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When The Grape Is An Olive

olive oil, cheese – these delightful products are all the
same answer to the same dilemma of abundance: now that I’ve
had the good fortune to harvest a few tons of fresh grapes
and olives or 1OOO gallons of cow’s milk, what exactly am I
going to do with it all? In the millennia before mechanical
cooling, this question came up a lot, and people’s answers
grew diverse and interesting. Grapes aren’t like other
fruit. They absolutely will not ripen further after they’re
picked. If you buy a few hard green pears and put them in a
paper bag on your kitchen counter for a few days, you get a
bag of nice ripe pears. Try that with grapes, and they just
start to shrivel. From the moment a grape is picked, it
begins a relentless descent into spoilage and
disintegration. Stepping in and making the grape juice into
wine is a great stabilizing act for the liquid. It doesn’t
exactly freeze it in time, but it slows its aging down
considerably. Raw grape juice at room temperature will last
a week or so before the corks start to pop. In the form of
wine, it can persist for years, even decades.

Cheese is what
you do with 1OO gallons of milk to make it into 1O gallons
of something you can eat later, in some cases, much later. A
couple of weeks ago, while teaching a wine and cheese class,
I got to taste a four-year-old Gouda that was inspiringly
delicious. The color was dark, almost tawny. It smelled like
oak and tasted like walnuts. The body of the cheese was
dotted with crunchy sugar crystals that had formed in the
years this Gouda had spent aging. As we ate it, someone in
class started doing the math: in 2OO3, this had been a cow
and some grass somewhere near Holland. Thanks to cheese, we
were eating 2OO3 calories 2OOO miles away in 2OO7, and that
aged Gouda could have lived another couple of years

Olive oil is
another product that’s both a preservative and an extractor
of maximum calories. The meat of an olive obviously contains
plenty of oil and juice, but 3O percent of the oil from an
olive comes from grinding and pressing the hard pit. That’s
a lot of calories that you’d be really happy to have if
there was a famine stalking the land. The process of
extracting the oil, separating the non-oil parts like
sediment and water, then clarifying it renders the oil
long-lived and resistant to deterioration. Turning 1OOO tons
of olives into gallons of olive oil also makes those
calories easy to move around. Once you throw away the 8O% of
the olive that’s waste, olive oil is comparatively light.
You could include bread in this list of products too, in
that it renders wheat edible, but it also sets it on its
course to ruin. Before you make it into bread, flour will
keep and keep, but once it’s cooked into a loaf, the clock
starts ticking on its shelf life in a different way. It’s no
real surprise that wine, cheese, bread, and olive oil go
together in ways that some people describe as otherworldly.
Ancient people called these sensations gods.


Everything about the Monini olive oil plant looked
surprisingly identical to what you see at every vineyard or
winery. The PowerPoint presentation: superb, and even better
to me for being about something other than wine. The views
of Italy’s sprawling Umbrian hillsides around Spoleto made
you want to plant grapes, except it’s so much work. On the
ground, even more similarities. Giant steel tanks, their
temperatures controlled by refrigerated cores and icy
jackets – hoses running along the floor, low-velocity pumps
whirring and pushing liquid from tank to tank, or barrel to
barrel – bottles of precious juice trundling down the
bottling and labeling line without much dignity into the
waiting hands of shippers.

Everything is
almost exactly the same as a winery, as if you could in
theory convert the whole space to making wine overnight.
Except it smells so entirely different – like ground nuts,
dusty spices, olives of course – and I’m wearing a white lab
coat and a surgeon’s cap and little lacey boots over my
shoes. This is different, I think to myself, I’ve visited a
lot of vineyards and wineries, and we’ve had a lot of fun,
but it’s never involved a lab coat.

Monini was
founded in 192O and is run today by Zefferino Monini, the
third generation of the family. Monini would like to see
itself in the 21st century as more of an artisan olive oil
producer than an industrial olive oil company, although its
industrial size numbers – almost 25 million liters produced
a year – make that hard to do. Monini is probably the
highest quality and largest olive oil producer from Umbria.
Frantoio del Poggiolo – Mill on the Hill – is a restored
building that’s now an educational center and wine lab in
the hills not far from the Monini headquarters. It producers
only extremely small quantities of olive oil from 55OO old
trees and 15OO young trees on the property. “We compete, not
with other industrial producers,” Monini says, “but with
small artisans.” Gran Fruttato is the flagship Monini
product that you and I can hope to get our hands on here in
the US, though everything they make is worth looking for.
“Gran Fruttato is like Chanel No. 5,” he says. “You don’t
know what’s in there, but you like it!” Although the color
is extremely light and very clear, Gran Fruttato is full of
flavor, very forward and citrusy and fresh tasting. “It is a
marketing myth of authenticity that an olive oil should be
full of unfiltered solids,” Monini says. “In fact, the
clarity is a sign of quality and consistency that allows us
to be a national brand.”

