Joe Mullinax kept watch last week over olives about to change color on his farm near Turlock.
Once red starts to spread on the mostly green skin, he will harvest the fruit and hurry it to an olive oil mill.
Such care for the crop has helped Mullinax get in on the emerging olive oil industry in California. He and other producers hope consumers will try alternatives to the imported brands that make up 99 percent of the U.S. supply.
"It's just like the wine industry," Mullinax said. "It took a while to get going, and then it took off."
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The San Joaquin Valley has a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters similar to olive- producing giants such as Spain, Italy and Greece.
Olive trees do not need a lot of irrigation -- an advantage to valley growers facing water cutbacks -- and their tolerance for marginal soil helps them thrive in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
"We've seen thousands of acres going in, so it's obvious that California growers are starting to get serious about it," said John Duarte, president of Duarte Nursery, which produces young olive trees near Hughson.
People involved with olives said they likely will not rank with the giants of
California agriculture, such as almonds and grapes, but they might become a midsized industry similar to peaches, walnuts and tomatoes.
Some olive groves are replacing other valley crops, but in the foothills, olives are being planted mostly on rangeland.
Olives for canning have been a prominent part of valley agriculture for decades. That industry has struggled in recent years because of cheap imports and problems with brine disposal.
Since mission days
Olive oil production in California dates to the Spanish missions of the late 1700s, but the latest surge is only about a decade old.
Olives for oil are being grown on about 25,000 acres this year, compared with 2,000 in 1998, according to a report from the University of California at Davis.
That's still a small crop -- almonds are grown on more than 700,000 acres statewide -- but most of the olive growers are aiming for premium oil that fetches high prices.
The UC Davis Olive Center opened last year with the mission of helping growers with production and maintaining standards for oil quality.
"They are trying to spread the word that California has a very fresh oil compared with oil from outside the country, and freshness when it comes to olive oil is everything," said Dan Flynn, the center's executive director. "Olive oil doesn't get better with age."
The industry has benefited from studies showing that olive oil can help protect people from heart disease. This "good fat" gets plenty of mentions from celebrity chefs and other enthusiasts.
"I think it's going to be a major crop because the U.S. is just in the infancy of seeing olive oil as a food," said Ed Rich, owner of Calaveras Olive Oil Co. in Copperopolis. "Olive oil is fruit butter."
The top grade
The California producers are almost all doing extra virgin olive oil, the top grade. It is the stuff that flows from the first press, without the heat or solvents used in lesser grades.
Within the extra virgin cate-gory, oils are distinguished by added flavorings and other traits.
"In any one year, we might have 20 to 25 different offerings of extra virgin olive oil, depending on the time of year we made it and the variety," said Dan Sciabica of Nick Sciabica & Sons in Modesto.
This company, founded in 1936, continued on as oil production faded elsewhere in the state. It is a prominent player in the resurgent industry, pressing olives from other growers along with marketing products under the family name.
"It's very dynamic, and so this is a good time to be producing olive oil," said Sciabica, part of the third generation at the Yosemite Boulevard company.
Saturday morning, Sara and Jeff Roseman of Alabama stopped by the Sciabica stall at the Modesto Certified Farmers Market, which they had discovered while visiting family.
"We grill with the garlic olive oil, and it's terrific," Jeff Roseman said.
"It just tastes fresher," his wife added.
Mary Lou Schuster of Modesto, a retired teacher, grows four varie-ties of olives on 28 acres near Copperopolis. She markets her oil under the Marisol label at O'Brien's Markets and several other stores. She also does demonstrations for consumers.
"They always thought olive oil is olive oil," she said. "They were not aware of the nuances of olive oil varietals."
Some harvest by hand
Schuster harvests by hand, but much of the state's acreage is mechanically picked. Most of the trees are planted at high densities and trained on trellises, unlike the big, lush growth in other regions.
Mechanical harvesting is needed if olives are to be an economical crop, said Tom Burchell, president of Burchell Nursery near Oakdale.
Mullinax, the Turlock-area grower, will hand-pick his young groves this fall but switch to mechanical harvesting in 2010 or 2011. He is working toward 70 acres of olive trees on a nearly 400-acre farm that also grows peaches and almonds.
Color determines flavor
Right now is a crucial time, as the skin on the olives changes color in a matter of days. Oil from all-green fruit would be too astringent -- puckering the taster's mouth -- but dark, overripe fruit would have too much sugar. Three-quarters green, one-quarter red is what Mullinax seeks.
"Anyone can grow them and get tonnage, but to get quality tonnage is very difficult," he said. "We're all making a lot of mistakes."
Mullinax sells his best oil in the Northeast at $30 to $35 for a bottle that's two-thirds the size of a standard wine bottle. Most of the money goes to processing and distribution, but he hopes to have his own press and bottling plant soon.
Flynn, at the olive center, said many California oils sell for $15 to $18 a bottle. That's more than consumers pay for the butter or vegetable oil they might otherwise use, but he said it's worth it.
"People don't think twice about spending that much on a bottle of wine that they drink in an evening," he said, "but olive oil will last longer than that."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.