungency and the bitterness. I like it a lot; I use it at home. And I use it when I do educational tastings, because it’s really got great complexity.”