Dunking bread or drizzling olive oil over pasta no longer imparts enough flavor for Lara Knackstedt.

Dunking bread or drizzling olive oil over pasta no longer imparts enough flavor for Lara Knackstedt.

The Jacksonville resident prefers to sip olive oil, particularly from a cobalt-blue glass designed for professional palates. Decades after choosing olive oil for its health benefits, Knackstedt takes pleasure in perusing her collection of more than 50 types.

"I drink it straight," she says. "It's like a fresh-crushed juice."

Like wine, olive oil has its own tasting protocols and terminology, says Knackstedt. While wine aficionados seem to revel in "over-the-top" descriptions, says Knackstedt, connoisseurship of olive oil is more down-to-earth.

"I can just relate better to the oil," she says.

Knackstedt's budding interest in a neighbor's olive trees grew into a passion over the past few years as she observed the industry, connected with growers and took classes at University of California Davis. A website designer and marketer, Knackstedt now represents six growers, two based in Oregon.

River Ranch in Glide is pressing oil just in time for this week's Eat Local Challenge, bringing a vital commodity into the locavore's 100-mile food radius. Organized by Thrive, a nonprofit economic-development and food-advocacy group, the eighth annual Challenge runs Sept. 13-22.

"It's just good timing," says Knackstedt.

Knackstedt, 43, knows all about the challenges of confining one's diet entirely to local sources. In 2009, she participated at the Challenge's "purist" level, swearing off all foods that didn't originate within 200 miles of the Rogue Valley and seasoning dishes with salt distilled at Ashland Food Co-op from seawater shlepped from the Oregon Coast. Knackstedt described the exercise as "idealism."

"It also made me realize that I do believe in trading for certain foods," says Knackstedt. "There are all these other cultures and foods of the world."

Although Europe produces most of the world's olive oil, domestic sources offer more assurance that the oil is truly extra-virgin, says Knackstedt. All of her clients are certified by the California Olive Oil Council, which adheres to stricter standards than its international equivalent, says Knackstedt.

"Rancidity isn't just annoying," she says, explaining it's an indicator of harmful free radicals. "People are still really confused when they go into a store.

"(Oil) should smell like fresh produce."

Advocating for high-quality oil and educating consumers about it, Knackstedt soon was fielding requests for local olive oil. She created her private-label Rogue Olive Oil, sourced from Northern California, late last year. The price is $12 for 250 milliliters, $18 for 500 milliliters.

Rogue Olive Oil — usually three varieties — is available at the Sunday J'ville Market in Jacksonville, Rogue Creamery in Central Point and Medford's Harry & David Country Village, as well as in bulk at Ashland Food Co-op.

River Ranch oil is available in a very limited quantity, says Knackstedt. Customers should call 541-496-9700 to order.

Arbequina, a Spanish olive variety, and Greek koroneiki usually are the choice of startup growers, says Knackstedt. But there are "hundreds of possibilities" for planting olive trees, she adds.

"People are always asking me is it really possible to grow olives here," says Knackstedt, adding that Oregon's cold weather usually is perceived as the primary problem.

Waterlogged soil, particularly clay, can be a bigger issue for olives than climate, she explains. Groves in the Umpqua Valley aren't exposed to frost as often as in the Rogue Valley, she says. Eight acres of olives are under cultivation at River Ranch, and another grower in Sutherlin is entering the field.

"There's growth in the industry and people pushing the edges and boundaries."

For more information, see www.rogueoliveoil.com.

Reach Food editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.