UC Davis wants to do for California's olive oil industry what it did for wineries in the '30s.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the University of California, Davis established a research department that led to the flourish of the California wine industry. Now, it hopes to do the same for olive oil.
The challenges to the emerging industry are significant: finding economical ways to produce fine oil, dealing with unscrupulous importers and educating unsophisticated palates, among them.
While California olive oil makers have begun to use techniques developed in Europe to capture the pungent taste of fresh olives, the American palate may not be ready for it.
"This is the big challenge for all of us here in California — to expose people to this fresh fruit juice olive oil and not have them gag on it," said Paul Vossen, a formative figure in the nascent world of California olive oil who is affiliated with the new UC Davis Olive Center.
The center opened in January under the umbrella of the university's Robert Mondavi Institute, which houses the campuses' Department of Viticulture and Enology, the scientific names for grape-growing and winemaking.
That is where UC scientists showed California winemakers how to replant vineyards that had been ripped out during Prohibition and taught them how to make fine wine.
Olives have been growing in California for more than a century, but most of the state's 600 oil makers are of recent vintage.
Collectively, they produce 500,000 gallons of olive oil each year, a tiny fraction of the 75 million gallons Americans consume.
California's output is expected to increase fivefold in the next five years, as several thousand acres of olive groves come into production using mechanized pickers that vastly speed up the process.
The potential U.S. market for olive oil is huge. America is the fourth largest consumer, after Italy, Spain and Greece. Consumption has doubled in the last decade, but the average American still uses relatively little — about the equivalent of a bottle of wine each year.
The olive center's executive director, Dan Flynn, said the center will be a resource to delve into essential questions about olive production and consumption. Undergraduate courses may come later.
Contributing faculty include researchers from the UC Davis Medical Center, who are studying the health benefits of antioxidants in olives.
Others already have done work on genetic fingerprinting of olive varieties and how irrigation affects growth.
Researchers also make and sell oil from the 1,500 olive trees on campus and launched this year's oils with a party on Wednesday. The proceeds will make up half the olive center's budget. The rest comes from industry and the university.