Wine people are
obsessed with appellations, name and places and geographical
features where wines are grown. These olive oil folks are
too, and they also seem to possess a sense of agricultural
place that is exactly like what the French call terroir and
what we call a sense of agricultural place. Monini produces
a series of oils called DOP: Denominazione Originata
Protezzione, or Protected Original Domain, a fancy way of
saying the DOP Puglia really is from Italy’s heel, and the
same for DOP Sicily, Tuscany and Umbria. It would be
simultaneously easier, cheaper and more profitable to blend
all these oils together to make one big easy-to-sell batch
of oil. That the Monini family chooses not to is a sign of
their individual faiths in the value of appellation
identified olive oils from Italy.

far away, Farchioni family headquarters is a playful expanse
of arcing glass looking out on the Umbrian hills. The bottle
for their most popular oil in the US, Il Casolare, is
similarly beveled at the top. It’s so hard to believe a
person could maintain a design motif from a building to a
bottle that I can’t stop thinking about the possibility that
Tosca Sibella, wife of owner Pompeo Farchioni, might have
designed that along with almost everything else in the olive
oil factory.

Up the hill is
the Farchioni winery called Terre de la Custodia – Keeper of
the Land – that appeared to be about 99% complete. The
conjunction of wine and olive oil is almost complete here.
The whole line of Farchioni oils that are distributed to the
US in a very delimited way represents decades of
relationships and agricultural partnerships representing
their best character in the bottle.

The new winery
is producing reds from Sagrantino, a hearty carnelian
colored grape that grows almost exclusively in Umbria.
Grecchetto, a grape so old the Greeks who left it behind are
still present in its name, is the basis for the Custodia
white wine. Free from lab coats this time, we sat down at
Farchioni for a real technical oil tasting, and I got a
little taste of what it must be like for the beginning wine
lover when they find themselves in a wine tasting. I got the
impression from several of the more advanced tasters there
that the olive oils I loved most, the ones that were the
most buttery and delicious to me, were really not that
great, and that I was seduced by dumb deliciousness. One of
the instructors urged me on to smell tomato leaf, as I know
I have urged so many others to smell oak or creme brulee or
hamster cage in wine class.

If you
leave Italy by pretty much the same route the ancient Romans
took and drive north from the Mediterranean into southern
France, wine grapes grow thick as a carpet all around you.
This is the oldest wine making part of France, the first
place the Romans reached and planted hundreds of years
before Burgundy or Bordeaux to the north and west. It is a
jumble of a dozen-plus different grapes with fanciful
medieval names: Grenache, Mourvedre, Bourbelenc, they could
all be players in a Commedia dell’Arte farce for all you’d

Grapes and olive
trees ahead, behind, to the left and right, north past
Avignon, past the Roman theatre in Orange, north to
Monthelimar, where it all stops. The grape vines and olive
trees simply stop, and if you’re going 1OO klicks an hour
through there, the sensation is like driving out of the
thick woods into open ground. Suddenly, ahead and behind,
left and right, no grapes, but hillsides similar to the
hills just a minute before, but exposed in full to the open
air. If you were a rabbit running through here, you’d be
afraid of some big carnivorous bird snatching you from

Another 15 miles
of pretty much nothing follows, past places that grow no
wine. Then the grapes start back up again in the town of
Valence, the beginning of the northern Rhone, followed by
the giant Beaujolais, even bigger Burgundy, and all the rest
of the European wine world. This line – between Monthelimar
and Valence – is approximately the 45th parallel. In about
the year 1O, a Roman geographer named Strabo designated this
the official scientific northernmost limit of humankind’s
ability to grow olives and grapes. Strabo’s Meridian – this
part of France is still call France Meridional – is their
Mason-Dixon line. It separates the Mediterranean world from
the Gaulic world along the geographic line between olive oil
and butter.

South of the
45th parallel, the grapes are diverse and the wines highly
blended. North of the line, there’s a focus on single or
dual grape wines: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are almost never
blended, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot often, but usually
only with each other. Strabo was simultaneously right and
less than right when it came to drafting rules about
geographic limits to certain crops like grapes and olives.
He was right that they have their limits, but he missed that
they grew their very best at those limits.

Being at the
limit of viability is good for grapes – where the 45th
parallel meets the Atlantic Ocean. 3OO miles west of here is
Bordeaux, home of the most famous, expensive, sought-after
wines on the planet. Instead of drawing a line, seeing it as
a real delimitation, and forbidding anyone to cross it,
imagine to no avail if Strabo had drawn his map and this had
encouraged grape farmers to plant along this line for best
results. A few small olive oil producers persist in
Provence, Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Rhone, but French
cooking has been about the butter ever since.


After almost 2O years of writing about wine, I have
successfully kept myself from becoming a wine snob. Believe
me, I’ve had my opportunities to grow so uppity I wouldn’t
drink anything I could afford. Once, I was left for dead by
stuffed veal and Valpolicella Reserva, but I had to come
back to planet earth and eat grilled cheese with a glass of
Gewurztraminer the very next week. And I did it. But my
olive oil tour has left me changed. The giant gallon-plus of
oil I’d had living in my cabinet disgusted me suddenly, and
I dumped it. Out at restaurants, I resisted the urge to say,
“You call this olive oil?” when I was served the thin
substitute we get here in northeast America. I confess it: I
am an olive oil snob now. I only buy it in small quantities
– it goes bad so fast, I whine, as everyone around me rolls
their eyes. I carry the cold-pressed Australian olive oil
through the store as a badge of honor. Australians
everywhere probably laugh.