Fall is harvest season for grapes and apples, of course, but also for olives. Find fresh, locally sourced, handcrafted specialty oils—to use yourself and to give as thoughtful holiday gifts to the cooks on your list.
Story and Photography by Brinkley Maine
Fourteen years ago, Richard Wolf and Annette Schoonover were on the hunt for a little place to spend long winters in the Sierra Nevada. They stumbled on a magical, not-so-little, 40-acre parcel near Placerville that stole their hearts. Only one thing stood in their way: How were they going to pay for it?
A trip to Italy, Schoonover’s ancestral homeland, sparked the idea of creating a working olive orchard, a lifestyle they had long admired. Soon, the hills of their Placerville farm were cleared, olive trees were planted and Winterhill Olive Oil was born.
They are both self-taught farmers, however, so this family business began its journey with the help of Wolf and Schoonover’s children and grandchildren, who all played a role in the conception of Winterhill, as well as its present-day operations. In fact, when harvest time rolls around in late October, family, friends and a professional crew will still gather together to handpick this year’s crop. And the entire team works as fast and hard as they can in order to fill the bins and get the olives to press within three to five hours of picking, at the peak of their freshness.
“Harvest time is always a satisfying yet hard working period,” says Schoonover. “It’s satisfying because like all farming, the fact that we have ‘beaten the odds’ with another successful crop is exhilarating. On the other hand, it’s hard because the olives need to be picked at the absolute correct time, then whisked to the presses so they can meet the low acidity we require.”
This crucial oil acidity must first be verified by lab testing; then the oils are sent to the California Olive Oil Council, which holds the strictest standards in the world for extra-virgin olive oil, allowing no more than .05 percent of oleic free fatty acid. (Since its inception, Winterhill has consistently tested at .01 to .02 percent—the company’s annual goal.) “Low acidity is the key to the highest quality olive oils with the highest levels of antioxidants and polyphenols,” says Schoonover.
Once the oils meet the council’s low acidity and high taste and smell requirements, some is bottled and labeled for limited sale. (The extra oil is kept fresh in stainless steel vats and is only bottled as it is sold.) Winterhill produces two plain COOC (California Olive Oil Council Certified) extra-virgin olive oils, as well as eight pressed-with-the-fruit olive oils. The production process for these oils originated from an ancient tactic that involves pressing the herbs and fruits directly with the olives during the initial press. The eight flavors produced are lemon, blood orange, Persian lime, basil, oregano, rosemary, jalapeno and garlic. Winterhill olive oils have won four national silver awards and one international gold.
But this consistent success doesn’t come without challenges—as all agriculture does—and a major issue for olive farmers in recent years is the olive fruit fly. “The infestation arose when low water rates were offered to anyone willing to plant a crop,” says Schoonover. “It turned out many people were planting olive trees with no knowledge of how to care for them, leading to the onset of fruit flies. We lost an entire orchard a couple of years ago…Richard did tons of research and attended classes and seminars on the topic, which led us to an organic solution we now use for maintaining a healthy crop. Once the olive fruit fly infests, there’s no way to completely get rid of it, but it can be managed.”
In addition to operating the olive orchard and producing top-notch oils, Wolf and Schoonover also run a brick-and-mortar olive oil shop in Historic Downtown Placerville. “We were driving through Placerville on our way home from an olive oil symposium one day and realized that Main Street would be a great place to open the Winterhill store,” says Shoonover. “Placerville is a great community of agriculturally oriented people who appreciate great food and wine.”
The charming boutique-like shop specializes in “products with a passion.” Schoonover says they seek out local producers of gourmet and specialty foods, handmade ceramics, high quality artwork, award-winning cheeses and honey. They also carry authentic balsamic from the Mussini family, who have been crafting balsamic since 1909 in Modena, Italy. “Everything in the store has fingerprints,” says Wolf. “Everything is created and crafted by people who love what they do.”
In this same vein, Winterhill olive oil labels are painted by two local, developmentally challenged women, and a portion from the sale of each bottle is donated back to them, as well as 100 percent of the sales of prints made from those labels.
Wolf and Schoonover also ensure everything they sell is non-GMO (genetically modified organism) and because Winterhill uses organic practices, they hold all the store’s products to that standard as well. And they offer a 40 percent savings to patrons who participate in the refill bottle program.
Finally, Winterhill staffers are happy to “walk” callers through the shop and explain new items and current stock. “Winterhill is a fun store to browse in—you can even ‘taste your way through the store,’ with in-store tastings every day,” says Wolf. “We believe in tasting before you buy.” Winterhill takes reservations for group in-store tastings, complete with a light appetizer. And customers can find an array of information on the olive oils, including their health benefits and how to use them while cooking or baking: For example, Schoonover suggests trying the blood orange olive oil this fall on roasted sweet potatoes or yams.